- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

“Saab doesn’t build automobiles. Saab builds Saabs.”

For many years, those words described the quirky and unique Swedish automaker, which resolutely cleaved to one of its sales slogans: “Find your own road.”

Though never a major player in five decades in the U.S. market, Saab developed a loyal, occasionally zealous, following. It was one of the first modern manufacturers to offer front-wheel drive, and it gained its footing in this country with bup-bupping two-cycle engines that had only three cylinders.

Except for the Sonnett sports cars, Saabs always evidenced a practical bent, with roomy interiors and giant hatchbacks that could swallow davenports and beds.

If sometimes balky and expensive to maintain, which they were, they were forgiven because they were rewarding to drive.

The company started in Sweden as an aircraft manufacturer. But when the car division ultimately ran into bumps in the road, Saab sold that part to America’s General Motors, which turned out to be good news and bad news, depending on your point of view.

The good news is it now has the resources and experience of the world’s largest auto manufacturer. The bad news is the same, because GM has been struggling of late.

One of the company’s self-criticisms is that it needs to diversify its holdings, to give its automobile and truck lineup more specificity, instead of cloning additional cars and trucks by simply dressing existing models in new duds.

But that is precisely what it has done to Saab. First it brought out the Saab 9-2X, which is a dressed-up version of the WRX from Japan’s Subaru, a GM partner. The 9-2X is not only Saab’s first all-wheel drive model; it is the first to be built in Japan.

Now comes the 2006 Saab 9-7X, a mid-size, five-passenger truck-based sport utility vehicle, which is made in the USA and flies in the face of GM’s stated goal of product diversity. It is the fifth version of the same SUV; the others are the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier and Isuzu Ascender.

While this seems at cross-purposes for GM, it actually is a good thing for Saab. The company’s surveys show that four out of 10 Saab owners also own an SUV. Because Saab had nothing to offer, these usually affluent customers were forced to look elsewhere-perhaps to a Mercury Mountaineer or Volkswagen Touareg.

To both GM’s and Saab’s credit, Swedish engineers and designers were tasked to design the modifications — within limits, of course — to turn the Trail Blazer, et al, into the 9-7X. From the standpoint of looks and interior ambience, they succeeded.

The prow is unquestionably Saab, with its trademark grille and smoothly integrated bumper. Looked at from the rear, it is less distinguished, but at least looks different than its siblings.

Inside, in the driver’s seat, you’d swear you were in a 9-5, Saab’s flagship sedan. The instrument panel is similar, and the ignition keyhole is down on the console, where generations of Saab designers said it belonged. Interior comfort for four is first-rate, with large and supportive seats front and back. The center-rear seating position is shortchanged, but acceptable.

There also have been tweaks to the chassis and suspension system to give the 9-7X a more European feel and handling.

It was lowered an inch, suspension parts were stiffened, and the self-leveling rear suspension rides on air.

The result is a vehicle that handles crisply, for a truck. There’s little lean in hard cornering, and the 9-7X tracks true in straight-line driving, with a solid steering feel. However, all of this results in a choppy ride on uneven surfaces.

Two versions are available: for $38,990 you get the same 290 horsepower, 4.2-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine that powers the Trail Blazer and its clones. The other carries GM’s 5.3-liter V8, with 300 horsepower, and carries a sticker of $40,990. However, discounts are available.

The former can move the 9-7X from rest to 60 miles an hour in less than nine seconds, according to Saab, and the V8 can do it in about 7.5 seconds. Both are respectable in vehicles that weigh close to 2.5 tons. Fuel economy, for the most part, is in the teens.

However, the only transmission available is a four-speed automatic, where the competition features five, six and even seven-speed automatics.

It’s not a problem in day-to-day commuting, but the four-speed is forced to shift down and up repeatedly in hilly driving. Because Saab believes many of its potential customers will want to tow boats, a trailer hitch is part of the standard equipment.

Also standard on the tested V8 was a full load of luxury equipment, including leather upholstery, a motorized glass sunroof, adjustable pedals, XM satellite radio, GM’s OnStar communications system, a memory driver’s seat and automatic climate control.

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