In school we learned never to compare apples with oranges. Which is why, on first impression, it may seem odd to contrast Yank brutishness with Swedish sophistication. There is however a reason why I’ve chosen to compare the Chrysler Sebring convertible with the SAAB 9-3 Aero convertible.
Aside from the obvious fact that both are convertibles, these cars are similar in size and offer similar engine sizes, even though they are (originally) from two continents (SAAB, although Scandinavian in origin, is owned by General Motors, who also distributes Chevrolet, Opel, Cadillac, HUMMER and Isuzu in South Africa).
What makes them standout from the TT/ SLK brigade is that both offer proper seating for four passengers. This may sound insignificant, but it is in fact a rarity on our shores, making it something of a unique selling point.
Based on looks alone, there aren’t many convertibles that are as visually appealing as the latest SAAB 9-3. Classically elegant yet seductively sporty (especially in Aero trim), it’s a decidedly striking piece of machinery that draws attention wherever it goes. Even though SAAB is owned by GM, the traditional Swedish appeal has thankfully remained.
Chrysler’s Sebring is a different story altogether. Developed while the DaimlerChrysler marriage was still intact, it’s American in every possible way: big nose, big rear, big wheels. It’s stark, almost brutal lines makes it a decidedly in-your-face car that also leads to countless stares, but probably not for the same reason the SAAB does. It’s a tank, quite frankly, especially from behind the steering wheel.
It is however an exceptionally well-specced tank. The Sebring’s interior is immediately elegant. While Chrysler doesn’t make use of soft-touch plastics, it looks neat and of good quality, quite an achievement (especially in the very light grey colour of my test unit).
There’s a neat 6.5-inch touch screen in the middle of the hang-down section of the dashboard, and while it’s not quite Lexus quality, it instantly provides the information you need. I also liked the heated / cooled cup holder and the fact that I could raise or lower the roof by pressing a button on the key fob.
However, what is truly impressive is Chrysler’s cutting-edge MyGig system that really raises the bar when it comes to information, entertainment and audio management. MyGig gives you MP3 and USB connectivity with which to download and organise your favourite music onto its 20 gig hard drive. It also allows your Bluetooth mobile to work through the car’s audio. Navigation is optional however, at R14 900.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what happened inside the 9-3 Aero’s cabin, though. Sure, the seats are leather-upholstered and superbly comfortable, but moving them forwards or backward is the same as in a two-decade old Mazda 323: pull a lever at the front of the seat. Moving the backrest requires opening the door because, unless you have very small hands, there is no way your hand will reach the dial on the side of the seat that you have to turn in order to sit up straight (or lie down).
The dashboard layout is uncluttered and ergonomically sound, but entirely plastic (which is even worse if you can see that it’s plastic) and beyond outdated in design (read: it looks cheap and ironically American). The dash mounted roof mechanism is also rather irritating. The CD-changer works well, but again, looks cheap and outdated.
Unfortunately, the Sebring can’t boast a great engine. Powered by a 2.7-litre V6 engine, coupled to a new six-speed automatic gearbox, it delivers 137kW of power and 256Nm of torque. However, considering the Sebring’s size, it feels completely underpowered, not to mention the gearbox’s irritating habit of hunting for the right gear, especially under hard acceleration. Chrysler claims fuel consumption of 10.9l/100km in the urban cycle.
The SAAB on the other hand is powered by a 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 engine that delivers a whopping 184kw of power and 350Nm of torque, also through a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine is alive, and despite the (very little) turbo lag, it performs exactly as expected from that 184 kilowatts! Unfortunately, it’s all lost in the driving experience…
There really is little logic in a brilliant performance engine if there is no feedback; the SAAB’s Achilles heel. Acceleration is lightning quick, but you don’t really feel it. It happened often that I had to focus my attention on the speed so as to see how fast I was going. There’s little body roll or scuttle shake, but everything just feels so dead – even the steering.
The Sebring isn’t nearly as fast, but it had a very balanced ride and the handling instilled confidence mostly because you could read what the car was doing. What the SAAB gained in sheer performance, the Sebring took back with driving dynamics.
When I still lived in Cape Town, I had the privilege of regularly driving a SAAB 900 SE convertible. It was a magnificent car: different enough to be considered hip, with a delicious turbo-charged 2.0-litre engine that never disappointed. It was the start of my love affair with SAABs. Unfortunately, the latest 9-3 Aero Convertible doesn’t live up to the reputation of its older sibling.
Yes, it’s a truly gorgeous car, but the freedom of driving it with the wind in your hair never quite makes up for the lack of modern features, its bland interior design and frustratingly vague driving experience. At R449 000, General Motors is certainly selling the 9-3 as a premium convertible. Unfortunately, I expect much more at that price, and expected even more from SAAB.
The Sebring is ultimately more impressive. It has a retracting hard top that instantly transforms the convertible into a coupe, has much more space for passengers and has a standard specifications list so complete that it left me flabbergasted. It has buttons where you need them and screens where you want them, at a ridiculous price of only R299 000 (similar to a smaller and less specced Renault Megane CC).
If it were my money, I’d buy the Sebring – in black. It may not be the most beautiful car ever made and it may drive like a tank, but it’s comfortable, capable and far more rewarding when it comes to creature comforts. It doesn’t pretend to be anything, which also counts towards something in a world ruled by pretentiousness. It’s an unashamedly American piece of metal, and I like it.