Regular readers will know our Saab 9-2X has been residing somewhere on the fringe of our long-term fleet. Engineering editor Jay Chen was given the go-ahead to wrench on the Saab wagon and see what sorts of slumbering performance he could awaken. Given the fact that it shares its drivetrain and basic mechanical underpinnings with Subaru's rally-inspired WRX, it can benefit from the wide array of aftermarket parts available for the popular tuner platform. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Well, we've had our fun in the aftermarket and since the 9-2X is scheduled to leave our stable in a couple months, we've decided to return it to street duty so we can finally put some real seat time in it. To shake out the cobwebs, I took it on a 600-mile road trip through central Southern California: north from our office into the desert, then west through the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the hazy emptiness of California's vast Imperial Valley, then back south to the city-all in the space of around 24 hours. To say I drove the piss out of it would be a grave understatement.
I've driven WRXs, and despite their similarities I can say the Saab 9-2X is a different car. The most striking difference is its outward appearance. The styling fits perfectly into Saab's model range and looks quite stylish and reserved compared to Subaru's edgy, bug-eyed styling. The 9-2X doesn't seem to pack quite the off-the-line punch the Subaru does, possibly due to added weight. The clutch is long and weird, and turbo lag is a definite force to be reckoned with. The engine spools sluggishly up to 3000 rpm, and after 3500 it screams. Peak power is adequate at a claimed 227 bhp, it's just getting there that's a bit of a trick.
It's true Saab set up the 9-2X to be a bit more refined than the base platform, adding extra noise-cancelling material to the cockpit and tuning the suspension to increase touring comfort. While the result makes for a nice drive on the highway, it tends to feel a little loose in the corners. We remedied this with an electronically adjustable Tein coilover system and new SportContact 2 tires. While a new 9-2X comes shod with sporty all-season rubber, no all-season tire can compare with the high-end Continentals.
The new coilovers are incredible and impart a scary kind of confidence, particularly over the most fearsome switchbacks. Using Tein's EDFC controller, damping force is adjustable directly from the driver's seat. I hardly played with the settings, and while the ride was brick-hard, on the twisted mountain roads along my route the 9-2X absolutely carved. When I finally switched the controller on I found both ends of the suspension were set to zero out of 16, the absolute stiffest setting. Bumping the numbers up just halfway made a remarkable difference in compliance and ride comfort (though even at 16 the ride is much firmer than most stock setups).
Given the route I'd mapped, I'll admit I was a little nervous about overall reliability. This had nothing to do with the car itself or any prior experiences, only the fact that it is turbocharged and it's been modified, however lightly. During the drive, temperatures fluctuated between 68 and 95 degrees (Fahrenheit) as I climbed and descended more than 25,000 vertical feet (four times up and down the mountains). The Saab never so much as coughed and I noticed no degradation of performance at any altitude.
In spite of the purposefully rigid suspension, I found the 9-2X very comfortable for a long trip. The seats are firm but forgiving, even for a bony butt like mine over considerable distances. Lateral support is another story, but then again you'd need race seats to really keep up with the new suspension. The climate control works beautifully in all weather-no complaints here. And being a wagon, the 9-2X is particularly suited to long trips through the hinterlands. The rear seats fold flat, expanding the rear cargo area by a considerable measure if the need arises. This is one of those vehicles that lends itself perfectly to an active lifestyle: mountain biking, camping, skiing, whatever. On the drive all I had with me was my backpack, so I didn't get to fully exploit the space, but when I got back there was all that much more room for beer and tortilla chips. Nothing beats a cold beer after a long drive. Except maybe a cold beer and a bag of tortilla chips.
This car is also equipped with a GPS-based Eclipse navigation/DVD head unit-one other aftermarket piece we opted to keep. The unit is all-seeing and includes roads I'd never expect to see on a navigation interface (mainly the remote, unpaved type). Its navigation functions are fairly intuitive, but I found if I did too much snooping around I had a tendency to get hopelessly lost among the various interfaces. Regardless, a competent navigation system is a vehicle upgrade every driver can truly use to his or her advantage.
Besides shaking the Saab down after its long hiatus in the shop, the other purpose of my trip was to scout a route for an upcoming wagon road test we've been cooking up. Considering the fun I had on the pre-run, I'll be pushing to be first in our long-term 9-2X when that day arrives.
Total mileage: 13,340
Fuel economy: 25.3 mpg, highway and hard mountain driving
Thumbs up: Comfortable, roomy
Thumbs down: Turbo lag, goofy clutch