Lifestyle

Saab's SUV Storm Trouper


I can attest that the new 9-7X, Saab's first sports-utility vehicle, performs well in lousy weather. I picked up my test car in New Jersey one recent evening and drove it 110 miles to Northeast Pennsylvania in a whiteout blizzard. While other family vehicles were poking along or pulling off the highway, I sailed right on through in this all-wheel-drive vehicle.

A few days later, when a Federal Express driver called to say he couldn't get anywhere near my rural house because the roads were so icy, I hopped in the Saab and met him at the top of a steep, ice-covered hill he had been afraid to come down. No problem getting up and down the hill in the Saab.

SWEDISH-AMERICAN. Partly because of these positive experiences, I've concluded that the Saab SUV, which was introduced last spring, is a lot better than its modest sales so far and mundane origins within parent company General Motors (GM) might indicate. This is one of those vehicles that has fallen through the cracks and shouldn't have. But if you're thinking of buying a fancy SUV -- say an Acura MDX, a loaded-up Jeep Grand Cherokee, or even a Mercedes M-Class -- it's worth comparison-shopping the Saab first. It's a domestically made vehicle with European flair at a good price.

Despite its Swedish nameplate, the 9-7X is made at a GM factory in Ohio and has the same chassis as GM's Trailblazer SUV. Even loaded with standard equipment, it starts at a relatively low $39,240 with a V-6 engine and $41,240 with a V-8. And Saab's Swedish engineers did a lot of nipping, tucking, and tweaking to give the 9-7X the looks and road feel Saabs are noted for.

In terms of cosmetics, the 9-7X has Saab's traditional three-port front grill and clean, uncluttered European lines. The interior has a cockpit feel to it, and the standard wood and leather accents give it a classy appearance. As is traditional with Saabs, the ignition is in the center console, between the front seats.

SUPER POWER. To maintain the typical feeling of driving a Saab, its engineers stiffened the front end. Both the front suspension and the electronically controlled air suspension system in the rear are tuned to give the 9-7X a sporty, relatively hard ride. The hydraulically assisted rack and pinion steering system are designed to be responsive to the slightest turn of the wheel, though the Saab felt a little loose and GM-like to me.

The 9-7X's power and quickness are impressive. Indeed, my only complaint about the vehicle's performance in inclement weather is that the 5.3-liter, 300-horsepower V-8 engine has so much oomph that the tires sometimes slip, causing the 9-7X to fishtail a little on snowy roads. I haven't tried the V-6, but it generates 290 horsepower, so it's nearly as powerful as the V-8.

The 9-7X's list of standard features is truly impressive. The only options are a navigation system ($1,995) and a DVD entertainment system for rear passengers ($1,300), as well as a "prestige package" on the V-6 version ($800) that includes adjustable foot pedals, headlamp wipers, and Xenon headlights, all of which come standard with the V-8.

FULLY LOADED. Both versions of the 9-7X come standard with stability control, antilock brakes, dual-stage front airbags, front and rear side-curtain airbags, full-time all-wheel drive, free OnStar service for a year, power seats, mirrors, windows, and door locks, a Bose audio system, XM satellite radio with three months of service, heated front seats, leather trim, cruise control, and a driver information computer that keeps tracks of everything from fuel economy to when you need an oil change.

Not surprisingly, many of the distinctive features are aimed at facilitating winter driving, Saab's traditional forte. Separate rear-seat climate controls are standard, making it easier for passengers to stay toasty in frigid weather. The outside mirrors are heated and power-adjustable. Even two of the color options have a Nordic appeal: Winter White and a very cool Lingonberry Red Metallic.

One cold-weather gadget that works particularly well is the rear windshield washer, which shoots fluid out of the washer arm directly onto the glass. This is much more precise than conventional washer systems that spray liquid onto the window from above or below, and it doesn't get fouled up by ice and sleet.

GAS GUZZLERS. On the downside, the 9-7X's rear seat is fairly cramped. I'm 5-foot, 10-inches, and with the front seats set in a comfortable position for me, my knees were against the seatbacks when I sat in back.

Gas mileage is disappointing, too. The V-8 engine has an innovative "displacement on demand" system that saves gas by taking some cylinders out of service when you're cruising. Even so, the V-8 version of the 9-7X is rated to get only 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

The V-6 version does just marginally better (15 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway). The good news is that both run on regular gas, rather than the expensive premium most luxury SUVs use.

SHOWING ITS ROOTS. Overall, this vehicle needs to be a bit more Saab-like to really stand out. Exterior fit and finish are more American than European: The gaps around the doors and windows of my test vehicle were too wide, making the otherwise stylish exterior look a little junky.

Worse, the 9-7X comes with only a relatively unsophisticated four-speed automatic -- no stick shift, even as an option. The 9-7X also has no version with a turbocharged engine. A high-end Saab with no optional turbo? What's the world coming to?

Ultimately, a lot of Saab loyalists will probably be turned off by the 9-7X's all-too-visible GM roots. However, if you just look at it objectively in today's market, this is a sweet-handling SUV that offers a lot of value. If you're shopping for a practical winter vehicle that really moves when you put the pedal to the metal, the 9-7X should make your shortlist.


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