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Multicultural partnership yields Saab 9-2X

October 15, 2004|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

A Japanese vehicle wearing a Swedish nametag, masterminded by General Motors . . . now how's that for multi-cultural?

GM has taken the practice of platform sharing to new heights with the 2005 Saab 9-2X. GM owns Saab and has a major financial stake in Subaru, so when the Swedish company came looking for new product - like, right now - the marketing mavens in Detroit saw a quick fix in a new entry-level Saab. But rather than spend billions of dollars and several years developing a totally new car, they commissioned a restyled Subaru Impreza.

Saab has been taking a bit of a rubbing of late in the increasingly nasty luxury-brand wars. The 9-5 sedan, now in its fifth year, is becoming long in the tooth. The 9-3 has been more successful, but despite their incredible loyalty, Saab customers are beginning to stray. In response, dealers have been vocal about having new product - everything from an entry-level ride to a sport-utility vehicle - to bring in younger customers and keep the current ones.

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Since the average age of Saab's clientele is creeping up, the 9-2X caters to sporty young professionals, who, presumably, would then buy other Saab models later in life.

It didn't take long to make the 9-2X a reality. Basically, it's a Subaru Impreza dressed up in Saab body parts. Some have dubbed it Saabaru and others SubaSaab.

Naysayers are going to have to get over it because this is a product that not only fits, but just feels right beneath the Saab logo.

It also beats the competition to the punch. The majority of the European premium brands each plan to offer a compact car sometime in the next 24 months: Audi with the A3; Mercedes with a new A-class; and BMW with a 2-series. Of course, the 9-2X is here now.

The goal for this "feeder level" is to create brand awareness. This first all-wheel-drive Saab has some pretty impressive genetics. Subaru has a well-deserved reputation in two specific areas - all-wheel drive and reliability - that are welcome by any buyer or manufacturer partnered up with the brand.

Saab calls the 9-2X a sport hatchback but it could equally be considered a wagon.

The doors, glass, roof and rear quarter panels are unchanged from its Subaru cousin, but the remainder has been restyled to be distinctively Saab. The interior changes, from seats to trim and colors, have a much more upscale feel compared with the Subaru, despite retaining the same shapes and proportions.

Other differences are more than skin deep. Saab sent a team of engineers to Japan where they spent six months working on Saab-specific tuning for the steering, shocks, springs and other chassis components. The goal was sportier handling without sacrificing the ability to smooth out just about any road surface. The steering is sharper with improved feedback. Indeed, the 9-2X in truly impressive in terms of ride comfort over terrible roads. It's supple, yet responsive. Saab also insisted on a quieter car and those efforts paid off with a noticeable reduction in wind and road noise.

The 9-2X adopts a pair of Saab's current model designations - base Linear and sporty Aero - the latter of which adopts the Impreza WRX's stout 2.0-liter 227-horsepower turbocharged powerplant.

It's quite the marriage, actually, but Saab and Subaru have more in common than you might think. Both are known for unconventional thinking. Both have airplanes and rally racing in their blood, hatchbacks and wagons in their lineups, extensive experience with turbocharging and a reputation for safe vehicles. Both are individualistic small players in a big game and have reputations that exceed their market share.

There will be purists who denigrate the Japanese-Swedish relationship. But the realities are that to stay in business, car companies have to sell vehicles and make money doing it. The 9-2X allows Saab to do just that while at the same time providing buyers with a Saab that's based on impressive and proven engineering.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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