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Wards tests 9-7X

Saab Gets Dirty With First SUV

By Brian Corbett, Jul 1 2005

While the 9-7X SUV will not convert critics of GM’s strategy for expanding Saab’s lineup, it is an admirable effort at making a stale platform seem fresh.

LA MALBAIE, Que., Canada – It likely was unintentional, but the selection of this province by Saab Automobile to test-drive its all-new ’05 9-7X midsize SUV has hidden significance.

Quebec nearly seceded from Canada in 1995. With its French-speaking citizens and European-like social mores, Quebec is a unique entity within a large, predominately English-speaking country and has considerably different customs.

Long known for its low-volume sales and oddly shaped cars, Saab is unique within General Motors Corp., which assumed full ownership of the Sweden-based company in 2000.

While Saab lacks the power to separate from GM, it launched an ad campaign called “The State of Independence” earlier this year to attempt to quell fears its quirkiness is disappearing into a GM bureaucratic black hole.

GM goofed big time last year when it rushed a thinly disguised Subaru WRX into Saab’s lineup as the first major volley in an initiative – deemed vital to profitability – to increase Saab sales. The resulting 9-2X sport wagon, which carries over the majority of the down market Subaru’s interior, has been an utter failure.

That product-development mistake seemed destined to be repeated this year with Saab in line to get an SUV from GM’s GMT360 platform, which already has spawned vehicles for five brands – Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, Isuzu and Oldsmobile.

The body-on-frame platform is aged – it debuted in 2001 – and never has been regarded as the segment leader for ride and handling. Furthermore, the 9-7X’s competitors typically are smaller and predominantly use car-like unibody architectures.

The 9-7X, as a truck-based SUV, thus ventures into territory wholly foreign to Saab and its traditionally individualistic owners.

Many of Saab’s European competitors rushed to satisfy American buyers as they moved to SUVs, but those models were in most cases painstakingly developed from car platforms that are spiritually closer to their brands’ heritage.

As a result, the 9-7X will not convert critics of GM’s stewardship of the Saab brand, but it is an admirable effort at making a stale platform seem fresh.

The all-wheel-drive 9-7X is more differentiated than any of its GMT360 siblings. It is longer and wider than the Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. The length and width closely resemble the Buick Rainier. The wheelbase for all four models is identical.

The 9-7X’s platform is lowered 1 in. (2.5 cm). With an overall height of 68.5 ins. (174 cm), the 9-7X is not as tall as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Volvo XC90.

Additional braces have been placed between the cross members and frame, front anti-roll bars are larger, spring and shocks are firmer and the brakes are larger. To improve response, Saab stiffened the steering mount, decreased the steering-gear ratio and revised the shock absorber settings.

The engineering changes are tested here in a cruise along the St. Lawrence River, down the Beaupre coast, up the Adirondack mountains and through the Charlevoix plateau.

The heavy chassis revisions mean body roll is reduced significantly. Braking response is magnificent and brake dive is practically nonexistent. Control, firmness and confidence ooze through the brake pedal to the driver’s foot.

Steering is tauter, but still too vague. It lacks the level of feedback and precision expected of a Saab, or any vehicle in the 9-7X’s price range.

The Linear base model is priced at $38,990, while the up-level Arc begins at $40,990. (Notably, this is price territory already covered in GM’s lineup by the Rainier and Envoy.)

Weather-beaten by brutal winters, many roads here are rough. But the 9-7X’s stiffer but supple suspension does not batter occupants.

The 9-7X’s two engines also are offered with GM’s other midsize SUVs: GM’s 290-hp Vortec 4.2L inline 6-cyl. is standard. The optional 300-hp Vortec 5.3L OHV V-8 is outfitted with GM’s Displacement on Demand fuel-saving technology.

The fine engine lineup – though neither is true to Saab’s heritage for turbocharged 4-cyls. – delivers segment-competitive horsepower ratings.

Given the additional cost and the already high output figures of the naturally aspirated engines, GM decided against a turbocharged engine of any stripe.

Both engines, unfortunately, are mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission that works well enough, but with Euro-badge rivals now gunning with 5-, 6- and even 7-speed auto-shifters, the 4-speed hardly sends the message of “cutting edge.”

An important Saab characteristic also is missing from the 9-7X’s exterior – the “hockey stick” C-pillar. In fact, aft of the A-pillar, there is little to distinguish the 9-7X from its GM siblings. The 9-7X’s nose, however, adopts Saab cues, such as the horizontal headlamps and 3-port grille.

The interior represents the best styling differentiation of all the GM midsize SUVs. Even casual consumers will notice quirky Saab features.

These include the ignition switch located between the two front seats, a cupholder that pops out of the dashboard when pressed and vents equipped with knobs to control direction. Keener eyes will notice the center stack’s shape is inspired by the interior design of the old Saab 9000, which was replaced by the 9-5.

But another significant Saab trait, the cool, jet fighter-inspired Night Panel button that extinguishes nearly all interior lighting for optimum night driving, is absent.

Adding the feature would have required the electrical system to be reconfigured, and was deemed too expensive.

Unfortunately, there are disturbing traces of GM’s midsize SUV DNA everywhere. Many interior specifications for the 9-7X and TrailBlazer are identical.

The black, rubbery stereo and climate control buttons look too inexpensive for a luxury vehicle. The seats, while comfortable, appear to be no different than a TrailBlazer’s. And the carpet covers mysterious, presumably exhaust-system-accommodating lumps in the floor – namely in the front-passenger footwell and the center of the rear seats.

Saab hopes to sell 7,000-10,000 9-7Xs annually. And it probably will, just by corralling Saab diehards who have outgrown the brand’s passenger-car lineup.

But the 9-7X is not so strong on its own that it will cause consumers to stampede to the nearest Saab dealership.

That role might be filled by the 9-6X, a promising cross/utility vehicle based on the impressive Subaru B9 Tribeca that is due to hit the market next year. Sales of the 9-7X got under way in May.

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