A Subaru for folks who dont want one, the all-wheel-drive (AWD) Saab 9-2x Linear is virtually identical to the Subaru Impreza 2.5RS hatchback (5-door wagon). But the 9-2x will cost you another couple Gs. The idea of the 9-2x is to combine European cachet with Japanese build quality and engineering. On paper this looks like a winning combo but the 9-2x is still unlikely to appeal to hard core Saab-ers since it handles and feels for all the world like a Subaru. $22,990; 4 yr/50,000 mi warranty.
My wife doesnt know (or care) about automotive technology, but she has an uncanny ability to zero in on any hint that something is out of whack. When I came to pick her up in the 9-2x one evening, she almost missed me. She was looking for a Saab, a marque she admires. The exterior of the 9-2x has a few of the traditional Saab styling cues and badges, but not enough to fool her. In the dark, she said, the 9-2x "looks like a Honda or something". Pretty good guess. The 9-2x looks like what it is: a significantly de-glitzed Subaru Impreza. Which is not such a bad thing. The new Impreza is a tremendous automobile: reliable, well built and containing a great deal of advanced engineering. As the 9-2x, it's very reasonably priced. But what it aint is a Saab, no matter what kind of fancy suit its been dressed up in. The 9-2x happened because parent General Motors owns 100% of Saab and 30% of Subaru, which gives it considerable leverage with Fuji Heavy Industries (Sube's majority owner). As efficient transportation the 9-2x works great, but I doubt very much Saabs traditional buyer will accept it as a Saab. In any event, the 9-2x is designed to appeal to 40-something buyers whereas the Impreza targets buyers in their early 30s.
In the Driver's Seat
Subaru got the interior of the Impreza right the first time and Saab wisely didnt fool with it. Problem is theres nothing about it that says "Saab" except perhaps the three spoke racing-style steering wheel, which has a Saab crest in its hub. Other than that its the same steering wheel thats in the Subaru Impreza. Everything in the 9-2x cabin works exactly as it does in the Impreza, which is to say, precisely as it should. After opening a surprisingly light front door, you enter into a very efficient interior. Notice I didnt say "warm and cozy" or even "comfortable" interior. The seats are well bolstered and easy to get in and out of, but I didnt find them particularly comfortable. After a two-and-a-half hour stretch in the driver's seat, my butt ached so much I almost required help to get out of the car. The back seats are spacious with ample elbow and headroom. With the drivers seat set to handle my 5'11" size 42 frame, there was lots of knee room in the rear seat. The large rear doors and big rear hatch offer easy access. Rear seatbacks can be lowered for extra carrying capacity.
On the Road
The 9-2x comes with a 5-speed manual transmission, but I thought the 4-speed automatic matched perfectly with the 165hp, 2.5L Boxer engine in my test car. (The 9-2x Aero gets the 227 hp turbocharged engine from the Subaru Impreza WRX.) Is there a better 4-cylinder engine available anywhere than Subarus smooth-as-silk boxer engine with its horizontally opposed cylinders? I think not. At idle, you'd need a stethoscope to detect vibration. This engine moves the relatively light (3110 lb/1411 kg) 9-2x away from the curb with considerable authority. With timely use of the shift lever, passing in the middle speed ranges is relatively adrenaline-free. However, I noticed a tendency for the 4-speed auto to drop down two gears (quite unnecessary) if the accelerator is depressed too far. Subaru popularized permanent all-wheel-drive (AWD) in passenger vehicles in North America. Today, every vehicle it sells here has AWD. When a wheel starts to slip, power is instantly transferred to the wheels that have traction. Four disc brakes with anti-lock control, standard equipment on the 9-2x, bring you to a quick, efficient stop. To go in snow, however, youll still need four tires with decent tread. Without good tires, AWD and ABS won't cut it.
Although the 9-2x is about as Swedish as sashimi, the corporate-wide experiment that produced it has to be labelled a great success. Saab gets a (kind of) entry-level automobile with proven high quality to draw the customers into its North American showrooms. Once they walk in the door, the Saab dealers can offer them a full range of higher-margin automobiles. The Saab name comes with a substantial helping of cachet in Europe and in certain areas of the US and Canada. While Saab became the "yuppie car" of the 80s and 90s, it never really caught on as a viable alternative to BMW, Mercedes, Audi or Lexus, which dominate the sports luxury segment. The 9-2x seems to be an attempt to reach out to its original buyer group. Some readers may recall Saabs (and, for that matter, Subarus) had an almost cultish following in places like Colorado and Vermont in the 60s and 70s. These areas attracted large numbers of alternative-culture types protesting the war in Vietnam and alleged American cultural excesses. With the children of those same people taking to the streets to protest today's issues (climate change, globalization, and the mess in the mid-east), it seems the time is again right for another entry-level Sube...er, Saab.