Audi A3-chaser breaks cover, with genuine future in production
4 March 2008

Saab is at last getting serious about small cars, revealing a new Astra-size concept, the 9-X BioHybrid, which contains the best clues yet to the shape, size, image and market positioning of the smallest production Saab for at least 25 years, the 9-1, due in the market inside three years.The concept, which clearly foreshadows a production Saab positioned below the existing 9-3, is a three-door, four-seater “breadvan” style hatchback about 4.4-metres long. It’s a little longer than today’s Vauxhall Astra. Any production version of the Saab would be based on the underpinnings of the next-gen Astra, which is likely to grow slightly as well.The 9-X BioHybrid is proposed with a 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, running on E85 (85 percent bio-ethanol) and assisted by a belt-connected drive motor-generator which chimes in under acceleration, and provides regenerative energy under braking to feed the car’s lithium-ion battery bank. In production the car could use both a “performance oriented” 1.4-litre BioPower engine (producing as much as 175-180bhp) or a hybrid system whose combined power amounts to as much as 200bhp. Drive would be through a six-speed semi-automatic gearbox.

Traditional Saab styling cues; production base in Sweden

The car helps itself generously to Saab’s rich and unique mix of styling cues: the circular, backward-sloping “three-hole” grille, the steeply raked wraparound screen, disguised and fairly thin windscreen pillars, and an aerodynamic shape which still looks roomy for its size. Saab insiders claim the 9-X shape is “close to production-capable”.According to Saab MD, Jan Ake Jonsson, the car is a candidate for manufacture at Saab’s long-standing Trollhattan plant (which currently makes Saab 9-3s and a handful of compact Cadillacs) at an annual rate of up to 40,000 cars in the body-shape shown. Add a couple of rear doors and you might push it as high as 60,000.Saab has been selling around 120,000 cars a year — and doing well in the UK — but business has been very tough in the US, against a declining dollar. GM’s product supremo Bob Lutz says the company would like production as high as 200,000 a year once its recently launched 9-4X SUV hits production (in America) and when the 9-1 is on stream. But anything more than 150,000 cars “would be a good result.”

The bits that won't make the road-going version

Though the 9-X has a basis in reality, it also contains some classic red herrings: backward-looking cameras instead of rear vision mirrors, disguised doorhandles, a rear roofline and a roof and underbody spoiler which “grows” 100mm backwards once the car is doing 40mph and are claimed to cut the drag factor by 10 percent. The interior is a combination of exotic (3D instruments, impractical colours) and a cabin architecture and seat design which reeks of past Saab cues (tombstone seats, for instance) and seems spacious and practical.Make no bones about it, this is far more than just another interesting but irrelevant Saab concept: you’ll see a car very like this in the showrooms within the next three years.

Steve Cropley

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