Saab's strategy for survival is little different from the natural world's need for varied gene pools. Diversity guards against annihilation, and dipping into General Motors worldwide family for its future generations of vehicles means Saab should continue to exist-at least for the foreseeable future.
Saab is on a mission to save its very life and has launched an all-out assault to expand its current line of vehicles beyond the well-received 9-3 lineup and veteran 9-5 models. Saab hopes to exceed its commitment to introduce a new vehicle (well, "new" in the sense it has a Saab badge on it) each year for the next 5 years. It's the most impressive product offensive in the company's 57-year history, and it continues with a bid to capture some of the much-coveted sport compact market.
Saab's all-wheel-drive 9-2X, built from Subaru's WRX platform, is the first awd ever to wear a Saab nameplate. However, it's more than just a Subaru in disguise. Saab engineers and designers have produced a vehicle that has youthful appeal but is still representative of the company's heritage of quality, uniquely styled automobiles.
Two versions form the 9-2X lineup, the premium Aero model powered by a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter four (same as in the WRX), delivering 227 bhp at 6000 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The base model Linear gets a 165-bhp naturally aspirated four.
While those familiar with the WRX will see the genetic relationship at first glance, a close look reveals enough changes inside and out to give the 9-2X a decidedly European flavor.
Most notable of the visual connections to Swedish family traits is Saab's familiar curvaceous front end, trademark three-hole grille and the low, horizontally emphasized headlamps. The hood scoop is less obtrusive than on the WRX yet still delivers adequate airflow. "We spent a great deal of time making sure the 9-2X had a strong face and sleek Scandinavian lines," said Michael Mauer, Saab's executive director of design.
Because the Saab was based on a hatchback design car, the 9-2X features a steeply raked C-pillar and wraparound rear window, stylistic elements traditional on Saab's previous five-door models. To further differentiate the 9-2X from any of its cousins, the body shape includes a freshly designed tailgate with integrated license plate area, smoothened bumper fascia and a redesigned rear roof spoiler. You'll also notice Saab's decision to forego roof rails, creating a seamless roofline.
Given free rein in certain areas of development, Saab made a number of mechanical adjustments and overall chassis improvements. A main priority was to achieve the feeling of driving a Saab, and the Trollhtten engineering team balanced the chassis for comfort and control rather than outright high-performance handling.
While still very sporty, the 9-2X has the smooth ride we've come to expect from Saab. It's still a wonderful car for those wanting to carve canyons, but its prime attribute is its higher levels of comfort and luxury than others of its type. Compared to its relation from the east, the 9-2X is quieter, with minimal road noise intruding through the well-buffered chassis.
The four-wheel independent suspension is a MacPherson strut layout up front, with lower wishbones in aluminum rather than steel. A three-link system controls the rear, and stabilizer bars are standard fore and aft. Saab modified the spring rates and dampers and reduced the bump stops, altered wheel toe, and changed the steering rack to a 15.5 ratio, all to achieve more Saab-like characteristics. The result is impressive, characterized by nimble handling and near ideal straight-line stability. It also features a high level of feedback to the driver, as befits a true sport hatch. Giving the driver a close touch to the road is essential in such vehicles, and here the 9-2X doesn't disappoint.
Attractive 10-spoke 16-in. alloy wheels come standard, shod with 205/55R16 Bridgestone Potenza rubber, but 17-in. wheels and 215/45R17 tires are an option-a highly recommended upgrade.
All models have disc brakes at each corner (larger disc brakes at corners (larger fronts on the Aero) and the latest generation four-channel/four-sensor anti-lock brake system.
The engine's proven performance is indeed inspiring and worthy of praise. Still, it would have been interesting to drive the 9-2X car with the 300-bhp powerplant used in the WRX STi.
Both Linear and Aero models come with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. You really need the five-speed manual to better tap the engine's potential, and even so, standing starts are a bit sluggish due to significant turbo lag under 3000 rpm. Beyond this point, acceleration is an almost brutish slingshot force, and I found the high-revving engine most responsive well above the 5000-rpm range, where it happily sings.
A look inside the cabin reveals a somewhat modest design philosophy. Metal-rimmed, traditional gauges are easy to monitor with the speedo front and center. The climate controls feature large dials, making them easy to use. The surrounding center console is nicely accented with faux aluminum trim. Sport seats are covered with coordinating colored fabrics with contrasting cloth inserts. Aero models feature a sporty three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and e-brake handle, as well as a six-disc CD changer. Leather upholstered seats, a power sunroof, heated seats-and more-are optional.
While comfortable, the front seats would benefit from better side bolstering and additional adjustment controls. The rear hatch and folddown bench is a blessing for those like me who tote a ton of gear or often frequent Home Depot.
In short, the cockpit, which also features side and head airbag protection as standard, is best described as well polished, simple and very user-friendly.
The 9-2X went on sale in May as a 2005 model, and Saab expects to sell as many as 9,000 of them by year's end in the U.S. and Canada, currently its only targeted marketplaces.
Pricing starts at $22,990 for the Linear and $26,950 for the Aero model, and even adding a good amount of optional equipment doesn't inflate the MSRP too extravagantly.
Saab stylists and engineers are already hard at work creating the next-generation 9-2X, which, while still based on a shared platform, should look, feel and drive a lot more like the Saab cars we have come to appreciate. The ignition key may find its way back to where it belongs as well.
(A 9-2X will be joining european car's press fleet soon; stay tuned for a long-term intro. )