Saab wants to branch out, to expand its appeal beyond its tried and true, almost cult-like following. It wants a more affordable, sportier car, one that can compete in the promising premium sport compact market, with the likes of the Acura RSX and the Volvo S40, maybe even with a new, smaller Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Problem is, Saab doesn't have a lot of extra cash lying around. But it does have a distant relative, one located halfway around the world, that builds a car that's the right size, with a de-bugged powertrain that includes something Saab doesn't have but that's becoming increasingly desirable to Saab's desired buyer: all-wheel drive. That relative is Subaru, partly owned by General Motors, which owns Saab. The car is the Subaru WRX, a de-tuned, street-legal version of a World Rally Championship winner. As is, the WRX is too rough and unrefined for Saab, but with careful modifications to suspension and interior fitments and incorporation of Saab-specific design elements, it might give the company a contender pending something better to come.
From this has come the 2005 Saab 9-2X. It looks like a Saab. It establishes a new, lower cost of entry for people who want to own a Saab. It adds a lighter, more powerful, more compact, sportier package to Saab's line up. What more could buyers want?
Well, how about a car that feels like a Saab, with the polish and refinement buyers to whom owning a Saab is a statement of status expect. One that delivers a fully integrated, satisfying driving experience regardless of setting and conditions, of road, climate and context. Just as important, one in which Saab owners will feel immediately at home, perfectly comfortable and at ease with how the car fits them, with all the right tactile and visual feedbacks.
Against these measures, the 9-2X comes up short, not by a lot in all areas, but by enough in enough areas that people who want a Saab and all that a Saab has come to mean should think long and hard before signing on the dotted line.
Saab 9-2X Linear ($22,990); Saab 9-2X Aero ($26,950)
If the Saab 9-2X looks vaguely familiar, it should. Save for the front end, the liftgate and the rear bumper, the body panels come directly from the 2004 Subaru WRX (as does virtually everything beneath the skin, but more on this later). Still, Saab's designers have managed to imbue their knock-off with distinctly Saab cues.
It's not quite a rhinoplasty, but the 9-2X's front end presents a sleeker look than its Asian progenitor. The hood begins its deeper slope from a lower leading edge, which sports a laid-back, Saab-trademark, three-segment grille, with dividers and headlight housings angled from the center outward, giving the car a sharper, more aerodynamic and less brutish fascia. Headlights wrap all the way around the fenders, ending in gently up-swept side marker lights. Beneath the bumper, a large opening directs air to the radiator, the Linear's smaller and less domineering than that on the Aero. A somewhat modest scoop in the Aero's hood feeds air to the turbocharger's intercooler.
From the side, the 9-2X's lineage is outlined in stark relief. There's nothing like it in the Saab stable. It's not quite a station wagon, but neither is it a five-door hatchback. The sloping nose almost leaves it looking a little tail heavy, with a disproportionate mass over and behind the rear wheels. Front and rear overhangs are contained, promising a sportier car than the body otherwise suggests.
The back end looks less of a compromise than the side view. The wrap-around rear quarter glass softens the boxy look common even to sport wagons, while the stacked-lens taillights bring just enough of a Saab look to comfort the concerned. The roof-mounted, eyebrow-like rear spoiler serves two functions, minimizing rear lift and housing the center brake light.
Sadly, there's as much, if not more WRX inside the 9-2X as there is outside. Not that the Subaru's is a particularly unfriendly interior, just that Saabs are known for people-oriented cabins, and the 9-2X comes up a bit short of that standard.
Saab did adapt the WRX's front seats to accept Saab-developed active head restraints. But seats lack the thigh support and bolstering consistent with the sporty driving the 9-2X promises, especially the Aero, and there's no lumbar adjustment. Driver legroom is adequate for a six footer, but front-seat passenger and rear-seat legroom isn't. With the front seats all the way back, it's easy to bang an elbow on the rear of the front door frame. Upholstery and other fabrics look and feel durable, that covering the seats like a soft canvas, and the leather surfaces are, well, leather. The center console cover is located too low and too far rearward to support an elbow.
Save for some cosmetics, the dash is unchanged from the WRX, with the instruments deep-set beneath a hood shading them from the sun's glare. Center-most of the three is a large, round speedometer, running up to 120 miles per hour in the Linear, to 140 mph in the Aero. To the left is a combination fuel and water temperature gauge. To the right is the tachometer, redlined at 6200 revolutions per minute in the Linear, at 7000 rpm in the Aero. The three dials are rimmed in polished metal in the Aero, in monochromatic black in the Linear. If the instrument cluster weren't enough of a giveaway to the 9-2X's WRX roots, directly atop the steering column is an auxiliary parking light switch that's a Subaru fixture.
The center stack houses the stereo control head, situated above the climate control knobs and beneath the two center air vents; truly disappointing are the last, which are everyday, horizontal vanes backed by vertical directionals, instead of the delightful and infinitely adjustable, aircraft-like, multi-layer registers unique to Saabs. Climate control knobs are large and round with good feel. The C-stack flows smoothly into the center console, over a covered ashtray with the 9-2X's sole power outlet, a cigar lighter. The digital clock squints out of the center of the dash above the C-stack.
Outward visibility is good, better than expected, actually, thanks to the sloping hood in front and the wrap-around rear quarter windows. Rear door windows roll about two-thirds of the way down. Front seat occupants each have a cup holder, and front doors have molded map pockets, but there are no storage bins on the back of the front seats, nor any map pockets on rear doors. The liftgate opens to clear six feet and has an inside pull-down. A space-saver spare is stored beneath the rear cargo floor under a sound-deadening foam pad. Lift-over is comfortably low, and there are tie-downs for awkward cargo.
Overall fit and finish is good, if not excellent. No buzzes, squeaks or rattles marred the test cars, comprising a Linear with automatic transmission and an Aero with manual gearbox.
The 9-2X is fun to drive, not a blast, nor as much fun as the Saab 9-3, but fun, nonetheless.
The steering wheel is the right thickness and size. Response to inputs is good, if a bit over-assisted at speed in the Aero. The automatic transmission's upshifts are subtle, but it could hold lower gears longer on grades, both going uphill and downhill. The five-speed manual would allow better use of the Linear's power, although, oddly, the EPA-estimated miles per gallon for city driving is actually 1 mpg less with the manual.
The Aero's turbocharger doesn't kick in until around 3000 rpm, and then with a surge, albeit an easily manageable one, thanks to the all-wheel drive, a first for Saab and unchanged from the WRX. The manual transmission's gear ratios are spaced well for the most part, but there's enough of a jump between fourth and fifth that the lower gear is better for most circumstances, reserving fifth for steady-state, interstate cruising. Shifts are clean and certain. Clutch take-up is smooth.
Both models feel firmly planted at speeds into low triple-digit figures, but the Aero is the more confident at high speeds and when pushed on winding roads. This is a credit to its tauter suspension tuning and more aggressive tires. Also, the Aero's abundant drivetrain sounds (gear whine, engine intake and the like) are a mixed blessing; some drivers will find it entertaining, while others may consider it an irritant.
Brakes perform well, with solid feel and no noticeable fade after many miles of rapid motoring through southern California foothills.
More road noise than expected in a Saab penetrated the cabin on both models, and the Aero's tires set up a thrumming sound on some surfaces. The moonroof created some wind noise, although minimal buffeting when open. And the air conditioning strains in very hot climates. Even in temperate zones, it regularly shifts to re-circulation mode to keep the cabin cooled to comfortable temperatures.
All-wheel drive in a Saab is new. A turbocharged engine isn't. The two combined make a tempting package.
But Saab says the 9-2X will be short lived, that it's really just a placeholder in the highly competitive premium sport compact market so the company won't be left behind while it works on a true Saab entry, developed and designed front to rear, top to bottom and inside and out in house. The 9-2X is not that. It's neither a Saab nor a Subaru, but an uncomfortable, almost forced compromise, more of a softened, re-badged WRX than a tidier, sporty Saab.