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Saab Expands

Can an SUV built in Moraine, Ohio, USA, be a bona-fide Saab? Well, the division of General Motors is finding out as it expands the brand with an SUV that has its roots in a platform engineered for Chevrolet and other domestic nameplates but set upon by swedish engineers and designers.

By The Numbers.

Here's something you don't often hear regarding a well-known* auto brand: with the addition of the 9-7X, Saab has expanded its entire lineup to four vehicles (9-2X, 9-3, 9-5 are the others). Arguably, one of the reasons why there has been a limited number of vehicles coming from Saab is based on a Catch-22 situation: volume is needed to make enough money to engineer new products; new products are needed to achieve the volumes necessary to make the money that can be used to engineer them. So in the case of the 9-7X, it is building on the work originally performed for the Chevy (TrailBlazer), GMC (Envoy) and Olds (Bravada; subsequently reformed into the Buick Rainier) midsize SUVs. There were a couple of key considerations behind this move:

  1. The mid-lux SUV market was 483,000 units in 2004 and is projected to reach 850,000 units per year by 2010, according to GM estimates.
  2. Jay Spenchian, Saab USA general manager, says that about 30% of U.S. Saab owners that leave the brand go on to buy a four-door SUV (and 39% of Saab's U.S. customers have an SUV in their garages, too).

So working with the GMT 360 platform (as it is known on the inside) became something that didn't require a Cray to figure out. This is all the more so because they're projecting sales of about 7,000 per year of the 9-7X, and try handling engineering costs with a basis of that alone.

 

LOOKS LIKE A SAAB. . .

On the inside, there are plenty of Saab cues. Foremost, the ignition key in the center console. In addition to which, there are sliding-plate vents (overlapping plates rather than the vanes and sliders found in most vehicles), and an in-dash cupholder (push in on the vertically oriented component flush with the dash and the cup holder emerges and rotates to accommodate the cup, just like the setup on the 9-5). The instrument panel is oriented toward the driver, which is said to harken back to Saab's aerospace beginnings. The leather trim (center console lid, arm rests, shifter and parking brake boots) have exposed stitching, which seems to add to the functional statement that the vehicle makes (the stitching on the seats are within French seams, which is now seemingly de rigueur for GM upper-crust vehicles). If you look at the IP from the left side of the glove box door and continue on across the driver's side, what you see is certainly Saab-like. The interior was designed by Lars Falk, who is of Saab Automobile AB.

On the outside, there are highly visible Saab cues, as well. Simon Padian, Saab senior designer, created distinctive front and rear fascias for the SUV. Unlike typical vehicles in that segment, the look is aero and uncluttered, sporty, not beefy. The hood is rounded and curves down to meet a horizontal cutline. The one-piece fascia incorporates the Saab-esque three-hole grille. The headlamps, which wrap around the sides of the vehicle, each incorporate three lighting units: one for the high-beams, one for the low, and the third as the park/turn signal. Given its ostensible European character, there are headlamp washers located just below the lamps. Small, round standard fog lamps are tucked into the lower air inlet.

Moving along the side of the vehicle there is the appearance of the rear quarter windows wrapping around the D-pillars. There is no extraneous body cladding, in keeping with the Swedish design ethos of simplicity. There are, however, roof rails that are shaped to pick up the angle of the windshield as they arc toward the rear; these standard rails can handle the same hardware as the Saab 9-5 wagon, in keeping with the Swedish design ethos of functionality.

At the back (yes, that's a standard receiver hitch assembly, as it can tow: the maximum for the 9-7X with V8 is 6,500 lb.), the rear quarter windows continue the apparent wrap around (a cue, incidentally, borrowed from the 9-5 wagon, as well). The stacked taillamps are vertical in orientation; there is a clear acrylic and polycarbonate lens covering three individual lamps: the top is a clear backup light; the middle is an amber turn signal; the bottom is the red stop lamp.

 

A EURO-STYLE RIDE

Arguably the biggest change to the underlying vehicle that has transformed it into a Saab is based on the work done by the chassis engineers who transformed the ride and handling of the vehicle, changing it from the type of SUV that cossets the occupants and wallows in the corners. Per Jansson, chassis development engineer, and his crew, in his words, worked to make the 9-7X a vehicle that has “European ride and handling.” So to do this, they made a number of enhancements to the vehicle. The ride height has been lowered by an inch. The front suspension, a double A-arm configuration with coil springs, has been supplemented by a roll bar that is 36 mm in diameter, up from 34 mm for the other members of the family. In the back there's a five-link, solid axle setup with a 24-mm stabilizer bar and electronically controlled self-leveling air suspension. Jansson says that they have deployed firmer shocks and springs, with 46-mm shocks in the front and 36-mm shocks in the back. The front and rear springs are stiffened by 15%. The front of the frame is stiffened with braces (which helps the steering response); the overall chassis also has additional braces between the cross members and the frame. The shock absorber settings have been dialed so that there is 70% more damping in the front and 20% or 10% more (V8 or L6 engine, respectively**) in the rear. The steering gear mount is stiffened to 9,000 N/mm from 6,000; the intermediate shaft isolator is stiffened by 33%. There are stiffer bushings employed.

What's interesting about all of this is that Jansson says that the cost of making all of these changes was not particularly expensive, at least not as regards the hardware. Presumably, the amount of engineering talent to transform the vehicle is in the “priceless” category.

*Saab people say that it is the most international marque within the GM portfolio.

**There are two engine options. Both are all-aluminum. There's the Gen IV Vortec 5300 5.3-liter V8 engine that provides 300 hp @ 5,200 rpm and 330 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. There is also the Vortec 4200 4.2-liter in-line six that provides 290 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 277 lb-ft of torque @ 3,600 rpm. They are the first V8 and I6 to be offered by Saab. And, no, there's no turbocharger.