Better late than never, but it seems odd that Sweden's Saab just recently introduced its first sport-utility vehicle -- considering that many of its car customers long have had an "active SUV lifestyle" that includes activities such as boating, camping, skiing and biking.
Saab built airplanes before beginning car construction in the late 1940s and has been selling autos in America since the 1950s. The tough, idiosyncratic Saab didn't approach mainstream vehicle status until recent years and still is mostly loved in the Northeast, partly because it does well in that area's rotten winter weather.
Saab long has been innovative -- it even put heated seats in its rally competition cars 50 years ago to save the weight of a heater so they'd go faster. It's done OK in the Midwest, but not in the Sun Belt area, and it hopes new models such as the 9-7X will enhance its appeal in warm-weather states. 2006 SAAB 9-7X
General Motors owns Saab and wants to increase Saab vehicle sales and mainstream appeal without losing the outfit's unique personality, which draws repeat buyers. The fact that Saab had no sport-utility vehicle and that nearly 40 percent of Saab car owners parked an SUV in their garage showed that a Saab SUV would make a lot of sense.
"We also found that nearly 30 percent of Saab customers who leave the Saab brand buy a four-door SUV," Saab product manager Keith Coultrap said here in an interview. "The 9-7X thus promises to cut down on the number of people who leave Saab for other brands."
Coultrap said the number of SUVs is projected to increase to 850,000 units annually in America by 2010, compared to 483,000 last year and only 50,000 in 1997
The 2005 9-7X went on sale only this spring, and Saab plans to sell up to 10,000 9-7X models in the vehicle's first full year on the U.S. market. That would be a modest number for a large automaker, but Saab is a fairly small outfit.
The 9-7X shares its basic design with the mid-size Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV (and similar Buick Rainier and GMC Envoy). But Saab has made cosmetic and mechanical changes that give it a definite Saab appearance and driving personality. The lowered sport-tuned chassis conveys the performance orientation and refinement of a Saab, rather than the ruggedness of a traditional SUV.
"Many of our customers know that regular mid-size SUVs have compromises when it comes to ride, cornering and braking. But the 9-7X is refined -- it won't beat you up and is fun to drive," said former Chicago area Saab dealer Bob Halpern, who sells Saabs at Scott Saab near St. Petersburg, Fla.
The 9-7X looks like a sporty Saab. It sits appreciably lower than a TrailBlazer and has Saab's signature "three-hole" grille, low horizontal headlights that wrap into the front fenders and rear quarter windows that appear to wrap around the rear roof pillars.
The 9-7X also has distinctive 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels that hold Dunlop all-season tires specially designed for the 9-7X Slick-looking body sides have no extraneous items such as body cladding, and there are unique vertically stacked tail lights that appear to be precision-crafted. Even the roof rails visually integrate with the vehicle's upper contours, accentuating and extending the profile.
Saab owners should feel at home in the quiet, roomy, aircraft-oriented wood-and-leather interior. It's got a Saab-designed instrument panel with controls angled toward the driver and Saab design elements, including a center console ignition switch and air vents with a sliding-plate design. However, the vertical cupholder that folds out from the dashboard and accompanies the conventional console cupholder has an awkward design.
The 9-7X features rugged body-on-frame SUV construction, but isn't designed for tough off-road use. However, it's stable on all sorts of roads. It has a stiffened chassis, advanced all-wheel-drive, electronic stability control system, limited-slip differential and powerful brakes.
Making this carlike SUV fun to drive are quicker steering, firmer springs and shock absorbers with larger front anti-sway bars and electronically controlled rear air suspension. The large, powerful anti-lock brakes have good pedal feel.
Safety features include a rollover sensing system and head curtain side air bags. Knee bolsters provide lower body protection in a crash.
Power flows from GM's 290-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine (up from 275 in 2005) or a 300-horsepower V-8, which was in my test 2006 9-7X. Both stout engines provide solid acceleration, although the V-8 has more torque and thus more towing ability. It also has a fuel-saving feature that seamlessly switches to four-cylinder mode during such driving conditions as highway cruising.
The automatic transmission is responsive, but is only a four-speed unit instead of a more modern five-speed automatic.
Fuel economy is average for a mid-size SUV: an estimated 15 mpg in the city and 21 on highways with the six-cylinder engine and 15 and 19 with the V-8.
Even the base six-cylinder 9-7X is loaded with so much equipment that its only extras are a power sunroof and rear DVD entertainment system.
The 2005 9-7X comes as the $38,270 Linear with the six-cylinder engine and as the Arc with the V-8, which adds power-adjustable pedals and xenon headlights with washers. Saab says 2006 pricing will be little changed and has dropped those arcane designations; the new six-cylinder model is called the 9-7X 4.2i and the V-8 version is called the 9-7X 5.3i.
The 9-7X is among several new Saabs to be introduced in the near future as GM seeks to make the Swedish automaker more of a household word.
Roomy. Solid. Sporty. Upscale interior. Good roadability. All-wheel drive. Unique.
Average SUV fuel economy. Only a four-speed automatic transmission. Awkward auxiliary pop-out dashboard cupholder.