It's no secret that plenty of cars on the road are conceived from another automotive company's parts bin. This is especially true today due to the growing number of partnerships between auto manufacturers. It seems every company is financially connected to at least one or two others, and with General Motors as its parent company, Saab is no exception.
Under the GM umbrella, Saab has closer ties to Subaru of America, as GM holds a 20-percent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company. When Saab decided to expand its short model lineup, it looked no further than Subaru's successful Impreza sport wagon. Saab's version of the Impreza, the 9-2X sport wagon, is an important addition to the Swedish automaker's two-car portfolio, providing an affordable model geared toward young, active buyers. Simply borrowing the car from Subaru allowed Saab to bring the 9-2X to market that much quicker.
Make no mistake, Saab sales haven't been suffering as of late (2003 saw an all-time retail sales record), but as Saab Automobile's president and CEO Peter Augustsson quickly points out, the company also can't allow any more buyers to pass on its limited lineup in favor of a model that it doesn't produce. The time has come to increase the product line in order to increase sales.
The new Saab 9-2X is expected to seize those new sales opportunities, entering the lineup price-wise below the 9-3 models. The "X" denotes a standard all-wheel-drive system, a main selling point and core Subaru product characteristic, and a feature that Saab expects to dominate its 9-2X marketing campaign.
As with the Impreza, two engines are available for the 9-2X: a naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder rated for 165 horsepower on the base Linear model, and a 227-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four on the Aero. Subaru fans will recognize the latter engine as the Impreza WRX power plant. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard on both the Linear and Aero, while both can be optioned up to a four-speed automatic.
Our driving experience was limited to the manual-shift Aero, but in our view, that's nothing to complain about. The punchy turbo ran quickly through the mountainous test-drive route, as we sliced our way easily and decisively through the gearbox, up and down the steep and sloping grades.
The 9-2X rides much like an Impreza, but the Subaru's extra stiffness has been softened just a bit for the Saab, thanks to retuned springs, shock absorbers and bushings. The gentler ride was appreciated, yet the suspension still provided enough road feel without allowing unnecessary harshness to invade the cabin. The steering ratio has also been adjusted to provide better control in tighter turns, and the improvement was immediately noticeable. Only slight body roll was noted during hard cornering, both on real-world winding two-lane highways, as well as on Saab's closed handling course. Additionally, Saab increased the sound insulation in its sport wagon, which quieted the 9-2X's cabin noticeably compared to that of the Impreza.
Available only as a wagon, the 9-2X's exterior lines have been smoothed to reduce the Impreza's edgier look. The front and rear treatments are unique to Saab, including the tailgate, spoiler and wrap-around lights. Standard 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55R16 all-season tires were designed exclusively for the 9-2X, as were the Aero's optional lightweight alloy 17-inchers which come mounted on 215/45R17 performance rubber.
In an effort to give the 9-2X upscale dash in place of the Impreza's flash, you won't find any Saabs in Subaru's signature Rally Blue paint; instead look for more refined color options including a dark navy blue. The interior color schemes are distinctively attractive with contrasting colors, which are the same whether you choose cloth or Saab-exclusive leather seating. The front seats were comfortable and supportive, but the leather tended to be a bit slippery during aggressive cornering. The dashboard is essentially Subaru-issue, but Saab tells us that its center stack treatment is unique. We expect to see the same stack with its new three-dial climate control system incorporated into a future WRX.
One item we would have liked to see in a sporty, versatile vehicle targeted toward a youthful buyer is a navigation system, or at the very least, GM's well-known OnStar communications system, which is available in Saab's 9-3 and 9-5 models. Saab hopes to establish sales before expected competitors, namely the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volvo V50 hit the market, and some sort of connectivity may become necessary as a competitor amidst that techno-savvy group.
For 2005, Saab expects to build 8,000 9-2Xs for the U.S. and Canadian markets. The company assumes there will be no cross-shopping with Subaru since the 9-2X carries a minimum $2,800 premium over the Impreza. With a starting price of $22,990 for the Linear and $26,950 for the Aero, some might wonder if Saab has performed enough of an Impreza transformation to encourage buyers to pay the premium. But Saab has added a few enticing extras: a four-year/50,000-mile warranty over the three-year/36,000-mile offer from Subaru, plus two years of no-charge scheduled maintenance to add a little Swedish sweetener to the deal. The 9-2X goes on sale June 1, 2004.