Another happy 9-2x reviewer

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here and now – I am still yet to read a bad review of the 9-2x.  All the negative commentary is coming from the die-hards that like me, have probably never seen one, let alone driven one.  I’m really, really looking forward to the possibility of an all-new 9-2x, which being specially developed with Saab involvement from the ground-up, will hopefully be offered on a global basis rather than just in the North American market.

This review is from Auto123 in (Oh) Canada, (my wife’s) home and native land…..

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The cynics, yours truly included, were lined up ten deep when General Motors announced their new premium compact Saab 9-2X. Not only would this be the first Saab manufactured outside of Sweden, and the first Saab with all of its wheels being driven, but this would also be the first Saab exclusively built for us North Americans.

Any questions from the floor? You bet.

Like: Isn’t the 9-2X just an Impreza in drag? Can a car built by Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan–makers of Subarus–really be considered a Saab? Based on a four-year old platform, can the 9-2X compete against fresher metal like Acura’s TSX ($34,900), Volvo’s V50 T5 AWD ($38,995), Audi’s A3 2.0 ($32,830 for the front-wheel-drive model) or eventually the BMW 1 Series? And finally, is the $2,240 premium that our top-of-the-range Saab 9-2X Aero test car carries over a Subaru WRX wagon worth it?

We’ll see.

First, a brief history lesson.

Audi launched its Volkswagen Golf-based A3 in Europe in 1996 and immediately had a sales hit on their hands with those wanting a prestige badge without the prestige price. Of course, other manufacturers immediately jumped on this profitable bandwagon, so before you can say MINI Cooper, the "premium compact" segment was born.

What’s so "premium" about the Saab 9-2X?

Starting with the 9-2X’s exterior looks, everything from the A-pillars forward are new duds, led by Saab’s signature three-hole grille. Only the roof, doors, and rear quarter-panels are shared with the Subaru. And look Ma, no roof rails, which are standard on the WRX wagon. Outback, there are cleaner tail lamps, a bumper with a black diffuser, and a new hatch that includes the license plate. If you are not fond of the Impreza’s frog-like styling, the Scandinavian makeover might yank your crank.

Part of Saab’s strategy to "premuimize" the Impreza was to quiet down the raucous rally-bred beast. Thicker carpet, new sealing for the rear quarter-trim and hatch, a new rear engine mount, and acoustical treatments on the roof and rear floor, toe boards, fenders, and shift boot all help in the hush department.

Forget about such Saab traditions as the between-the-seats ignition, the jet cockpit-inspired "night panel", or famously comfortable Saab seats. If you’ve been inside a WRX, then the Momo-designed leather steering wheel, shifter, and manually adjustable front seats will all have a familiar air about them–save the Saab badges.

Our car had a two-tone scheme that helped give the impression that the Saab was, well, more premium. However, originally, this was an economy ride, and remember, an old one at that. Unlike the physical design and material differences between the mainstream compact Mazda3 and the premium Volvo V50, the too-similar bones of the Impreza donor car come shining through the 9-2X a little too brightly.

Also unlike Ford’s strategy of offering different drivetrains in the Mazda3 and V50 platform-mates, if you pop the hood on the Saab 9-2X Aero you’ll find a WRX clone. Same 227 horsepower, 217 pound-feet of torque 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four; same five-speed manual; same all-wheel-drive system. The base model 9-2X Linear ($28, 950) even gets the Impreza’s 165 horsepower, 166 pound-feet of torque 2.5-litre unblown flat-four.

The engine’s youthful spirit (i.e. loud and proud) works in a sports compact legend like the WRX. But in this so-called premium compact segment, 
something a little more refined, like the just-as-torquey turbo-five in the Volvo V50 T5 is more, well, premium.

Where we finally see some real Scandinavian influence is in the suspension bits. Wanting better on-center feel and straight-line stability than the hyper WRX, Saab’s engineers added toe-in for the front wheels. And in classic Euro fashion, Subaru’s strut suspension was reworked with firmer springs, and softer dampers, plus 10mm-shorter rear bump stops, and stiffer front control-arm bushings. Saab stiffened the steering-gear mounting for better feedback and response, and on the Aero, replaced the WRX’s off-the-rack steering rack in lieu of the rally-car replica Subaru WRX STi’s ($47,995), lowering the ratio in the process.

The result is that the Saab provides a smoother ride than the Subaru, taking our worst potholes in-stride and is laser-straight at ticket-attracting speeds. The steering is good in the WRX; it’s great in the 9-2X Aero. Sharp turn-in with lots of on-centre feel. The 9-2X does all this and still retains the WRX’s explosive power, all-wheel drive grip and class-busting handling prowess. Where a sport-suspended V50 will try to sting the road, the 9-2X Aero floats like a butterfly.

Much more than a rebadged WRX, the 2005 Saab 9-2X Aero is definitely a step up, especially in the ride and handling improvements. And the last "real" Saab was the 900 last seen in 1993, so that fact that the 9-2X is not 100 per cent Swedish, fuhgeddaboutit. But as a competitor in the burgeoning premium compact segment, the smallest Saab needs a new platform and genuine drivetrain distinctiveness to better Volvo’s V50 or future combatants.

Consider that the 9-2X Aero model is couple of grand more than a base Saab 9-3 Linear sedan, and almost identically priced to the faster and more refined Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT wagon. Hmmm…

But if you want the best riding and steering (and, subjectively, best looking) WRX to date, plus the added 4 year/80,000 kms Saab warranty, then you and your accountant/spouse can decide if the premium price of the 9-2X over the Subaru is worth it.

Anymore questions?

– John LeBlanc is an Ottawa-based automotive critic and publisher of www.straight-six.com

2005 SAAB 9-2X Aero

Vehicle type: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon

Base price: $37,735

Price as tested: $38,135 (Options: $300; Air-tax: $100)

Warranty: 4 years/80,000 kms

Engine: Turbocharged and intercooled 1994cc flat-4, double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, aluminum block and heads, 227-hp @ 6,000 rpm, 217 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic optional

4-wheel-drive system: Full time with a viscous limited-slip center differential

Suspension: Front: ind, strut located by a control arm, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear: ind, strut located by 1 trailing link and 2 lateral links, coil springs, anti-roll bar

Brakes: Hydraulic with vacuum power assist and anti-lock control. Front: vented disc. Rear: disc

Wheel size/type: 7.0 x 17 in/cast aluminum

Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak WS50, 215/45R-17 87W

Wheelbase: 2,525 mm (99.4 in)

Length: 4,460 mm (175.6 in)

Width: 1,695 mm (66.7 in)

Height: 1,465 mm (57.7 in)

Curb weight: 1,442 kg (3,256 lb)

Curb weight per kilogram: 6.35 kg

Fuel capacity: 60L (13.2 gal)

Fuel consumption: City: 12.1L/100 kms (23 mpg); Highway: 8.3L/100 kms (34 mpg)

Fuel type: Premium gasoline recommended

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