Driven: 9-4X the next step in Saab's future

While boardroom negotiations continue with Chinese investors, Saab's public face continues with business as usual. With funding for its crucial new Phoenix platform yet to be secured and the latest deal with Hawtai having fallen through, the immediate future of the company rests on its current model range – now broadened with the introduction of the 9-4X crossover.

By Saab's own admission this is a vehicle aimed at the lucrative US market, and the 9-4X shares much of its structure with the Cadillac SRX. But the Swedish engineers and designers are at pains to point out just how much of the car is their work alone, and after spending two days behind the wheel it's fair to say that it doesn't come across as a thinly-disguised Yank tank.

For starters the exterior design is recognisably Saab. As well as pinching the best styling cues from the 9-5 saloon such as the 'ice-block' head and tail lamps, three-part grille and the reflector strip at the rear, it has the thick, hockey stick profile rear pillar and blacked-out front pillars.

Although it’s obviously a big car it still manages to look comfortable with its size. Saab says its key rival is the Audi Q5, and as well as being a little larger inside and out, it has that car well beaten in terms of looks.

The 9-4X is a strict five-seater inside, but the space is used very well. Up front there is a good view out and lots of room, while in the rear there is plenty of head and legroom with a good high seating position and lots of light.

More impressive is the amount of storage space: there are double door bins, a huge two-level glovebox and clever touches like cupholders that adjust to suit two heights of cup. Saab has clearly put in a lot of effort to make all the space usable, including a handy storage area beneath the boot floor that also houses the adaptable boot divider.

Underneath, the 9-4X uses mostly 9-5 hardware including the four-wheel drive system, automatic gearbox and the 2.8-litre twin turbocharged V6 petrol engine. US buyers also have the choice of the naturally aspirated 3.0-litre unit, but in the UK there will be just the single engine and high specification trim level. That means the 9-4X is a quick car – almost 300bhp gives a 0-62mph time of 8.6 seconds, but the inevitable cost is fuel economy.

We drove the 9-4X even before the official consumption tests had been completed, but the Saab engineers expected a combined figure of around 23mpg and C02 emissions of around 280g/km.

With a choice of strong diesel options elsewhere in the Saab model line up it would seem to be only a matter of time before a second or third engine option becomes available, but a Saab spokesperson said there were no plans at present – with the US market representing the lion's share of sales the business case had yet to stack up for a diesel model.

That makes it a niche choice for the UK market, and sales expectations are very modest for 2011. However even in petrol form the 9-4X has a lot going for it. Although the ride quality is perhaps a little firmer than most it can handle the majority of road imperfections, even on the standard 20-inch alloy wheels. Noise levels are very well managed and the typically impressive ergonomics make for a comfortable car.

The comprehensive specification includes the Drive Sense system that incorporates adjustable damping, throttle maps and gearbox modes, with eco, comfort, and sport settings. In eco mode the gearbox can be a little indecisive and may hunt around for the right ratio, but in comfort and sport the engine and gearbox match up well.

Should you be in a hurry the 9-4X will hold onto a ratio long enough to make good progress, despite of its substantial kerb weight. If you’d like to get more involved there are paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel for full control.

By the time it reaches the UK in December, Saab’s fate will be decided. But if anything the 9-4X shows that when it’s not saddled with leftover GM technology there is still plenty of engineering and design skill at Saab and it has the ability to produce competent and innovative products. Whether it will be in a position to do so come the end of the year remains in the hands of the negotiators.


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