- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Sweden’s Saab once was an independent car company that hooked buyers with very specialized bait. Any Saab was like nothing else out there.

The saying was, “Saab doesn’t build cars; it builds Saabs.” In its first venture into the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Saab — the name stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, originally an aircraft manufacturer — competed with the old Volkswagen Beetle.

Its small cars had front-wheel drive when virtually everything else had rear-wheel drive. They were powered by three-cylinder, two-cycle engines, so owners had to pour oil into the fuel tank instead of the crankcase. Over the years, Saab continued many of its funky ways, recently telling prospective buyers, “Find your own road.”

Now Saab is owned by General Motors, the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer, and it is casting its nets ever wider to snare larger numbers of customers, using American and Japanese as well as Swedish bait.

In addition to its Swedish-built 9-3 and 9-5 models, Saab is developing the 9-7X, a large, American-built sport utility vehicle based on the Chevrolet Trail Blazer.

Of more immediate interest is the 2005 9-2X, the smallest and least expensive model in the lineup, and Saab’s first all-wheel-drive car.

However, it is a Saab in refinement only. It is built in Japan and is based in all its essentials on the Subaru Impreza and WRX models from Fuji Heavy Industries. The idea, Saab’s executives say, was to take a good car and make it even better, and they have, in large measure, succeeded.

Subaru itself has been on an upscale road of late, touting its standard all-wheel drive and its dedication to horizontally opposed engines — an affinity it has shared in recent years only with Germany’s Porsche. An H4, also called a boxer engine, has its cylinders lying supine on both sides of the crankshaft, instead of standing up or leaning as in standard four-cylinder, V-6 or V-8 engines. The H4 has the advantage of better inherent balance. It also is easily adaptable to all-wheel drive and lies low in the engine bay to provide an overall lower center of gravity for the vehicle.

The downside is that, all other things equal, most H engines have slightly higher fuel consumption than their V and in-line cousins. But it has not been on a scale to cause much concern.

Subaru has done an admirable job of developing its H4 and H6 engines, which are sturdy, smooth, quiet and powerful. The base H4 is a 165-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine that powers everything from the low-priced Impreza to the Legacy and Outback sedans and wagons. Several notches up the power scale is a turbocharged, 227-horsepower, 2.0-liter H4 that powers the hot WRX sports sedan and wagon.

Saab has taken both of those engines, along with their five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions, and incorporated them into the new 9-2X, which comes only as a handsome four-door wagon or hatchback, depending on your definition. The 165-horsepower engine goes into the 9-2X Linear and the turbo engine powers the 9-2X Aero.

Though more expensive than the Impreza sport wagon from which it is derived, the new 9-2X pays dividends in handling, style, silence and overall refinement. Whether that justifies a near-$3,000 premium is for a prospective owner to decide, though Saab customers likely come from a different place than do Subaru enthusiasts.

The tested Saab 9-2X Aero, with the turbo engine and a five-speed stick shift, had a base sticker price of $27,645. That compares with $24,670 for a Subaru WRX sport wagon.

The Aero’s base price includes antilock brakes and electronic brake force distribution, side airbags, automatic climate control, a sport-tuned suspension system, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, fog lights, alloy wheels, remote locking, and power windows and outside mirrors. The test car had a $1,950 option package that included a motorized sunroof and 17-inch wheels with high-performance tires.

The Saab designers and engineers have worked hard to differentiate the 9-2X from the WRX, with a good deal of tuning in the steering and suspension system to optimize the handling and ride, as well as to add sound deadening materials and different sheet metal.

Front to back, the 9-2X looks like a Saab, not a Subaru. In front, it has Saab’s signature three-orifice grille, and the back has a more integrated look than that of the WRX Subaru.

At Saab, the main visual difference between the base 9-2X Linear and the more powerful Aero model is that the latter has a functional hood scoop to feed air to the turbocharger and intercooler.

Both cars have a solid, planted feel and are remarkably quiet, with virtually no wind noise and muted engine and road sounds. The interiors are done up in quality materials, including optional leather upholstery. However, drivers who dislike sticky thighs in the summer and cold buttocks in the winter would do well to consider the superb standard cloth in the Aero model.

On the tested five-speed Aero, the only negative was turbo lag off the line, which could be mitigated only by gunning the engine and slipping the clutch. That’s necessary if you want to achieve Saab’s claimed 0-60 acceleration time of six seconds. The lag is less with the automatic transmission, but of course it’s a bit slower to 60.

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