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Saab’s Hip-Deep in New Product by TCC Team (6/11/2005)
But can this Swedish automaker stand out in a crowd of rebadged vehicles?
Authenticity is a hazy thing. Harleys are authentic
Likewise, you don’t doubt the
heritage of an RCA TV. It’s Little Nipper, man! The last RCA television was made
Saab these days is in an authentic funk. Too small to survive on its purely Swedish appeal, the company’s had to go foraging in the GM empire for plumper fare. The problem is, during its 50-odd-year history, Saab vehicles have been a little of everything—two-strokes and four-strokes; hatchbacks, sedans and coupes; V-4s and V-6s and in-line fours, turbos and normally aspirated; front- and all-wheel drive. Until recently you pretty much knew a Saab was Swedish, but even that distinction got revoked with the arrival of the Subaru-alike 9-2X sport wagon last year.
The 9-7X, Saab’s first true SUV, removes the Swedish aspect another half-turn around the globe in the other direction, plunking the brand down in the middle of Moraine, Ohio, where the 9-7X is built alongside the very similar mid-size SUVs sold by Chevrolet, GMC and Buick. (Now, if you’re truly worried that Saab has totally lost its cosmopolitan veneer, know that Trollhattan, Sweden, has never hosted an Olympics or a Super Bowl and from Stockholm looks pretty much like Moraine.)
But enough about its origins. The only real question that matters here is whether Saab’s improvements to GM’s four-year-old SUV lineup are worthwhile and convincingly different enough to warrant the Saab badge. The 9-7X, like the other GM utes, comes in two flavors. There’s an in-line six edition with all-wheel drive; it puts out 290 hp, up from 270 in the original version of GM’s utterly charming in-line six. There’s also the upline model outfitted with all-wheel drive and a 300-hp, 5.3-liter V-8. Chalk another engine up to Saab history—it’s the first eight-cylinder the brand ever has offered. It offers displacement on demand, for an eight-percent fuel economy boost over a similar-sized V-8.
Either powerplant comes with a four-speed automatic that snaps off shifts with the occasionally overzealous authority of a small-town water commissioner. Most of the time it keeps its power-hungry nature under control, but when it does push into lower gears the engine – particularly the V-8 – makes an unhappy noise out back. Up front under the hood it’s all dulcet tones and mechanical pleasantries, but in both vehicles we drove, the exhaust tuning was in need of some more final tuning. With the V-8 engine, the 9-7X’s towing capacity is 6500 lb.
There’s no rear-drive 9-7X offered, and there’s also no low-range gear. But all-wheel drive is standard and the crossover-type system is closest to that in the Buick Rainier. The Saab version also gets a standard limited-slip differential, and big 18-inch wheels and tires for lots of grip.
Saab says the 9-7X is tuned to be more of a driver's vehicle than its American cousins. It uses a uniquely tuned double A-arm front suspension with coil springs and a multi-link, electronically controlled rear air suspension, a low ride height, thick front stabilizer and stiff upper control arm bushings in the rear. Together with a stiffened front section of the frame, a quicker 18.5:1 steering gear ratio is designed to help improve steering precision and responsiveness.
The unchallenging roads we tackled
Nosey where it needs to be
In matters of styling, the Saab version of the GMT360 platform gets the cleanest nose and the sharpest rear-end styling. The wagon back is lifted from the departed Olds Bravada, with different blackout plastic for a similar pleasing effect. It is surprising just how Saab-like the front end could be made, and the silhouette is just fine.
2006 Saab 9-7XEnlarge Photo
Inside, the 9-7X wears handsome dark leather with contrasting stitching, wood dash inserts, and the sideways, flippy-outy Saab cupholder. It’s a nicely detailed treatment, with typically Saab shapes. Interior room is fine, and the seating is state of the art—for 2002, which means no third row, no foldaway option, no legendary Swedish cleverness at all. (How else do they get us to buy melamine bookshelves and convince us they’re fabulous?)
If nothing else, the 9-7X is the best-equipped of GM’s mid-size utes. The 9-7X comes with stability control, leather seats, curtain airbags, a 275-watt Bose sound system with XM and a six-CD changer, and a choice of a power moonroof or a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
But the 9-7X really needs to be more than just another GM ute. In fact, it needs to be something wholly closer to the Subaru Tribeca that, in fact, is supposed to spawn a 9-6X version for Saab in about a year. This is a step off the authenticity trail, not a step forward.
But then, Saab itself needs to be more than just another GM product to have a fighting chance among the brand clutter. There’s the airplane heritage—so why not build them like airplanes out of aluminum, like Jaguar? Why isn’t this “intellectual” brand, with all its highly educated buyers, at the cutting edge of hybrid and diesel technology? And why can’t every Saab be faster than the 9-7X is?
The 9-7X stumbles in its quest to be more Saab than GM. It’s simply too American SUV underneath to be Eurofied into something nimbler. The formula has worked—the 9-2X fits seamlessly in the Saab portfolio because it’s small, five-doored, swift and sure-footed. But the 9-7X is far less convincing. It’s a Saab truck, after all. And while it may sell, it too visibly sells out—something Saab really cannot afford at all.
2006 Saab 9-7X
Base price: $40,000-$42,000 (est.)
Engine: 4.2-liter in-line six, 290 hp/277 lb-ft; 5.3-liter V-8, 300 hp/330 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 193.2 x 75.4 x 68.5 in
Wheelbase: 113.0 in
Curb weight: 4770-4781 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 15/21 mpg (in-line six); 15/19 mpg (V-8)
Safety equipment: All-wheel drive, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, stability control, dual front and side curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; keyless entry; air conditioning; AM/FM/CD player w/ six speakers; power seats; cruise control; 18-inch wheels; leather trim; power front seats; XM satellite radio; OnStar
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles