Another 9-2x review

This one’s fun. You’d think it was a brand new model about to be released instead of one that’s been around for a year or so.

And I love this caption beneath the photo: In this undated photo provided by Saab, the 2005 Saab 9-2X is displayed in an unknown location.

From ‘The Day‘.

When word broke that Saab would sell a revised version of the all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza wagon, brand loyalists responded with outrage and despair. Surely this was a bonehead move on the part of General Motors, which owns all of Saab and 20 percent of Subaru.

Why would Saab dealers want to sell a Subaru? And why would anyone go to a Saab store to buy a Subaru?

Actually, GM’s reasoning was sound. The company wants to grow its Swedish brand in North America, and accomplishing that requires pumping up Saab’s product portfolio, competing in new market segments and attracting a fresh crop of Saab buyers.

That said, what could be more natural for a Scandinavian automaker than an all-wheel-drive car? And what better source for all-wheel-drive technology than corporate sibling Subaru, a company that deals exclusively in AWD vehicles.

The Saab 9-2X will compete in the emerging “premium compact segment,” where current players include the Acura RSX and Volvo S40, and future players include the Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and maybe the BMW 1-Series.

According to Saab research, 40 percent of all Americans want their next vehicle to have all-wheel drive — a feature that’s standard in every 9-2X and sure to give Saab an advantage.

As for the 9-2X’s target customers, Saab aims for budget-conscious young buyers eager to get into a European luxury car. With prices starting at $22,990, the 9-2X should be well within their reach.

The 9-2X comes in two models: the Linear ($22,990), powered by Subaru’s normally aspirated, 165-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; and the Aero ($26,950), with Subaru’s turbo-charged, 227-horsepower, 2.0-liter WRX four-cylinder. Both engines come mated to a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic is optional.

In the 9-2X, these engines retain all their Subaru traits, with one key exception. Saab loaded the cockpit with so much sound insulation, the boxer four’s raspy bleating has been all but rendered inaudible.

My 9-2X tester was an Aero with a five-speed manual — the enthusiast’s choice — which Saab says can scoot from 0-60 mph in a hair over 6 seconds. While the shifter felt a bit notchy and reluctant, it effectively put every shred of horsepower and torque at my disposal, enabling me to dive into corners with something similar to grace.

Saab has removed all the sloppiness from the Impreza’s steering response. The steering in the 9-2X is quick, and the car feels crisp and predictable during cornering, even on semitame Bridgestone 205/55 R16 tires. (215/45 R17s are available on the Aero.) Wind noise was well muted, though tire roar was pronounced.

The 9-2X’s well-tuned chassis is nearly identical to that of the Impreza/WRX. However, Saab engineers modified the suspension — stiffening the springs, recalibrating the shock valving and softening the bushings. They put aluminum wishbones in front to reduce weight, and anti-roll bars fore and aft. The result is a more refined and isolated ride than in the Subaru.

On the outside, the 9-2X looks like a cross between a Subaru and a Saab. It gets its Saabish personality from a three-inlet Saab grill, horizontal wraparound headlamps and a steeply raked C-pillar (which calls to mind the 9-5 wagon).

Inside, the 9-2X is more Subaru than Saab. Absent are all of Saab’s signature traits (some call them quirks), such as the center console-mounted ignition, its unusual AC vents and a pop-out butterfly cup holder.

Instead, the ignition resides on the side of the steering column, and the switches, controls, AC vents and cup holders are straight out of a Subaru Impreza.

To its credit, Saab has improved the Impreza’s down-market cabin with upgraded seat and dash materials, a reshaped center stack and a smart new three-spoke steering wheel adorned with the Griffin logo.

The front seats are comfortable, but (according to my daughter) the rear seat backs are too upright and the rear door openings too small.

Although the Saab 9-2X Aero costs about $3,000 more than the Subaru WRX, Saab has added so many improvements and upgrades (and offers a better warranty and two years of free maintenance), that the 9-2X Aero represents a pretty good deal. It’s the best WRX you can buy.

The 9-2X’s best prospects lie with Saab virgins — first-time Saab buyers unburdened by preconceived notions of what a Saab should be.

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