“This car is long overdue.”
That’s Victor Muller, Saab Automotive chairman and CEO, talking about the Saab 9-4X crossover vehicle, a vehicle that, he maintains, “Opens up a market segment lost to the Audi Q5 and Q7,” a vehicle that he describes as a “true Saab project.”
The tardiness of the crossover can be discerned by a simple fact: This vehicle shares a platform with the second-generation Cadillac SRX. The SRX in question has been on the market since calendar year 2009 (as a 2010 model).
And it is just this year that the 9-4X is being launched, built on the same line at the General Motors assembly plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.
The Saab isn’t late because of any issue vis-à-vis the design and engineering of the vehicle. Peter Dörrich, vehicle chief engineer, recalls the years that he’d spent working on the vehicle in Michigan, far from his home in Sweden, back when GM still owned the company, which it divested itself of in February 2010 (having owned it since January 2000). He was the chief engineer for the platform that gave rise to both the SRX and the 9-4X. So the issue was financial, pure and simple. Which we will not look into here.
(Dörrich has since moved back to Trollhätten.)
As for the “market segment lost”: the last vehicle that Saab had in the sport utility space was the 9-7X, the vehicle that was based on the GMT 360 platform (yes, that is “T” as in “Truck”), the same platform that gave rise to products like the Chevy TrailBlazer and Olds Bravada. The original 360s were launched in 2001; the Saab didn’t come until mid-decade. And while one might find it a bit odd that the 9-4X is a Saab that isn’t being built in Sweden, it is worth keeping in mind that the 9-7X—which was a full-blown body-on-frame vehicle, unlike the unibody 9-4X—was built in the GM Moraine Assembly Plant, which was closed in 2008. Consequently, there was really no opportunity for Saab to compete with Audi or any other builder in the SUV or crossover category, as it had no products.
And as for the “true Saab project,” it gets back to the engineering team that created the underpinnings. And arguably it goes to the sheet metal on the exterior and the configuration of the interior.
The exterior design of the 9-4X shares cues with the 9-5 sedan, the vehicle launched prior to the crossover. And both took design inspiration from the Aero X concept car. The 9-4X features the three-hole grille treatment, as well as the “ice-block” headlamps. The A- and B-pillars are dark and the door mirrors are black such that it provides a sweeping glass-look, harkening to the aerospace affiliation of the Saab brand. The body side is clean; there is no body cladding as one can appreciate from the standpoint of Scandinavian design. There is a hockey-stick shape to the beltline as it kicks up at the rear of the vehicle at the C-pillar (though one may argue that it is actually the D-pillar, given that there is segmentation to the rear passenger glass). There is an integrated spoiler over the backlight and two rhomboid-shaped tailpipes integrated into the bumper molding, which provide a bit of sportiness to the design. The standard wheels are 18-in., six-spoke alloys; the top-of-the-line Aero features 20s with nine-spoke wheels meant to resemble turbines (again, the jets).
Inside, what is arguably the quintes-sential Saab design-cue is in place: the ignition between the front seats. However, unlike Saabs of Yore, in this case, the ignition is a start-stop button, not a key cylinder. The main gauges are housed in three separate chrome-edged tubes, with the speedometer in the central position, flanked by the tach on the left and the fuel/temperature gauges (and turbo boost, if so equipped) on the right. The center stack contains the infotainment displays, buttons and knobs. One interesting feature is called “Night Panel”: by selecting it, the speedometer is singularly illuminated, thereby minimizing any distraction.
Thanks to the select deployment of high-strength steels, there is a stiff body structure, with a 31-Hz torsional rigidity. Aluminum is used for the brake calipers, front wheel hubs, A-arms, steering knuckles, and rear-suspension links. (Speaking of the suspension, there are McPherson struts with hydraulic lower A-arm ride bushings and a hollow-section anti-roll bar in the front and an H-arm layout in the rear.)
The powertrain offering, like the Cadillac SRX, consists of two all-aluminum V6 engines, a naturally aspirated 265-hp 3.0-liter and a turbocharged 300-hp 2.8-liter. And there are two six-speed automatic transmissions with manual-shift mode.
The 9-4X is available as either a front- or all-wheel drive (Saab XWD). The all-wheel-drive system was developed with Haldex; it features a multi-plate clutch unit that infinitely varies the drive torque between the front and rear axles depending on conditions. The system also has an electronically controlled rear limited-slip differential that can transfer up to 50% of the rear torque to the rear wheel with the greatest amount of grip.
The vehicle also offers Saab DriveSense, which allows the driver to select the handling characteristics: the default is “Intelligent,” which does things like electronically vary the stiffness of the dampers and amount of steering assistance based on driving behavior. Then there are “Sport” and “Comfort” options, with the former doing things like changing shift points and providing more torque to the rear wheels, and the latter not only adjusting the dampers, but even the throttle response.
According to Autodata (motorintelli-gence.com), in 2010 there were 2,379,419 crossovers sold in the U.S., which was up 17.3% from 2009 sales. Although this is an increasingly crowded category—with products ranging from the Acura MDX to the Volvo XC60—it is clear that this is a category where a company like Saab needs, and now has, a solid contender, the 9-4X.