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First Drive: 2012 Saab 9-4X

Joe Loriowriter

A bumpy gestation
The 9-4X is a five-seat crossover -- Saab's first -- and a sister car to the Cadillac SRX. The two were developed together back in the days when Saab was a member of General Motors' (much larger) family. But just when the 9-4X was about to launch (as a 2009 model, like the SRX), the General, as you may have heard, hit some rocky financial shoals. While the SRX proceeded to market, the 9-4X was put on ice and Saab was put on the block. A newly independent Saab is now finally ready to roll out its crossover SUV.

Breaking up is hard to do
Saab may be emancipated from General Motors, but the companies aren't completely free of each other, and that's particularly true than in the case of the 9-4X. The 9-4X is being built alongside the SRX at a GM facility in Mexico. Mechanically, the two vehicles are largely identical, sharing their base V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and available all-wheel-drive system.

A Saabillac?
Unlike some previous Saabs conceived under GM, such as the 9-7X SUV and the 9-2X station wagon (thinly disguised versions of the Chevrolet Trailblazer and the Subaru Impreza, respectively) this crossover SUV is not someone else's car that has been handed down to Saab. It was developed from the start to be both a Saab and a Cadillac. In fact, the vehicle chief engineer, Peter Dorrich, is a Saab guy.

And the 9-4X certainly looks like a Saab. It and the SRX each wear an entirely different suit of sheetmetal, and each gets its own greenhouse. The Saab's design is arguably the more handsome of the two, and looks right at home alongside the new 9-5 sedan.

No sign of IKEA
Inside, though, it's a different story, as one searches in vain for any Scandinavian design influence. The materials are fine, but the vast expanse of black on the dash is boring, relieved only by a bit of carbon fiber or wood trim.

It's true, however, that Saab has its own, cockpit-style dashboard, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, joystick air vents, and unique door panels, but none of it has that spare, modern Scandinavian look. Yes, the (pushbutton) ignition is between the seats. Those seats, though, don't have quite the same high-backed-bucket feel as those in other Saabs, although they do get points for their active head restraints -- something you won't find in the SRX. People space is good, front and rear, and the rear seats recline. There is no third-row seat available.

There's not much space to stash small stuff up front, outside of the under-armrest storage compartment and the two cupholders. The nav screen graphics are identical to those in the SRX, and the system's logic could be improved. Switches, though, are very well laid out. As in the Cadillac, the available mega-sized glass roof brightens the interior considerably.

Two models, two engines
The base 9-4X has a 265-hp 3.0-liter V-6 engine that makes 223 pound-feet of torque. With front-wheel drive, the base 9-4X starts at $34,205; the all-wheel-drive version is $36,700.

The Aero gets a turbocharged V-6 that nets 300 hp and 295-pound-feet of torque from its 2.8 liters. This same engine is found also in the 9-5 and, until recently, the SRX, but Cadillac has dropped it due to low sales. In the 9-4X, it comes standard with all-wheel drive, and it's priced at $48,835.

The Saab's long gestation was helpful in one respect: it gave the engineers time to rework both engines for better responsiveness. Indeed, the 9-4X Aero feels livelier than the last SRX turbo I drove, and engine noise is well suppressed. The turbocharger's boost is nicely integrated, making for linear throttle response. The factory-quoted 0-to-60 time of 7.7 seconds is not bad, but it can't match the Audi Q5 V-6's 6.7 seconds. Nor can the 9-4X Aero equal the Q5's gas mileage -- 18/23 mpg, versus to the Saab's 15/20 mpg EPA ratings. Blame the Saab's greater curb weight.

Those looking to maximize their mileage will want to check out the standard 9-4X, whose 265-hp 3.0-liter V-6 is the more economical choice, getting 17/23 mpg with all-wheel drive, and 18/25 mpg with front-wheel drive. Both engines use a six-speed automatic; the Aero adds shift paddles, although the gear lever needs to be in the manual shift gate before you can use them.

In Saab Country
Our drive in the 9-4X took us from Washington, D.C. 's Georgetown out into the quaint, historic northern Virginia countryside -- as well as the not-so-quaint northern Virginia countryside that has been overrun by the Toll Brothers and their ilk. On the drive's scenic parkways, feverishly expanding freeways, and gentle byways, the 9-4X Aero's chassis was pleasantly tied down. At the same time, it capably sopped up the few bumps we could find to throw at it, with decent ride comfort despite rolling on high-style, twenty-inch wheels. The Aero has the advantage of adaptive dampers, part of Saab's Drive Sense system, which also varies steering effort and throttle/transmission mapping. (Drive Sense is not available on the base car.) The system also includes selectable Sport and Comfort modes (with a middle-ground, Intelligent, mode due to be added for 2012), but we could discern no meaningful difference between them. In either one, the steering is firm with rather high efforts, and the throttle is not too aggressive.

We actually saw a fair number of Saabs in the D.C. area -- in the city at least, not so much out in the suburbs. The 9-4X should help Saab get onto the radar screen of suburbia's crossover-loving buyers. This pleasant-driving and attractive-looking vehicle may not cut a fresh swath through the new-car market, but it's a big deal for Saab. The ragingly popular crossover market segment is one the brand had to enter. Indeed, Saab execs figure that the 9-4X will become its number-two volume product (behind the 9-3) in North America.

Saab 9-4X
Base price range: $34,205-$48,835

Engine: 2.8-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 2000-5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: All-wheel

Wheelbase: 110.5 in
L x W x H: 190.1 x 75.0 x 66.1 in
Legroom front/rear: 41.2/36.4 in
Headroom front/rear: 39.9/38.8 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 29.2/61.2 cu ft
Towing capacity: 3500 lb
Curb weight: 4250-4650 lb
Tires: 235/55 R20
EPA rating (city/highway): 15/22 mpg