Photos: Saab. Click image to enlarge
by Richard Russell
Even forced marriages can work out. As incongruous as it seems, the wedding of Saab and Subaru has resulted in an offspring that will stand out even when the honeymoon is over.
Both companies are members of the extended GM family. Both produce relatively small numbers of vehicles and have established a loyal following, for similar reasons: reliability, longevity and the ability to laugh at winter. Both companies have a background in aircraft manufacturing and have been successful in world rally competition. Both have extensive experience with turbocharged engines. They also share a reputation for playing on a different field, for quirkiness, individuality.
From there, it gets a little more difficult to find commonalities. Subaru has a solid reputation as a purveyor of all-wheel-drive and horizontally-opposed engines. If it says Subaru, then all wheels are driven all the time by a boxer engine. It has managed to wring a huge variety of products off two basic platforms and still designs and builds its own stuff. GM purchased a 20% stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent, to obtain access to that AWD prowess.
Saab exists on a higher plain – a more expensive and exclusive market. Saab buyers, like their Subaru counterparts, wish to be different. They respect European quality and engineering, Swedish safety and the exclusivity that comes with Saab ownership. Saab, the company however, is less secure. Rescued from imminent bankruptcy by GM, and 100% owned by it, Saab no longer has a single vehicle in its lineup based on a Saab platform. The architecture beneath virtually every Saab is borrowed from other manufacturers within the GM family.
In this respect it comes as no surprise to see the latest, least expensive and smallest Saab began life elsewhere.
BUT – and this is a major point – the 2005 Saab 9-2X is a very worthy Saab! Once you get beyond badge snobbery, the 9-2X has the engineering, build quality, performance, value and almost certainly the reliability to withstand even the closest scrutiny. After all, it began life as one of the most widely respected vehicles on the planet – the Subaru WRX.
Saab engineers and designers spent a great deal of time in Japan working with Fuji on the project. The design differences are evident: reworked front and rear ends and a unique interior. But the differences go beyond that. Saab spent a great deal of time coming up with unique suspension, steering tuning and a higher level of refinement. They also insisted on a more thorough job of sound insulation. Reportedly this was the only go/no go issue during the negotiations, but they got the added insulation in the roof and door pillars necessary to meet their goals. Subaru owners will benefit as well, since these upgrades have to be done during the manufacturing process at a stage where the two vehicles are the same.
The result is a more refined Subaru wearing Saab badges, or as it has come to be known, a “Saabaru”. The thrum from the flat four is more subdued but still there – as is the seamless delivery of power in all gears. The security of the all-wheel-drive system is something that can only be appreciated over time and a variety of conditions. This is one of the most thoroughly engineered drive trains in the world at any price. But while you might only witness the added safety of the drive system on occasion, you will be constantly amazed by the remarkable ability of the long-travel suspension to soak up road imperfections. Saab tuned the shocks and springs for improved steering response and bite on pavement, but frankly the difference is all but undetectable.
Click image to enlarge
Inside, the 9-2X is clearly superior. The instrument panel is lighter, more modern and thoroughly Swedish in nature and appearance. Clear, legible gauges and excellent ergonomics are common, but the overall feeling is one of a more expensive and refined cockpit. The front seats are supportive and comfortable and the rears will hold a couple of slim adults for short periods. The useful cargo space can be greatly enhanced by flipping down the rear seat backs
The first all-wheel-drive Saab comes in two trim levels, Linear and Aero.
The Linear, our tester, gets a 2.5 litre flat four producing 165 horsepower and 166 lb. ft. of torque. The Aero gets the blown 2.0 litre engine putting out 227 horses and 217 lb. ft. of torque. Prices start at about $29,000 for the Linear and $38,000 for the Aero – about $3,000 more than an equivalent Subaru. The Linear rides on 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in all-season tires and the Aero on 17-inchers with high-performance summer tires. A five-speed manual is standard on both and a four-speed automatic optional. AWD, ABS with electronic brake force distribution, four wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, height adjustable driver’s seat, front and side air bags, cruise and remote central locking are standard on all models.
The Aero adds larger brakes, unique exhaust and hood, leather interior, the turbocharged engine, larger wheels and tires, heated seats and mirrors, automatic climate control, unique interior trim, power moon roof and an audio system upgrade.
Saab dealers have been crying for new product in order to not only attract new customers, but keep existing ones. The 9-2X is positioned at the entry level of the Saab line in an effort to bring new bodies into the store. Those that purchase or lease the feisty little Saabaru will be highly likely to become happy Saabists.