Is it interesting to hear that General Motors suffered a $1.1-billion heart attack during the first three months of this year? Nope. Not for a fan of cars. Is it interesting that Saab — keeper of Sweden's style sense and GM's European luxury connection — is using its parent company's Buick Rainier as the basis for the 2006 9-7X? Not really all that interesting, no.
No, the only thing worth burning up enthusiast brain cells considering is this: Can an upscale midsize Saab SUV that's built in Ohio, using the GMT360 body-on-frame platform — shared by the Rainier, Chevrolet's TrailBlazer and GMC's Envoy — and powered by Vortec inline-six and V8 engines qualify for the attention of North American Saabophiles, Saabists, Saabisti and Saabatarians?
It Looks Like a Saab
A respectable Northern European sensibility kept the 9-7X's four-door exterior free of busy side cladding and contours. Saab stylists didn't have a clean sheet of paper to work with, so they did the next best thing: They gave the SUV a clean-sheet-of-paper look.
Saab also spent GM's money crafting a legitimate family-resemblance front end, complete with the now familiar "three-port" grille. At the tail end, both companies cared enough to fashion a rear-end treatment that integrates (rather than avoiding or ignoring) the tailpipe.
Two other serious steps in style allow the 9-7X to hold court with other European SUVs. For the pure sake of cool, Saab shaved the GMT360 springs to lower the 9-7X by about an inch. Then, in a particularly wild, Friday-night-in-Stockholm kind of moment, the company polished each corner of the vehicle with standard 18-inch alloy wheels and lowish-profile 55-series tires — something you won't find Land Rover, Porsche or even BMW doing.
Those wheels, by the way, are the only giveaways as to whether the 9-7X you're admiring is the inline-six or the V8 model: The eight gets a six-thick-spoke design, while the six-cylinder model sports an edgier 12-thin-spoke set.
It Walks Like a Saab
It's clear that Saab's suspension elves got the biggest say in 9-7X's blueprint. The double-A-arm front bone structure and multilink, solid-axle rear setup experienced an aggressive boot camp of geometrical adjustments, stiffenings (including the front anti-roll bar) and shock resettings. Add in full-time all-wheel drive, a limited-slip differential and — for those awkward times when traction takes a holiday — StabiliTrak, and you've got a Saab that will hold its own at pay-attention speeds in steady-state corners, and reset its considerable heft capably in transitions.
The slightly heavier V8 version fares best when ride quality is factored in. And while I've been stared down and assured by Saab's chief suspension guru that the two 9-7Xs are set up to feel the same, I came down from the mountain to tell you: The inline-six model carries itself a mite more nervously, while the V8 feels more at one with the road, especially when that road turns choppy.
Extra engineering put into the steering pays off with good linearity and a beautifully weighted feel at all speeds, which translates into decent turn-in and good control of the vehicle. This compliment gains added juice when you consider the wide footprint of the 255/55R-18 Dunlops.
Pity the 9-7X's poor disc brakes, however. It's a thankless job playing anchor to nearly 4,800 pounds of mass in motion. Saab just wasn't able to get past the numb feel and lackluster engagement of the dual-piston calipers.
It Talks Like a Buick
What should be the tie-breaker between the two 9-7X models — deciding whether you want the 290-hp inline six or the 300-hp V8 — feels more like a draw. The $40,000 4.2-liter six makes much less torque (277 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm) than the $42,000 5.3-liter V8 (330 at 4,000), but both feature excellent first-gear tip-in, with passable passing power on the highway. Even fuel economy is similar, thanks to GM's Displacement on Demand which cuts the V8 down from a powerful eight cylinders to a fuel-saving four when cruising. The bigger pushrod engine does excel, but not so much in power production as in its sonic performance: The $2,000 bonus comes from the eight's heavenly roar of authority over the surprisingly ratty snarl of the 24-valve six.
One gear short of the class norm, the Saab's Hydra-Matic four-speed automatic transmission shifts cleanly. The fact that it doesn't hunt between gears on hilly terrain reflects both the good availability of usable torque from either engine and the reality that a four-speed doesn't leave a lot of gear choices for varying driving situations.
It Feels Somewhat Like a Saab
Inside, the five-passenger 9-7X works hard to make you feel like you're in a Saab. There are the expected luxury hints: heated leather-appointed seats, Bose premium audio with six-CD changer, XM Satellite Radio, OnStar and side curtain airbags. And there are Saab-specific reminders: "Saab" doorsill plates, lattice-grille air vents, soft-touch knobs and the classic center-console-mounted ignition. The rear cargo area — 39.8 cubic feet/80.1 with the second-row seat folded down — features chrome-plated tie-downs. Very nice.
Headroom is good throughout the cabin, but front-seat folks get their generous legroom only at the expense of the second-row passengers. Outward vision is excellent. And although the 9-7X gets the same sound-insulation measures as the Buick Rainier, it's still not quiet enough to enjoy a civil conversation between the first and second rows at highway speeds.
Is It a Saab?
Is this the SUV that Trollhattan would have come up with if left to its own calipers and CAD/CAM specs? No. But it is the SUV that Saab needs. Even with the midsize lux market holding its breath to see if the drop in big-SUV sales is a cold that the smaller SUVs are going to catch, it's the SUV that Saab needs. Because without GM, Saab would be a ghost, talked about but dead, like Austin Healey, Packard and now, MG.
But is the 2006 Saab 9-7X a Saab? Well, folks, there are no hidden meanings. The 9-7X feels like a GM SUV that was brought to Sweden to get an infusion of legitimate Saab character, which — no surprise — is exactly what it is. And if you're a Saab person, there's no reason you shouldn't feel proud driving the Saab/GM 9-7X. Because the alternative would be nostalgia.