Someone looking for a fun to drive small 5 door sport wagon with a European flair
Comparable cars in this class:
Audi A4 Avant, Subaru Impreza Wagon
Saab 9-2x Delivers Speed, AWD, Guts...and a Hatch!
To the casual looker, theres nothing obviously Saab about the new 9-2X except for its noble Scandinavian nose, but the companys dealers needed something to sell for under-30 grand to the under 30 showroom visitors who couldnt buck up for the larger, pricier 9-3 and 9-5.
There is also a small contingent of former Saab owners who insist on a versatile hatchback, absent from the line for a few years. So for a hatch, GM-owned Saab turned to corporate cousin Subaru, which is 20 percent owned by the General. From the hatchery, Saab fished out the sensible Japanese-built Impreza 5-door with a 165-hp horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine and the Impreza WRX model with its hi-po optional engine with 227 turbocharged horses.
By adapting and Saab-izing the Imprezas, the Saab stable now includes an entry-level auto intended to bring back some of the excommunicated hatchlings as well as to entice shoppers to become first-time Saab owners. They could have done worse, especially considering that CEO Peter Augustsson admits that modifying the Impreza to Saab specs was a relatively easy fix to achieve short-term marketing goals. The company expects to easily sell all 8,000 units in the U.S. and Canada this year, and make a profit doing it.
Full-Time AWD Really Works
The Linear starts under $23,700. The upscale Aero can be had for about $27,000, but enough options can be checked to load it up to $33,000. Both feel solid and strong, and both feature full-time all-wheel-drive for surefootedness and safety. This feature they got right; it really works, whether with the 50 front/50 rear split or the variable power-split systems supplied with some models and transmission choices.
The most obvious change from Impreza is right in your face, and thats the cars face. The designers ran the Imprezas hood and grille through the morphing machine a few times and came up with ... a smiling Saab face, large as life. But as for the rest of the package, it still has the proportions of a bumblebee, albeit with more buzz.
A spoiler is nicely integrated into the trailing edge of the roof, but trying to hide the Subie origins with a roof spoiler is like trying to disguise an elephant by plopping a baseball cap on its head. The taillights and liftgate do, however, resemble those of the 9-5 wagon. The hood scoop on the Aero is less obtrusive than the WRXs, but still flows the same amount of air. Under the skin are many suspension improvements, and in your ear is better soundproofing.
The company brags of interior upgrades, but more conspicuous is the one Aero downgrade from the WRX. Thats the front seats, which have been down-specked from excellent, contoured, brazenly-bolstered racing seats to merely very good, less severely-profiled thrones.
What wasnt changed is the entire drive train from engine to transmission, although somehow the animalistic urgency of the WRXs acceleration has been subdued. The transformation has in no way tamed Rex, but has smoothed the power delivery so that launching and accel-pedal mashing are less-explosive experiences. Any Saab owner taking a test drive will, however, immediately know that the lower-case x is like no other prior Saab except the late Viggen.
The power comes courtesy of a compact, vibration-free boxer engine which makes 165 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque from 2.5 liters in the Linear, and 227/217 in the 2-liter turbocharged dohc Aero. Linears weigh under 3200 pounds; Aeros under 3300 pounds, making the Linear very quick and the Aero f-a-s-t!
Performance With Comfort
Other changes were made to lighten the suspension, and on the Aero, to tighten it. Im glad to report that getting this incremental performance and safety do not come with the penalty of an uncomfortable ride. The performance from the stubby little auto is the kind of performance you can feel and not merely measure with instruments. Trying it out on your favorite twisty road or stretch of rough pavement will leave no doubt that Nine-Two Exxes are performance vehicles.
The Bridgestone rubber held onto the scariest curves, gripping like an octopus opening a clam. As chassis designer/engineer Per Jansson explained, tires are one-third of the equation that determines road performance, traction, braking, and cornering. Wringing out the Aero on some very scary San Diego County mountain roads, I was quite aware that the rubber was all that lay between me and eternity and eternity loomed very close. The G-forces generated during this thrill ride are usually felt only on a race track, not on pavement bordering deep canyons. Sorry, but I guess I have to warn you to not try this at home.
The Bridgestone Potenzas with their proprietary internal sidewall stiffeners were tailored to the suspension to provide valuable feedback under all conditions. Linears come with RE92s in P205/55/ R16V, considered to be all-season. Optional on Aeros are Potenza RE011 215/45 R17 ultra hi-performance summer tires.
Later in the day, back at sea level, on a tight low-speed slalom course and on a higher-speed layout, I was able to pursue the actual limits of the little scrambler, this time with no cliffs and no traffic to fear. The x responded to throttle steering with no scariness. Only purposeful prodding could overcome the stickiness of the suspension/tire team and even then, the drifting was easily controlled. (Please, no practicing on public roads.)
The significance to the everyday commuter is that you have to try very, very hard to get into trouble in this Saab. The Exxes have ABS, but no stability control nor traction control mechanisms because AWD and superb handling make mechanical and software servo intrusions unnecessary.
Linear or Aero?
The Linear can beat the Aero off the line, but within a half block, the sprint belongs to the Aero. The Aero did 0-60 in under seven seconds, but using less car-friendly techniques would cut the time down by at least a second. At high speeds on a pre-arranged course, the Aero closed in on 135 and had lots more go left in the engine. Again, for the average commuter who isnt on a Wyoming highway, the significance is that there is plenty of reserve power if needed in an emergency or when executing a quick pass.
The two models have the same silhouette and the same interior space Saab claims 28 cubic feet of cargo space with back seats up, and 61 cubic feet with seats folded -- but Aero is a little richer looking indoors, and has more sound deadening all around. The back seats in both are reasonably comfortable for a compact car. Headroom is above average, but the middle-seat passenger sits higher and harder. One drawback is that the designers forgot to allow toe room under the front seats.
Aero also has a lighter, stiffer suspension, quicker steering, climate control, and 6-CD changer standard, among other features. Both models have a neat 5-speed manual transmission standard, and a 4-speed automatic as an option. Oh yes, there are aluminum bezels on the instruments, and the pedals are bright aluminum to remind you that you paid more. [Dont read the next sentence if you live in Florida.] Optional on both are heated seats, mirrors, and wipers.
Everything is warranted for four years or 50,000 miles, with free roadside assistance for the same period. Too bad, AAA. In addition, all scheduled maintenance is free for two years or 24,000 miles.
The gummint says you can expect mileage of 22/29 with manual in the Linear, and 23/29 with the automatic; 20/26 with manual in the Aero, and 19/25 with auto. Dual front airbags and side airbags for the front seat are standard, as are active front head restraints.
Q: How can a Saab not be a Saab but still be a Saab? A.: When its a Saabaru.
9-2xs are not meant to be parked. They are drivers cars. The Aero version is as quick as the lamented extinct 9-3 Viggen, but the charm lies not in looks but in zoom and in value. This stealth rocket will have you whooping Yahoo, Saabaru!
Joel Levin writes about autos, wine and food, entertainment, and travel. CopyrightJoel Levin 2004