When Subaru car dealers learned that Saab would begin selling a Saab-badged version of the Subaru Impreza for the 2005 model year, plenty of them were angry. And they told Subaru officials as much at an annual dealer-manufacturer get-together.
But the dealers, who feared Impreza sales would be cannibalized, needn't have worried.
Saab's 9-2X, while a nice-looking, compact hatchback, didn't started off as a barn burner in its early months on the market, and Impreza sales didn't appear to have been slammed by the new competition.
If anything, the low sales volume planned for the 9-2X—just 8,000 a year—and the car's higher pricing, not to mention the authenticity that comes with the Impreza vis-a-vis an Impreza parading as a Saab should leave Impreza sales pretty much unscathed.
Then, there's the fact the 9-2X isn't a worldwide Saab. It's sold only in North America, not even in Saab's home country of Sweden or Europe.
Is it any wonder, then, that even while introducing the 9-2X, Saab's top official, President and Chief Executive Officer Peter Augustsson, said the automaker already is "working on what comes beyond (the 9-2X with an eye toward a model) that will be more differentiated and that's sold worldwide."
He added that he didn't think the 9-2X would have the traditional seven- to eight-year lifespan.
Finding the trends
Having taken care of the nasty preliminaries, I have to admit the 9-2X is a trendy model.
It comes standard with all-wheel drive—a feature that's increasingly appealing to American drivers in their cars and sport-utility vehicles. And the 9-2X is versatile, thanks to its hatchback design—some might even label it a small wagon—with up to 61.6 cubic feet of storage room in back with the split-60/40 rear seats folded down.
In recent years, more automakers have been testing the hatchback market with new entries. Among them: The MINI Cooper, which has two side doors, a rear liftgate and boxy, retro styling; the Mazda3, which is offered as a 5-door, and the Kia Spectra, which also added a 5-door hatch to its line.
Hatchbacks were popular versatile vehicles in the 1970s but fell out of favor as sedans became viewed as the more upscale and preferred body style. But today, with a large, new generation of young buyers entering the market and looking for something different and, preferably, accommodating for friends and "stuff," the hatchback is getting a new look.
About that pricing
The 5-passenger 9-2X is positioned as a "premium" player in the compact car segment and comes in two flavors: A base Linear model and an upscale Aero.
But note that while the 9-2X qualifies as the lowest-priced Saab with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price around $23,000, its starting price is higher than many competitors, including its Subaru Impreza sibling, which starts around $18,000 in RS sport wagon form.
Even the MINI, also labeled a "premium" small car, starts under $17,000, and the compact RSX favored by many young drivers at luxury carmaker Acura carries a starting MSRP around $20,000.
Positioning and branding
Saab officials, of course, want the 9-2X to reflect Saab's premium brand image, and so, despite its Subaru underpinnings, the 9-2X has the rounded front styling of a Saab as well as updated suspension, tires and steering over the Impreza.
The front styling — the epitome of a Saab—is particularly well done. Nonetheless, during my test drives of the Linear and Aero models, I didn't notice any other drivers craning to see the new 9-2X.
Giant General Motors Corp. has ownership stakes in both Saab and Subaru and helped coordinate the birth of the 9-2X, which uses the two Impreza 4-cylinder engines and Subaru's all-wheel-drive system and is built at a Subaru factory in Japan.
The idea was to attract consumers who are younger than Saab's average 41-year-olds and who prefer a European brand that's unique, according to Saab. They're also expected to be driving enthusiasts.
Two 4-cylinder engines
The base, 9-2X Linear has many standard features you'd expect, including cruise control, power windows, door locks and outside mirrors, the fold-down rear seats, keyless remote entry and air conditioning.
The 5-door model is powered by the 165-horsepower 2.5-liter horizontally opposed single overhead cam naturally aspirated 4 cylinder that's in the Impreza 2.5 RS wagon. The power plant generates up to 166 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
This engine, which uses regular unleaded gasoline, is adequate for its work in the 9-2X and even perky at times when matched to a 5-speed manual. A 4-speed automatic also is available, but it does not include a manumatic function that's provided in some sporty models to allow drivers, even with automatic, to shift from gear to gear themselves sans clutch pedal.
I liked the ride in this model of 9-2X. It's not as punishing as in the uplevel Aero. Then again, it's the Aero's 227-horsepower 2.0-liter horizontally opposed turbocharged and intercooled 4 cylinder that provides some real performance in the 9-2X.
The test Aero car with 5-speed manual zipped forcefully forward and moved aggressively at times to snatch open spots in traffic and pass others on the highway with spunk.
Horsepower and the maximum torque of 217 lb-ft at 4000 rpm are the same as in the Impreza WRX, which has the same engine. Both the 9-2X and Impreza WRX are among the power leaders in this segment.
In comparison, the Mazda3 5-Door comes only with a 160-horse 2.3-liter 4 cylinder capable of 150 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. Acura's RSX has a top, 2.0-liter 4 cylinder that produces 210 horses and 143 lb-ft of torque at 7000 rpm.
Meantime, the MINI has a top, supercharged, 1.6-liter 4 cylinder that generates 168 horses and 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. I could hear the 4-cylinder engine every time I accelerated in the 9-2X, and the air intake had a wheezy sound, which wasn't pleasing.
Note that premium fuel is used in the Aero and the fuel economy rating of 20 miles a gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway reflects the car's bias towards performance, not saving gasoline.
Also, be aware that the 9-2X, especially in Aero form, is heavier than some competitors. Curb weight is more than 3,100 pounds for the Aero with manual tranny and compares with 2,679 pounds for the supercharged MINI Cooper and approximately 2,800 pounds for the RSX.
There was some drivetrain noise inside the 9-2X Aero, and the larger, 17-inch tires added more road noise than what you get with the Linear's 16-inchers.
The Aero exhibits better grip, though, and the changed steering gear mounting and gear ratios on this model provide a more responsive steering reaction, making for spirited driving on curvy roads.
The Aero also comes with more features, including automatic climate control, premium audio system with six speakers and fog lamps.
The 9-2X all-wheel drive doesn't require any input from the driver and works all the time, not just on slippery surfaces.
Note the 9-2X is one of the few in the compact segment with traction-improving all-wheel drive. The MINI Cooper, Mazda3 and Acura RSX are front-wheel drive only.
Inside, the 9-2X has streamlined styling that Saab officials say is meant to reflect uncluttered Scandinavian tastes.
But I found the front seat cushions to be shorter and less supportive than I like and the seat fabric to be almost too utilitarian in feel, like canvas.
There also was noticeable wind noise coming from the optional moonroof in the test car, and the doors and rear liftgate had a lightweight feel. Unlike the Subaru models, the Saabs don't come standard with roof racks.
I liked that all five seats in the 9-2X have head restraints and three-point seat belts, and the middle person in back rests on a soft spot.
Rear-seat legroom is 33.7 inches, which is the same as the Impreza and compares with 29.2 inches in the back of the RSX coupe and 36.3 inches in the back of the longer and wider Mazda3 5-Door. But width-wise in the 9-2X, it's a tight fit for three adults back there.
And, for all the talk about the 9-2X being a premium model, it lacks some features. For example, a navigation system wasn't offered and an MP3 player wasn't mentioned for the 2005 9-2X, but both were available on the 2005 Mazda3 5-Door.
Meantime, the MINI Cooper and RSX have 6-speed manual transmissions, not 5-speeds. Seventeen-inch tires and wheels are standard on the Mazda3 5-Door, but they're optional even on the 9-2X Aero.
And a power moonroof and leather-wrapped steering wheel are standard on all RSX models, while a 9-2X buyer can only get a leather-wrapped wheel on the uplevel 2005 Aero model, and the moonroof option pushes the 2005 9-2X price to nearly $25,000, and that's without the turbo engine.