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Road Record : Preaching for the convertible; BUYING USED.

Byline: Russell Bray

THE sun doesn't shine on us much but when it does wouldn't it be great to jump in the car and enjoy our glorious countryside with the roof down?

Well, we can live in hope. But should the sun shine, its perfect companion, in a motoring sense, is the convertible.

With the launch of the new Saab 9-3 sports saloon at Christmas you may get a good deal on the old 9-3 convertibles.

It may not be the smoothest of drives - the lack of roof reduces rigidity and makes the body shake - but with the larger wheels and tyres it's comfortable.

A 1998 R-plate 2.0iS cost pounds 24,450 new but you should be able to get your hands on a 50,000-miler for around pounds 9500 or the better equipped SE version for pounds 10,300.

Saabs tend to be well equipped and the SE models come loaded with standard spec - air conditioning, electric windows, central locking, tinted and heat- absorbing glass, leather-trimmed steering wheel and even a delay function on the headlights which stay until you're inside your home.

Turbocharged versions are much livelier but may have had a harder life and are more expensive to maintain.

This means you can pick up a two-litre SE of the same age and mileage for about pounds 12,000 or a 36,000-mile top condition V-plate for pounds 14,500, though the serious performance top- of-the-range Aero version will separate you from pounds 18,500.

A compromise is the 2.3i SE at pounds 10,300 for an R-registered car.

For a convertible the Saab feels and is surprisingly safe - as a couple of friends proved in the past.

In addition to a plethora of airbags, there are the clever anti-whiplash head restraints which move forward to cushion the neck because of the force of the occupant's back being forced backwards into the seat.

So strong is Saab's safety reputation that they shrugged off a recall in 2000 of cars built from 1997 to 1999 after it was found that, in some cases, front seats moved forward under very hard braking.

It's a Saab trademark, and it remains on the new 9-3 but the floor-mounted, or these days top- of-the-transmission-mounted, ignition key is the real pain.

Owners presumably like it, and locking the car in reverse gear has to be a theft deterrent, though the practice has been abandoned for the new model.

Most new Saabs will have been purchased with company money or by doctors, dentists or solicitors and other members of the professional classes.

Saabs seem to attract more sensible buyers than their German rivals and so are likely to have been properly looked after but that doesn't mean the lack of a full and proper service record should be ignored.

TURBOS need expensive fully synthetic oil for a long, safe life and 60,000 miles seems to be the point at which neglect can show with timing chain problems.

There has also been some hassles with engine management computer systems though these very expensive items were replaced free of charge.

Spare parts, as usual for a quality car, especially a turbocharged one, aren't cheap, especially if you go to franchised dealers. For a two-litre model expect to pay around pounds 27 for an oil filter, pounds 22 for an air filter and pounds 45 for a timing belt.

A pair of front shock absorbers will knock a pounds 205 hole in your wallet and the same for the rear, while a three- piece clutch is pounds 235 and an exchange gearbox (manual) pounds 1150.

A new radiator doesn't seem too bad at pounds 175 when a bottom hose alone could be pounds 80. A replacement fuel pump is around pounds 185, an exchange power steering pump is pounds 310 and a new front driveshaft would be around the pounds 140 mark.

But surely these are a small price to pay for that wind-in-your-hair driving experience - which is, of course, what precisely what you can have if Mr Sun ever decides to grace us with his presence again. Please?
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Title Annotation:Road Record
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Feb 14, 2003
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