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Will Saab SUV fly?

The new 9-7X, which is basically a rebranded GM sport-ute,has some wondering if it will be accepted by the company's clientele
DAVID BOOTH CanWest News Service
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

So here's the $64,000 question. Will loyal Saab owners and potential conquests to the quirky Swedish brand embrace the new 9-7X SUV as one of their own despite its General Motors lineage? Or will the 9-7 land in Saab dealerships with the resounding thud of the 9-2X, the Subaru WRX-transplant that Saab dealers are finding difficult to move at a $4,000 premium to the original?

Critics who automatically decry the contamination of the "pure" Saab brand with the addition of a sport-utility vehicle ignore the lesson gleaned by Volvo, its closest competitor both geographically and pyschographically. The fellow Swede was initially reluctant to produce an SUV, lest it *******ize its image among its fanatically loyal, and equally conservative, clientele.

Instead of the expected controversy, Volvo owners responded with a resounding "What took you so long?"

It seems Swedish values of versatility, utility and practicality aren't at odds with an SUV. If it's properly designed, of course. And that brings us to the second question: namely, whether anything that started as a Chevrolet - no matter how accomplished - will be accepted by the upscale crowd Saab hopes to impress.

It doesn't hurt that the base vehicle - the Chevy TrailBlazer, Buick Ranier, GMC Envoy or Oldsmobile Bravada by any other name - is one of the best SUVs in GM's portfolio. Besides a suitably stiff platform and supple suspension, the base engine is GM's 4.2-litre Vortec, a sweet-revving in-line six that shares at least some of the sophistication of the similarly configured BMWs.

Standard in the Linear model ($50,900), the 4.2L's 290 ponies are a powerful argument against forking over the extra $3,500 the 5.3-litre V8 powered Arc model demands. That's only 10 less peak horsepower than the larger-displacement eight; though, to be fair, the V8 does pump 53 more pound-feet of torque.

Not that you'd really notice. For one thing, the six - being a four-valves-per-cylinder, double overhead cam affair - is eager to be spun hard. Like the best in-line sixes, the 4.2-litre Vortec sounds unhurried even when revving close to its 6,300-rpm redline.

Not that you continually need to spin it that high. Along with this year's revamping that sees the six gain 15 horsepower, General Motors now claims to have extended the engine's powerband with 90 per cent of the 277 peak pound-feet of torque available as low as 1,200 rpm. It's an impressive powerplant, one of the few base engines in an SUV that performs more than yeoman duty.

It would be even more impressive if it were hooked up to a better transmission. Where its competitors can brag five-, six- and even seven-speed autoboxes, the 9-7X soldiers on with GM's ubiquitous four-speed. It may be electronically controlled, but having only four cogs means there are substantial gaps between gears. The result is the engine is sometimes reluctant to kick down when passing and it sometimes hunts for gears when climbing steep hills.

The 5.3-L's greater low-end torque eliminates some of that hunting, being able to hold a taller gear longer. The engine also has an even more unhurried feel as the revs seldom get above 4,000, even when pressed. And because it has GM's Displacement On Demand (DOD) technology - which sees the V8 operate on only four cylinders under light loads - the 5.3-litre's fuel economy is almost identical to the 4.2's.


The extra power is overshadowed, however, by the Arc's poorer ride. Across its entire model line, the Arc is designated the sporty trim. So, besides the V8's extra power, its suspension is also noticeably stiffer than the Linear's, which already features 40 per cent firmer damping at the front wheels and 10 per cent stiffer at the rear than the Chevrolet TrailBlazer.

It's too much. The Arc's front shocks are a whopping 70 per cent stiffer than the Chevy's, making things a little choppy. And the rear shocks, being 20 per cent firmer, overwhelm the solid rear axle over frost heaves. Yes, the Arc handles a bit better than the Linear, but even the base 9-7X is so much better than a comparable Chevy or GMC - thanks to revised steering ratio, stiffer bushings and thicker sway bars - that the Arc's additional road-holding ability is unnecessary.

Ironically, the lower-cost Linear also is the more attractive of the two. Almost all of the assembled autoscribes preferred its 12-spoke 18-inch wheels to the six-spokers of the same size. Most found the Linear's alloys not only matched the 9-7X's aggressive looks, but also appeared to be the more expensive, optional alternative.

In either guise, though, the 9-7X is fetching. It's amazing how much difference a set of decent-sized rims, lowering the chassis by 25 millimetres and grafting on Saab's trademark three-portal grille can improve the looks over the GM variants. Unlike the Saab 9-2X, which looks almost identical to its Subaru counterpart, the 9-7X is not only different, but much more attractive.

Ditto for the interior. For one thing, the Saab is completely devoid of the cheap plastic that mars some aspects of the Trailblazer's cabin. The air conditioning and radio buttons, for instance, are covered with a softer, more tactile rubber with a nifty knurl pattern that lends an upscale feel. Saab's trademark vents are present and accounted for as is the floor-mounted ignition switch (which originated on the 1967 99 model to reduce the risk of knee injury in accidents).

The leather also is of premium quality with contrasting colour stitching. The seats are heated, the chrome is tastefully applied and there's a nifty aluminum door sill emblazoned with Saab's logo. The major stylistic faux pas inside is a steering wheel that looks a little too GMC truck-like and the lack of some super-sized cup holders to hold Slurpees.

The Saab 9-7X is the best, by far, of the SUVs built on what GM calls its GMT360 architecture.

For only a few thousand dollars more than a loaded 4.2L TrailBlazer, for instance, the Linear offers better handling, a more luxurious interior and a noticeably more attractive exterior.

It's also good enough that Saab will have a front-runner in the mid-size luxury SUV segment right out of the gate. And, for once, you don't have to opt for the more expensive premium model to get satisfaction.

- - -

2006 Saab 9-7X

Price: $50,900

Engine: 4.2-litre DOHC

Vortec V6

Power: 290 horsepower 277 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Brakes: 4-wheel discs with anti-lock braking system
 
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