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Published: 10/11/2004 - by Erin Riches, Senior Editor
After watching Volkswagen sell what amounted to near-luxury cars to younger buyers who wanted something relatively affordable yet premium in feel (think Jetta, Passat and GTI), the "real" luxury carmakers decided they wanted a crack at these buyers as well. Sure, the base versions of popular nameplates like the 3 Series, A4 and G35 still hover around the $30,000 mark, but manufacturers are digging deeper into the $25,000 range with cars like the Volvo S40, Acura TSX and soon-to-arrive Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series.
Guided by a "me too" philosophy laid out by parent company General Motors, Saab has added an entry-level model to its lineup for 2005. The 2005 Saab 9-2X boasts a base price that's thousands lower than that of the cheapest 9-3 sedan. If you read our First Drive, then you know that Saab got more than a little help from Subaru with this endeavor. In fact, except for a few unique styling details, revised suspension tuning and some new interior fabric, the all-wheel-drive 9-2X is a Subaru Impreza wagon. That's right. The seats, gauges, door handles and interior plastics are all of Impreza origin, while the climate and stereo controls can be found in any current-generation Subaru Forester (and all 2005 Imprezas).
Don't go looking for a console-mounted ignition, green or orange backlighting, the cockpit-inspired "night panel" feature (that blacks out all instrumentation except the speedometer), and certainly not "orthopedically designed" seats — none of those Saab specialties made it over in the translation. The 9-2X is just a quick rebadge job and, like it or not, what's left of Saab's Swedish identity is circling the drain.
"Do we like it or not?" was a question we found difficult to answer during our week-long test of a Saab 9-2X Aero. Had we been give the base Linear model, it probably wouldn't have been such a dilemma.
You see, the 9-2X Linear is mechanically identical to the Impreza 2.5 RS wagon. The RS is a fine choice if you need an economical all-wheel-drive vehicle with some cargo space, but even with a respectable 165 horsepower, it's far from speedy — especially if you opt for the automatic transmission (which blunts any performance potential with its premature upshifts and late downshifts). The wagon's handling characteristics are enjoyable, though, making this Impreza model a decent buy for Subaru's $19,000 asking price. But Saab wants almost $24,000 for a 9-2X Linear. Sure, you get cool two-tone seat cloth, but you're still feeding your CDs into a weak 80-watt stereo with only four speakers.
However, Saab wisely chose not to give us a Linear to test and instead offered us the performance-oriented Aero model. Although we've complained in the past that Aero versions of the 9-3 and 9-5 are not sporty enough for enthusiast drivers, it's harder to knock the 9-2X Aero. It's a clone of the most important performance car to hit the under-$30,000 bracket in the last five years, the Subaru Impreza WRX. It was the WRX's strong sales numbers that paved the way for cars like the Nissan 350Z, Mazda RX-8 and Dodge Neon SRT-4, not to mention the production versions of full-on rally cars like Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution and Subaru's own WRX STi.
The 9-2X Aero is the wagon version of the standard WRX, and Saab asks $27,645 for it. Not only is this a $2,675 price jump over the Subaru's sticker, it also puts the Aero slightly ahead of the base 9-3 Linear sedan. Our test vehicle had the optional 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof and heated seats, pushing it to the $30,000 threshold. Add leather upholstery and xenon lights (a $1,695 package) and maybe an automatic transmission ($1,250), and you're well into the low-$30Ks. So much for performance on the cheap.
Out on the road, we found that we enjoyed the idea of driving a Saab with a hood scoop, a feature you don't typically associate with an unassuming Swedish-brand car, even when it is turbocharged. The hood scoop, along with a metallic black paint job and stunning 10-spoke wheels, gave the wagon an aggressive edge and netted us a little attention from passers-by in the suburbs. Nevertheless, we could never shake the feeling that it doesn't make a lot of financial sense to pay extra for the Saab version of the WRX, no matter how good it looks. What's more, after four years on the market, the WRX itself is beginning to show signs of aging.
One of these signs comes from the feisty, turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine (it's horizontally opposed like all current Subaru engines). Rated for 227 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque and packed into the relatively lightweight body of a compact car, this was once the most performance you could get in this price range. Now, of course, the WRX and its Saab twin must contend with the 'roid-raged SRT-4 (230 hp, 250 lb-ft of torque), the lightweight RX-8 (238 hp from a smooth rotary) and the phenomenal Evo (276 hp, 286 lb-ft), along with any number of midsize family sedans packing high-horsepower V6s.
But the problem for the 9-2X Aero isn't about the numbers or the way its engine performs when run near redline on your favorite back roads. Pushed past the 5,000-rpm marking on the tachometer, this is still a thoroughly satisfying motor — all the right sounds and more than enough forward thrust to make it exciting. However, when you're just driving to work, it can be an annoying companion. Turbo lag is significant below 3,000 rpm, thus adding to the aggravation of driving in stop-and-go traffic in manual-shift models. You could go for the four-speed automatic, but as in the 9-2X Linear, you're likely to find it sluggish in executing downshifts (not good when you're dealing with a high-revving turbo).
The engine was not as smooth as we would have liked, either. This isn't a serious drawback for the WRX, which still costs less than most competitors, but it's definitely an issue in the pricier 9-2X. If you're going to spend $30,000 on a wagon, you could have a Volvo V50 T5. It might not be as fun to wring out on an open road, but its turbo power is more readily available down low (where you need it for urban driving), and delivery is smoother and quieter. Or if you're looking for both of these attributes and almost nonstop excitement, a case can be made for Subaru's own Legacy GT wagon. Yes, it's bigger and looks more like a family car than the WRX or 9-2X, but it surpasses both in straight-line acceleration, refinement and even behind-the-wheel entertainment.
The five-speed manual transmission proved acceptable in its operation. Granted, the shifter can feel notchy when running through the gears. And if you don't pay attention to how you release the clutch, upshifts don't come as smoothly as they should in a luxury-brand car. But once you're acclimated, there's little cause for complaint, and enthusiast types will find the pedal resistance and spacing just about perfect for heel-and-toe downshifting.
The 9-2X's ride and handling characteristics also brought out hot and cold emotions. The Subaru WRX was already one of the smoothest-riding performance cars in its price bracket. Compared to rigidly suspended cars like the Cooper S and 350Z, the WRX sedan and wagon are almost docile when let loose in commuter traffic. The Subaru's suspension was retuned to soften it up for the Saab audience without losing any handling acuity.
Although we noted a subtle improvement in ride quality during our daily runs up the freeway in the 9-2X, we don't think engineers went far enough. There's a difference between a smooth ride in a sporty car of economy origins (i.e., WRX) and the substantial, almost plush feel that you expect an entry-level luxury car to have. We drove a 2004.5 Volvo S40 T5 test car in the same week as the 9-2X and couldn't believe how much more luxurious it felt.
Of course, the Volvo would never be able to stay with an ably-driven 9-2X on twisty back roads. After a couple hours alone in the cockpit in this setting, we came away convinced that this is still one of the most balanced and predictable cars this side of $30 grand. With the standard all-wheel-drive system distributing power to all four wheels and a suspension that's firm but not too firm, you can throw a 9-2X into the turns and everything always seems to come out right. The steering isn't perfect but is still quite good with near-ideal weighting at all speeds and plenty of feedback from the road. However, all of this can be said of the similarly priced Legacy GT, which is also capable of delivering the truly comfortable ride that near-luxury buyers expect (thanks to its newer platform).
Braking is one area in which the 9-2X is still at the top of its game. The brakes operate as an extension of your body from the moment you pull out of the parking lot. The pedal has a solid, progressive feel and stopping distances are short whether you're easing along in heavy traffic or running the car hard on a deserted road.
We also appreciated the extra sound-deadening material Saab installed in the 9-2X. Neither wind nor road noise was bothersome during our week of testing.
The loss of traditional Saab styling cues in the cockpit is both a good and a bad thing. The gauges are clean and legible — they're easier to read at a glance than most Saab-designed instrumentation but they're also rather plain in appearance. In fact, all of the controls are simple in design and easy to find and use. If solid ergonomics are important to you, the 9-2X won't disappoint. If you're looking for the clunky charm of the 9-3 and 9-5, you won't find it here. There's also the matter of retained accessory power — you know, that little convenience that allows you to roll up the windows after you turn off the engine and remove the key. For whatever reason, Subarus still don't offer this feature so the 9-2X doesn't have it, either. It seems like a little thing, until you have to reinsert the key for the umpteenth time while running weekend errands.
Interior materials are another mixed bag. In general, the 9-2X returns an impression of higher quality than other Saabs, thanks to its Japanese origins. The textured plastics and vinyls on the dash and door tops are indeed better than the stuff you get in most Saabs. And the black and cream cloth upholstery is quite nice — it looks good and breathes well (though as you'd imagine, the cream sections are highly susceptible to stains). Problem is, the WRX is based on an economy car, so you'll find hard, semi-shiny plastic on the console and pillars in its cabin, as well as one of those cheap-feeling, "fuzzy cardboard" headliners. All of these surfaces should have been swapped out for better stuff in the 9-2X instead of being left as is. It's a sad moment when you can hear your key chain clattering against the hard plastic steering column in your $30K car just as it would in a $19,000 Impreza.
We also noted a few lapses in build quality in our 9-2X tester, though given the tight assembly of all the Imprezas we've ever examined, we're fairly certain that these were anomalies. In any case, a couple panels were slightly misaligned, and although the A-pillar trim fit snugly against the dash on the passenger side, there was a 3/4-inch gap on the driver side.
Only manually adjustable front seats are available in the 9-2X, but as in the WRX, they are well shaped and have enough lateral bolstering to keep you from sliding around when taking turns at a rapid clip. Most buyers will find them comfortable, but the seat bottom could use a two-way tilt feature. As it is, raising the seat height dumps you closer and closer toward the wheel. Also, there's no center armrest — an obvious omission in a luxury-brand car — and Saab charges you $119 to buy one as an accessory.
The rear seats are also comfortable, but a serious shortage of legroom will discourage most adults from sitting back here. If you're thinking of putting a bulky car seat in the backseat, we'd advise you to test the fit before you buy.
Cargo space is a strong point for the 9-2X. There's 27.9 cubic feet of capacity behind the rear seats, and the lightweight liftgate and low lift-over height make it easy to slide in a week's worth of groceries. Folding down the rear seats is a one-step procedure (though you might have to remove the headrests if the front seats are reclined) and opens up a total of 62 cubic feet. Subaru offers all kinds of cargo accessories for the Impreza wagons, including a handy, spill-proof rubber cargo tray. These items aren't on the options list for the 9-2X, but we assume that Saab dealers will make them available to buyers as add-ons. If not, you could always order them from Subaru.
Of course, when you've already paid extra for the Saab badge, the last thing you want to think about is how Subaru might also be able to meet your needs — and more cheaply at that. Instead, you should consider this before you buy a Saab 9-2X Aero. If all you want is economical performance, just buy a WRX. If you want a compact luxury wagon with plenty of style, buy a Volvo V50. If you want an authentic blend of performance and luxury, buy a Subaru Legacy GT.
The best part of the Impreza WRX has always been the fact that it's an incredibly capable performance car that middle-income buyers can actually afford. When you take out this essential ingredient, it becomes just another car — it becomes the 9-2X Aero.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Compared to the extensive speaker arrays you get in many cars these days, the setup in the 9-2X (and the Subaru Impreza WRX) is pretty basic. A 140-watt amplifier distributes sound to six speakers. Each of the front doors contains a tweeter and a driver; the rear doors have drivers only.
The head unit is a double-DIN design with an in-dash CD changer and a well-organized collection of buttons and knobs. However, the twist-knob on the right side of the head unit isn't a good substitute for a traditional tuning knob (for finding a radio station) and a double-sided seek button (for moving between CD tracks). There are no secondary controls on the steering wheel.
Performance: In spite of the mundane speaker layout, sound quality is quite good. Bass tones are punchy, higher-frequency vocals are warm and lively, and the mid-range is full and well separated. Some of the separation and clarity goes away at high volumes; metal tracks in particular begin to sound shrill.
Best Feature: Nicely separated soundstage.
Worst Feature: Use of twist-knob in place of real tuning knob and double-sided seek button.
Conclusion: A fine stock sound system for the affordably priced WRX, but Saab 9-2X buyers may wish for a bit more power and refinement for $30,000.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Saab is in a tough position. On one hand, the company had a history of being quirky and "different" and this image served it well?in terms of appealing to a small, dedicated audience. But we all know the name of the game in 21st-century auto sales is volume, and with GM now steering the Saab ship, it doesn't need a bunch of "independence" mucking up its market share (despite Saab's current tagline). With the 2005 9-2X, we see the fruits of this conundrum. It's the first Saab to offer all-wheel drive, which is unique in a way. But all-wheel drive is pretty common these days, so that feature alone doesn't really help the 9-2X's cause. What's worse, many of the traits that Saab loyalists do expect (ignition key between the seats, "night panel" instrument lighting, etc.) aren't featured on the 9-2X.
Obviously, this lack of identity comes from the fact that the 9-2X isn't really a Saab. What's more troubling to me is that even the car it's based on (the Subaru WRX) also doesn't represent the same level of cutting-edge performance it did when it hit the market three years ago. Back then, the level of performance it offered was unheard of for a sedan/wagon priced in the low $20Ks. But today you've got a Neon SRT-4 that can spank the WRX (and the 9-2X) for $21,000 and a Mini Cooper S for $20,000 that can certainly outhandle it. The performance version of the 9-2X starts at $27,000, though Saab's position is that the 9-2X isn't solely about performance, but luxury, too. When I look at the HVAC controls and see essentially the same pieces that were utilized for our long-term Forester, I find that argument laughable. Add in the 9-2X's turbo lag and somewhat buzzy engine, and the "luxury" angle just doesn't hold up.
Bottom line: GM can't revive Saab's fortunes by rebadging existing (and rapidly aging) product. There is one upside, however. I can essentially use this same "Second Opinion" in a few months ? after I drive the "all-new" 9-7X.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
As a big fan of the WRX, I found the 9-2X a tough car to swallow. It may have its own exterior style, a retuned suspension and unique interior trim, but when you're behind the wheel, it's all Subaru. From the sound of the engine to the smell of the interior, the 9-2X shares so many traits with the WRX that it's difficult to see why anyone would bother to pay the Saab surcharge. Granted, saying you own a Saab sounds a little swankier than a Subaru, but when it's so painfully obvious that the 9-2X is nothing but a corporate badge job, the aura of the European nameplate wears thin quickly. There's no denying that it can carve up a mountain road with the best of 'em, but so can the WRX for several thousand less. Until Saab gives the 9-2X a character that's distinguishable from its Subaru cousin, I find little reason to pay the extra cash.
"A cute crossover- part SUV, part sport, part wagon ? good on gas, unique, not a million on the road, feels super safe and stable. A quality car. Very happy. Easy to drive. I got the automatic transmission, cloth seats. Favorite features: sharp driving quality, looks, cabin, steering wheel, gas mileage. Suggested improvements: Automatic driver-seat adjustment, available navigation system and XM radio." — kwitzi, Sept. 17, 2004
"Saab traditionalists should take a test-drive of this wonderful car, and it'll for sure change their mind. This car is considerably better than an Impreza wagon in looks, interior, ride quality and build. Get in the car, and you'll love it. With incentives, etc., you can get a fully loaded Linear for $26K?what a BARGAIN. Favorite features: AWD, incentives from dealership, extremely agile handling. Suggested improvements: More low-end torque, longer wheelbase for more rear-seat legroom." — SatisfiedDude, Aug. 26, 2004
"Replaced a 2001 AWD Toyota Rav4 with the 2.5 Linear and am extremely pleased with the Saab 9-2X. Was considering waiting for the AWD Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series, but am happy I decided to go with the Saab. The handling and performance are superb. Highly recommend to anyone considering an AWD sports wagon. Favorite features: Handling is almost BMW like. Suggested improvements: Pump the horsepower on the 2.5 up to 180 and this puppy would be perfect." — Vhawk, July 30, 2004
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