Swedes and sushi do mix

Calling it the first Japanese Saab won’t necessarily please the Swedish company’s top brass, but Saab’s full integration into the world of GM platform sharing is well underway with the 9-2X, or Saabaru as it’s been christened in many quarters.

You see, behind that Saab nose is the heartbeat of the Subaru Impreza, complete with power from the 2.0-litre turbocharged boxer four and, for the first time on a production Saab, four-wheel drive. Saab owner GM has a 20 per cent stake in Subaru’s parent company Fuji Heavy Industries, and the car will be built by Fuji in Japan, giving the company greater capacity and better economies of scale. It also adds a much-needed new model to the Saab line-up.

Saab and Fuji have been burning the midnight oil over the last year-and-a- half, transforming the initial idea conceived towards the end of 2002 into a production reality that lands on American forecourts on 1 July.

You’ll note the word American in that last sentence. It’s a shame for Saab enthusiasts in Europe, but at the moment there are currently no plans to sell the car over here for three key reasons. The lack of a diesel is one handicap, but the bigger issue would have been pricing. In the States there’s a larger gap between the Impreza and 9-3, allowing the new car an entry point between the two at $22,990 (£12,997). In the UK, the 9-2X – certainly in turbo form – would have to be pitched right in the middle of the 9-3 range.

The third problem was the quick-fix nature of the 9-2X. Using Subaru mechanicals meant the Swedes could quickly jump into what Saab thinks is a market sector on the verge of volume explosion, thanks to newcomers such as the BMW 1-series.

But the downside is a significantly shorter model life, because the Impreza is already a couple of years old. The second generation 9-2X will be a joint program between the same two brands, and is confirmed for Europe, but the timing of the next Impreza means the current 9-2X will only have a three-to-four-year life, instead of the normal six-to-eight, leading Saab to conclude that it’s not worth bringing the car to the complex European market. There is a school of thought within Saab that the door to Europe isn’t completely shut, a situation supported by customers in several European countries asking to put down deposits on the 9-2X.

Although the Subaru Impreza wagon will never win any beauty contests, Saab’s take on it is certainly an improvement, with the design team largely carrying off the baby 9-5 estate look they aimed for. The bonnet scoop is smaller and more efficient than the Impreza’s, thanks to the sharper bonnet angle that pushes air in at a higher speed, and viewed from the front the car has a menacing air.

It’s not just the styling that has received attention. The engineers have modified the chassis, suspension and exhaust, as well as the interior. Use of lightweight aluminium instead of steel in the rear suspension links saves 1.5kg from the unsprung weight, and further small gains have been made by the use of lightweight alloy wheels.

There are only two engine choices. The entry-level Linear model uses a 165bhp 2.5-litre, as found in the European Subaru Legacy, while the Aero driven here has the hot 227bhp 2.0-litre turbo made famous by the Impreza. Blasting away from the San Diego launch venue and out towards the Mexican border, the Impreza bloodline is immediately obvious.

Slight changes to the steering have improved feedback over the Impreza’s, although the difference is minimal and the steering is still a touch light. Over the admittedly smooth but twisty test route, the ride is as composed you would expect from an Impreza-based car. Saab’s engineers have done a decent job of tweaking the suspension to improve refinement without losing body control and poise, and on a tight slalom course it took a major effort to unsettle the car. There’s a little understeer, but no nasty surprises should you push on aggressively through tight turns.

Despite lifting the powertrain from its Japanese partner, Saab has changed the exhaust note, replacing the gutsy warble with a disappointing whine reminiscent of an electric milkfloat. The power delivery from the 227bhp boxer is sometimes a bit ragged, occasionally spluttering under acceleration; although the test car could probably have done with a few more miles than the 1200 on its clock. To get the best from the 2.0-litre turbo, it needs to stay well above 3000rpm. Progress below that is leisurely, and under 2000rpm acceleration is glacial.

Inside, the 9-2X’s Subaru origins are obvious. The ignition switch is column mounted, instead of next to the handbrake as on other Saabs, and the other switchgear, with the exception of the climate control buttons, is lifted straight from the Impreza. Efforts have been made to improve the quality of the trim, but as a whole it doesn’t feel special enough for a premium product.

Rear legroom isn’t a strong point, but one adult can just about get comfy behind another without any great hardship and as the basic Impreza bodyshell has been maintained, the frameless windows front and rear are also carried over. The boot is of a reasonable size too, but the opening is narrower than the space itself.

Although the traditional Saab values are diluted by the nature of the 9-2X, all the ingredients are in place for it to grab your attention. Depending on how you look it at, the 9-2X is either searching for an identity – it’s neither one thing or another – or it’s a perfect balance between two extremes.

Though Saab buyers tend to be a brand-loyal bunch, we can’t see the car’s mixed parentage preventing it from being accepted – after all, Saab’s other cars are hardly brimming with character these days. It’s just a shame that the UK won’t get the chance to judge for itself.

Paul Barker

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