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Volvo vs. Saab: Swedish models take their tops off

Surprisingly, a nation with practically no sunshine for much of the year produces a couple of pretty good drop-tops.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You wouldn't think a Scandinavian country would produce very good convertibles. It's a little like getting your sweaters from Hawaii.

But the lack of sun might just be a plus for Swedish car makers. A convertible's flaws really show up when the top is up. It might look awkward. There can be wind noise. And, when you're not enjoying the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your hair, you start wishing for things like more back seat space.

A good convertible is one that's good when its top is up, not just when it's down.

Two Swedish convertibles, the Volvo C70 and Saab 9-3, are similarly priced in the low-$40,000 range. In keeping with the Swedish tradition of concern for human welfare, both have airbags in all the right places, electronic stability control and rollover protection systems.

Both are reasonably livable drop-tops that you could easily stand to drive year-round.

Volvo C70

In the distant past, the term "Volvo design" sounded about as silly as "hospital cuisine."

The C70 shows just how far Volvo has come. The design is uniquely Scandinavian with an emphasis on simple, gently curved lines. Even the steering wheel looks interesting, with some brushed metal around the top and hand-fitting bulges elsewhere.

The C70's hard top doesn't just fold up like others do. Press a button and the trunk lid unhinges from the front and stands up straight. Then the roof breaks into three sections which stack up in mid-air over the back seats. Finally, it lowers down and is swallowed by the trunk.

It's a neat show all by itself.

"That's awesome!" a woman shouted from the sidewalk as she watched me open up the car. "That is so awesome!"

With its top up, few would guess that the C70 is actually a convertible. It looks like a solid hard-top. From inside, visibility is excellent all around, without the huge rearward blind spots one usually gets in a convertible.

As tested, with its 218-horsepower turbocharged five-cylinder engine and optional 5 -speed manually-shiftable automatic transmission, the front-wheel-drive C70 is no sports car. (Its standard transmission is a six-speed manual.) It's a fine tourer, though, with a relaxed, easy manner. Steering feel is light and rather passive. Its one really annoying flaw is an almost scary lack of brake feel.

Saab 9-3

The Saab 9-3's design, like the Volvo's, is elegant and eye-catching. It's more traditional, though. It relies on the same smooth, aircraft-inspired wedge shape that has defined Saab for decades.

With its 250-horsepower turbocharged V-6 engine and available 6-speed manual transmission, the 9-3 is definitely more fun to drive than the Volvo.

That's what makes its shifter such a shame. It's a long way, fore-and-aft, between gears. To make things worse, a storage bin in the center console gets in the way of your elbow, even for drivers of average height.

The 9-3 is a front-wheel-drive car and that means it will never beat a BMW when it comes to driving performance. Still, the 9-3 accelerates quickly, has sharp, responsive steering and handles well enough to make you seek out the closest twisty road.

The car's interior, unfortunately, is a major let-down. I thought the same hard plastic material was just fine in a Chevrolet Trailblazer, but seeing it in a European luxury car is just terribly wrong. (Saab is a GM brand while Volvo is owned by Ford, but the relationship to the parent is much more obvious in the Saab, I'm afraid.)

Oddly, one thing GM does very well -- easy, sensible user interfaces -- didn't translate into this car. In the Saab, controls are confusing, awkward and clumsy.

Unlike the Volvo, the Saab has a cloth top, but it's snug and quiet. Like the Volvo's top, it raises easily with the press of a button. It's much less theatrical but still highly effective in keeping out wind and noise.

Is there a winner in this contest? Sorry, but not really. Neither car is bad but neither is perfect, either. As in many cases, it really depends on what you are in it for.

If you're not in it for excitement and you're willing to accept a less directly involved feeling in your drive, I'd say the Volvo is overall the better car. And darned sweet-looking, too.

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Volvo vs. Saab

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