What do you call it when Swedes, Japanese and Americans try to pull a fast one? The Saab 9-2X. In a case of multicultural collusion, Saab and Subaru, both financial wards of General Motors, have pooled resources to give birth to an entirely new vehicle for Saab, a sporty hatchback that now serves as the brand's entry-level model. And they've done it in a hurry. Originally destined for a July 1 debut, the 9-2X has been rushed forward a month, to be in showrooms by the first of June.
As fuel prices soar and reputations of thirsty behemoths like the Hummer H2 sour, the clamor for small, fuel-efficient, space-savvy cars is approaching crescendo. The popular Mini is, of course, the poster-car for this developing cult. Both Mercedes and BMW are planning to import their A-Class and 1-Series models, respectively, into North America. The same goes for Audi's A3, whereas Volvo's new S40 is already here doing battle alongside Acura's RSX.
Saab is determined to get in on the action, but with only two vehicle linesthe 9-3 and 9-5 modelswhat's a niche-market Swedish automaker to do? Thanks to General Motors, Subaru has coughed up the platform of its well respected Impreza line; Saab has nipped and tucked the styling to effect a Swedish family resemblance; and, behold, the Sube is now a Saab. Thus does General Motors enter the sporty compact fray on stealthy tippytoes without seeming to betray its loyal, albeit delusional, Escalade/Suburban/Hummer customers.
The new 2005 9-2X is available in two versions: "Linear" and "Aero." The differences center on the powertrains. In the Linear, a 2.5-liter single-overhead-cam boxer-four (i.e., opposed four-cylinder) motor produces 165 horsepower and 166 ft.-lbs. of torque. In the Aero, intercooled turbocharging is used to pump a smaller 2.0-liter twin-cam boxer up to 227 hp and 217 ft.-lbs. Both models employ all-wheel-drive, and both offer the selection of either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
Subaru aficionados will, of course, recognize instantly the pedigree of a base-model Impreza within the 2.5 Linear and an Impreza WRX within the turbocharged Aero. Saab partisans, on the other hand, will scarcely mind. The transformation from Sube to Saab has been clever and effective, and perhaps the only significant evidence of a rush job is the absence of Saab's trademark console-mounted ignition switch in the 9-2X.
"We just didn't have the time to design one," explained Saab spokesman Kevin Smith at the car's recent San Diego media debut. While Saabists will look in vain for the keyhole in the floor, all other right-thinking folk will find it in the steering column, as expected.
From the windscreen forward, the appearance of the 9-2X is not only distinct, it is also consistent with Saab's vehicle styling tendencies overall. The prow is rounded, windswept and subtly aggressive. There is no hint of the Impreza's goggle-eyed ingenuousness. Otherwise, the Saab's silhouette is a ringer for the Impreza sport wagon. Inside, despite tasteful applications of matte-finish metallic surfaces, upgraded upholstery fabrics and two-tone optional leather seating, the effect is all Subaru.
There's not a darn thing wrong with this sibling plagiarism, either. Subaru's all-wheel-drive system is world-renowned; and the sporty feel of its manual five-speed gearbox is, likewise, much favored among enthusiasts. Auto-shifter devotes will note crisp, solid gear changes as well, although some might pine for a fifth gear of their own that could render manual toggles into and out of overdrive a bit more seamless.
Both boxer-style motors are a joy. In the Linear, 165 hp is ample, with plenty of midrange torque for start-and-stop acceleration. The Aero's turbo-induced 227 hp, on the other hand, is a thrill. Intercooling virtually banishes turbo-lag, and the combination of a broad powerband and well spaced gearing allows the WRXoops, the 9-2X Aeroto skate through twisties. Handling in either car is sporty but not harsh, preserving substantial ride comfort. At slower speeds, as a result, the 9-2X feels a bit nose heavy; but this transitions smoothly into very neutral handling as speeds increase. At this point, shod with Bridgestone Potenza tires specifically designed for it, the 9-2X rotates promptly about an imaginary point just forward of the shifter, and its behavior in full, four-wheel drifts is uncannily calm and reassuring.
Predictably, the turbo's fuel-mileage suffers, posting EPA figures in the low to mid-20-mpg range. The Linear fares better, ranging from mid- to high 20s. Considering the public's growing preoccupation with fuel efficiency and Saab's own determination to capitalize on this by rushing the 9-2X to market, mileage performance is lackluster, particularly as it fails to broach the magic 30-mpg threshold.
Space efficiency, on the other hand, is the 9-2X's showpiece. Its five-door layout, so desirable in Europe yet despised in the U.S., provides remarkable versatility for combining people and things in a compact space. Even with all five seats in use, there are 28 cu. ft. below the hatch. That's equivalent to two sedan trunks. The rear bench, moreover, splits to fold, allowing a combination of people and things; yet, with the entire rear bench flattened, there are over 61 cu. ft. available. That's comparable to many compact SUVs.
Saab's Subaru makeover introduces sporty, compact versatility to an entirely new audience. If Impreza fans are all just rally-racer wannabes, 9-2X customers are likely to find their satisfactions in achieving SUV-like practicality with a luxury-oriented, fuel-stingy hatchback. It's the beginning of an important change in automotive taste in the U.S., and for all of Saab's rush to bring the 9-2X to market, it really couldn't have happened soon enough.