When is a Saab not a genuine Swedish Saab? The answer is when it's the new Saab 9-2X station wagon, which is essentially a disguised Japanese Subaru Impreza wagon.
Call the 9-2X a "Saabaru" if you like, although Saab has made changes that make the 9-2X more swanky and refined than the popular Impreza wagon, with better ride and handling. The 9-2X also looks slicker because of such things as a Saab-style front end.
The iconoclastic Swedish Saab rarely was mistaken for another car, with such things as offbeat styling, front-drive, an ignition switch near the floor between the front seats and a hatchback body style offered long after hatch-backs fell from favor in America. (They're finally making a comeback.)
The Saab has been sold here since the early 1950s and has been a non-mainstream car mostly favored by Euro-centric individualists, although it was one of the safest, most sensible autos. It also often was fun to drive, and a convertible version was one of the trendiest cars in Los Angeles.
But the new 9-2X is something else. It's the first Saab to have all-wheel drive because that system is from the Subaru Impreza. That Subaru also supplies the basic station wagon body shell of the 9-2X, along with its engines and transmissions. The 9-2X is built by Subaru in Japan and is the first Saab competing in the "premium sports compact" market, which is predicted to triple in size by 2006.
Those are radical changes for Saab, which always insisted on designing its own cars. I visited Saab's design offices in Sweden near its assembly plant in the 1970s and felt as if I was in a small, sophisticated custom-car facility.
What's happening here? Nothing mysterious -- General Motors never has made a dime on Saabs since it bought the operation years ago. GM, which owns 20 percent of Subaru, is losing money on a worldwide basis and thus decided to broaden Saab's appeal with new and modified Saab models.
"The Saab 9-2X will help us continue our strong momentum," said Debra Kelly-Ennis, president of Saab Cars USA.
Say what? Saab is trying to dig its way out of a sales ditch. Saab U.S. sales last year totaled 38,159 cars -- about 10,000 less than in 2003. Saab's sales in America for the first two months this year also were lower than those in the comparable period last year.
GM is having its various worldwide car operations share a variety of components to help produce more models and thus generate profits, and GM Product Development Vice Chairman Bob Lutz decided GM must enable Saab "to grow its product range" to become profitable.
Lutz said Saab and Subaru would have "a natural relationship" because they shared a heritage of aircraft production before entering the auto business in the 1950s and "are renowned for their unconventional thinking. They [have] a rich history in technical innovations and a solid reputation for producing dynamic cars with a distinctive character."
What Lutz didn't say was that it would have taken Saab about five years to come up with a model such as the 9-2X on its own.
Subaru increasingly has become a lot more mainstream than Saab and sells far more cars, with 187,402 bought here last year. The new 9-2X shows Subaru might be a perfect Saab partner.
While the 9-2X shares the Impreza wagon's body shell, it adds a Saab-family front section from the windshield posts forward with such items as Saab's signature three-air-inlet grille. The rear end also was modified to give the wagon a wide, "powerful" stance.
Two 9-2X models are sold. They have Subaru's advanced all-wheel-drive and compact, Porsche-style four-cylinder engine. The base $22,990 Linear has a 2.5-liter engine with 165 horsepower that's a bit noisy during hard acceleration. The $26,950 Aero has the turbocharged 2-liter Impreza WRX engine with 227 horsepower and a sharky hood scoop.
The Aero is a hot rod (0-60 mph in 6.1 seconds), but its turbo lag causes throttle response to suffer and there's little punch below 3,000 rpm, especially with an automatic transmission. The base engine has no such lag and is best for most 9-2X buyers who don't regularly haul heavy cargo. It works most effectively with the manual gearbox, but is lively with the automatic.
Both engines are backed by a five-speed manual gearbox or responsive, $1,250 four-speed automatic transmission. Estimated fuel economy is 22-23 mpg in the city and 29 on highways with the base engine and 19-20 in the city and 25-26 on the highway with the turbo version.
The well-equipped Linear has air conditioning, tilt wheel, cruise control, manual height-adjustable driver seat, split-folding rear seat, AM/FM/CD player, rear defogger/wiper and power mirrors, windows and locks with remote keyless entry.
The Aero adds automatic climate control, in-dash 6-disc CD changer, fog lights and a sport suspension. It has the same 16-inch wheels as the Linear, but can be had with 17-inch wheels and wider tires in the $1,950 Sport package for sharper handling. That package includes a power sunroof, which costs $1,200 for the Linear.
The $600 Cold Weather package with heated front seats was appreciated in my test 9-2X, and a Premium package ($1,695 for Aero and $2,495 for Linear) has items including leather upholstery and powerful xenon headlights.
Safety items include anti-lock all-disc brakes that provide impressively short stops, torso-head protecting front side air bags and Saab's active seat head restraints to minimize whiplash injury.
The 9-2X shares its interior with the Impreza, but Subaru gives it an upscale look with such things as higher-grade upholstery and better carpeting and door trim.
Even the base 9-2X is fun, with modified steering that's quicker than the Impreza's, sharp handling with a retuned all-independent suspension and firm-but-compliant ride -- with Saab-added aluminum suspension arms and softer shock absorbers. Straight-line stability also trumps the Impreza's.
Saab added sound-deadening material that makes the 9-2X interior quieter than the Impreza's. Gauges are easily read and controls are nicely located and work well, except climate controls are notchy. It's hard to see radio station readouts with their murky green background. But Saab also added dual console cupholders that are positioned to avoid spills.
There's good room up front in supportive seats, but the rear is tight for adults, even with the front seats moved more than halfway forward. Back door openings should be wider for easier entry and exit.
The hatch opens easily to reveal a fairly large cargo area with a low, wide opening. Rear seatbacks sit flat when flipped forward to enlarge the cargo area from 27.9 cubic feet to 61.6 cubic feet.
One can look at the 9-2X as an upscale Impreza or as a sleek Saab with long-overdue all-wheel drive. The two 9-2X models cost more than comparable Impreza models, but the Saab does offer more for the money.
2005 SAAB 9-2X
Sharp handling. All-wheel drive. Cargo space. Handsome. Fast with turbo engine.
Tight back seat. Acceleration lag with turbo engine. Notchy climate controls.