By Bruce W. Smith
It looks like a GM mid-size SUV. It smells like a GM mid-size SUV. It sounds like a GM mid-size SUV. It’s even built on the same assembly line as GM’s mid-size SUVs. But it sure doesn’t feel like a GM mid-size SUV. It’s better.
“The 9-7X is a crucial addition to our lineup, providing customers with Saab’s driver-focused interpretation of an SUV and filling an important need in our growth strategy,” said Jan-Åke Jonsson, Saab Automobile AB managing director. “The Saab 9-7X emphasizes the ‘sport’ aspect of the sport-utility vehicle.”
Saab’s market research reveals that 39 percent of Saab customers in the U.S. currently have a SUV in the household. Furthermore, almost 30 percent of Saab customers who leave the Saab brand purchase a four-door SUV.
“The new Saab 9-7X will provide our dealers with a world-class SUV to satisfy existing Saab customers and attract new ones,” said Jay Spenchian, Saab USA general manager. “The 9-7X plays a crucial role in the most aggressive product expansion in Saab’s 58-year history.”
Our initial driving impressions of the 9-7X—the first SUV to be offered by the GM-owned Swedish car company—indicate SAAB is on the right track. The 9-7X rides and drives far better than any of the past or present models of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Buick Rainier, Oldsmobile Bravada, and Isuzu Ascender iterations built on GM’s mid-size “360” SUV platform.
The 9-7X, introduced as a late Limited Edition 2005 model run of 5,000 and in full production for 2006, probably shares 80-percent of its parts with the TrailBlazer, Rainer and Envoy and is powered by the same 4.2L In-line six or optional 5.3L V8 as its GM stablemates.
But it’s the SAAB touch on the other 20-percent that sets the 9-7X above its kin and puts it on a pedestal along side the revered mid-size Acura, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo all-wheel-drive mid-level luxo SUVs.
Such high-praise doesn’t come lightly. We spent a long, full day driving the 9-7X over 200 miles of narrow, twisting, rolling Canadian highways in northern Quebec where smooth pavement is the exception not the norm. Such distance and road conditions allowed ample time to get to know the new truck well.
One surprising aspect that came to light within a few minutes behind the wheel: SAAB chassis and suspension engineers have done in two years what GM’s truck designers haven’t seem able to do in 10—give a GM mid-size SUV the handling and ride quality of a sports car without sacrificing the utility aspects of a frame-on-chassis truck.
Irregularities are absorbed with ease keeping the 9-7X planted on the road and the occupants comfortable. SAAB’s luxo-sport-ute tracks down the road as if glued in the lane, and when you make a steering change, it responds—now.
Such performance comes not from major suspension changes but rather from attention to suspension detail and fine-tuning the parts that work in unison to provide both ride quality and handling.
“We used our suspension knowledge from designing the 9-3 sport sedan and 9-5 sport-combi (wagon) to tune the 9-7X chassis and suspension,” said Per Janssan as we smoothly, but speedily exited a sharp uphill corner, the paved washboard surface beneath the 9-7X’s meaty P225/55 R18 Dunlops rippled from years of wear and weather.
As the miles rolled on, Janssan, who is the chassis integration engineer with Saab
AB in Trollhattan, Sweden, explained in detail how they “tuned” the current GM 360 platform to better fit the SAAB ideal, which is to emphasize the “driver-focused performance” in the 9-7X.
For example they added a couple small braces between the front subframe and chassis to stiffen the front frame while taking stiffening and shortening (one inch) the front coil springs, both refinements to better steering response and overall handling.
Another modification to improve both body control and ride comfort, SAAB completely re-worked the Bilstein shocks, adding 70-percent more rebound control in the V8 versions and 40-percent in the I-6 models, at the same time increasing compression control by 20-percent and 10-perecent, respectively.
Firmer upper shock mount bushings and a 36mm diameter anti-roll bar (2mm larger in diameter than the GM SUVs use) completed the front suspension mods.
Rear suspension changes include the use of natural rubber bushings for the body-to-frame mounts instead of conventional rubber or urethane—again to improve body control and ride quality—along with stiffer upper and lower trailing arm control arm bushings that are part of the air-activated, self-leveling rear suspension.
Stiffer steering mounts, quicker (18.5:1 vs old 20.3:1) steering ratio, larger brakes, fatter tires, and an electronically-controlled limited-slip rear differential round out the bigger changes that set the 9-7X part from the other GM mid-size SUVs when it comes to being sporty and really fun to drive long distances over undulating twisting roads.
(SAAB insiders say the chassis and suspension improvements will not be shared with their GM counterparts with the exception of the TrailBlazer SS, which will get some, but not all, of the upgrades. Too bad. )
Then there’s the luxo SAAB touches on the interior.
“The exterior and interior design of the Saab 9-7X are in line with its dynamic road behavior and convey the sporty refinement of a Saab rather than the ruggedness of a traditional SUV,” said Simon Padian, senior designer in charge of the 9-7X.
Saab styling cues are apparent even from a distance. Key features include Saab’s signature three-port grille, rear quarter windows that visually appear to wrap around the D-pillars and brand-specific wheels. The Saab 9-7X’s profile is clean and uninterrupted, without large bumper offsets or protruding shapes and forms.
Inside, Saab drivers will instantly feel at home. So, too, will current GM SUV owners—maybe more so.
The instrument panel’s cockpit-inspired center stack and controls are angled toward the driver. Like the exterior, the 9-7X’s interior features Saab-traditional strong, brand-distinctive design elements and cues. They encompass such Saab icons as the air vents with their characteristic sliding-plate design, a cupholder like that of the Saab 9-5, and the center console ignition switch location.
The 9-7X reeks of richness and sporty elegance. You know, the same as you’d expect on a high-end 9-3 sport sedan: power everything; rich stitched leather upholstery and trim; dark burlwood on the console with chrome accent and handles; satin-nickel-ringed gauges; and, of course, the ignition key switch located on the center console rearward of the shifter.
Couple those items with a lot of sound-deadening materials strategically located in and around the cockpit that muffles obnoxious road and wind noise and you have a mid-size sport-utility vehicle that rivals the comfort and quietness of the best upscale sport sedans—or SUVs.
As for power, both models feature a four-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive. The base model comes with the Vortec 4200 I-6. At 290hp (up 15hp from current GM 4.2Ls) it’s a nice match for the 9-7X for those who value fuel economy over pulling power. The in-line six is smooth and delivers 21 miles-per-gallon on the open road.
However, the popular model will be the 300hp 5.3L V8—a $2,000 upgrade that includes six-spoke 18-inch wheels, adjustable foot pedals, Xenon headlights and headlight washers. The V-8 has nearly 60 lb/ft more torque than the in-line six, which gets the 9-7X moving much faster when on-ramps and passing come into play.
The V-8 also has that sporty exhaust note the six will never achieve. Highway fuel economy will hover around 19mpg with city numbers in the mid-teens.
The advantage the V-8-powered all-wheel-drive 9-7X has in the luxury mid-size market is it can tow 6,500 pounds with fuel-saving Displacement-On-Demand (DOD) technology and a sophisticated suspension helping make such tasks easy.
Couple that sporty utility performance with the distinctive SAAB looks and styling and this new entry will be turning heads wherever it goes. Not bad for $42,000—nicely equipped. –BWS
* Horsepower and torque SAE Certified. A new voluntary power and torque certification procedure developed by the SAE Engine Test Code committee was approved March 31, 2005. This procedure (J2723) ensures fair, accurate ratings for horsepower and torque by allowing manufacturers to certify their engines through third-party witness testing. GM was the first manufacturer to begin using this procedure and expects to use it for all newly rated engines in the future.
Base price: $40,000 (4.2L I-6); $42,000 (5.3L V-8)
Options: Navigation system / Sunroof
Price as tested: $40,000-$45,000