A breath of fresh air
Saab's new 9-X Air turns conventional thinking about convertibles on its head. Rebecca Wright looks at a car for independent-minded motorists
It was, by common consent, one of the highlights of the recent Paris Motor Show: a tantalising glimpse of what a future convertible could look like. And now, with its unique Canopy Top roof and "surround glass" cabin, the Saab 9-X Air concept car looks set to become a landmark in open-top car design, just like the very first Saab Convertible. This was revealed to the world exactly 25 years earlier, also as a concept, at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Back in the early 1980s, soft tops were a rare sight on the road and largely considered to be "second" cars, best kept in the garage for nice weather. Saab's design for a practical convertible for use all year round changed that perception, however.
The fact that a Swedish manufacturer was behind this innovative idea provided an added element of surprise, given that Saabs have always been built to withstand Sweden's unforgiving climate and hostile terrain. But the Saab 900 Convertible had, indeed, been designed to withstand the harshest of Scandinavian winters, and customers quickly came to appreciate its robust build quality and impressive, all-weather capabilities. It just happened to be a convertible as well. Four-season soft-top driving, with enough room to comfortably accommodate four adults, really had become a practical proposition at last.
So when it came to taking the concept of open-top driving on to another level, Saab was building on solid foundations. The triple-layer soft-top roof of the Saab Convertible has always been extremely durable, snug fitting and totally weatherproof. Instead of the conventional Perspex rear window most convertible cars had 25 years ago, which were prone to cracking and fogging, the Saab featured a heated glass rear window. Today, the 9-X Air's Canopy Top takes this a step further by completely separating the screen from the roof, so it remains in position when the roof is down to provide greater windcheating comfort for passengers.
In fact, the 9-X Air has once again redefined the traditional look of a four-seater convertible, this time by exploiting the distinction between a hard-top folding roof and a folding soft top. "From the beginning, we wanted to create an open-air car that looked great with the windows up, since this is how convertibles are driven most of the time, especially in places like the UK," explains Anthony Lo, the Saab designer behind the concept car. It was always his and his team's vision to make the design of the new Saab Convertible more like that of an open sports car or a closed coupé, depending on the configuration, and improve opentop comfort for passengers.
The result is Saab's unique Canopy Top concept, an alternative to soft tops, with rear windows that leave the back of the cabin open when stowed.
"The Canopy Top has allowed us to introduce rear pillars, which completely change the usual appearance of a convertible, giving it a more dynamic, é-like look," says Lo. "The pillars also anchor a complete wraparound 'glasshouse', which shelters the occupants from buffeting when the car is open."
Improved efficiency is another major benefit of the Canopy Top. As there is no rear screen and supporting material to fold away, it is smaller and lighter than a conventional soft top. It also takes up less boot space when stowed.
Indeed, Saab says that reduced weight was an important consideration and one that led them to choose fabric, instead of metal, for the Canopy Top. "Fabric is the best material, as we save around 100kg in weight compared to using metal," says Lo.
"We chose the same fabric that's used for the current Saab 9-3 Convertible. It is extremely durable and provides effective road-noise insulation. Also, for good handling and a lower centre of gravity, you don't want any extra weight high up. All in all, we thought of quite a few drawbacks – and not too many gains – from having a metal roof."
The Canopy Top concept, key features of which are already under application for patent, is not the only ground-breaking design feature of the 9-X Air. The car was conceived in parallel with its 9-X Bio- Hybrid concept car sibling, with both cars sharing a focus on efficiency, thanks to the use of a powertrain (the group of components that generate power) that combines engine rightsizing, turbocharging, biofuel and state-ofthe- art hybrid technology to deliver sporty performance and a significantly reduced environmental impact.
Like all Saab engines running on bioethanol E85, the car's 1.4-litre BioPower turbo engine generates increased horsepower and torque compared to when running on petrol. It's mated with a sophisticated electric motor, taken from parent company General Motors' environmental treasure chest.
"Overall, the 9-X Air concept car maintains our focus on efficiency," says Lo. "We have produced a sporty, innovative design that offers the sort of functional benefits you expect from a Saab."
Over the years, the success of the Saab Convertible and its iconic brand-carrying status have tempted rival manufacturers to enter the segment, resulting in some not having a convertible model in their product line-up today. But it was Saab who led the way. Now, 25 years on, the innovative 9-X Air demonstrates how this perennially inventive Swedish brand continues to play a leading role in the evolution of four-season, four-seater motoring.