US market: XWD vs BioPower

I’m sure many of you have seen the preliminary US specs of the 2011 Saab 9-5 by now. There’s some angst in comments there about a lack of XWD on the four cylinder model, as well as an ongoing gnashing of teeth about a manual being unavailable with the six cylinder model.

Long-time readers of motoring magazines and websites will probably know that many manufacturers make very desireable cars for other markets that they don’t end up bringing to the US. Think about hot version of the Ford Focus, etc. Sometimes the versions that do come over are quite watered down compared to offerings elsewhere (early Porsche 928’s for example).

It appears that Saab may join that list, with the 4-cylinder (read: bread and butter) model not listed as having XWD, even as an option. Instead, what you’ll get on the 4-cylinder version is BioPower, which may or may not be good news for you, depending on where you live and your attitude towards green issues.

I don’t take any pleasure from it, but I’m going to have to rub some salt into the wound here; from my driving last week, the 4-cyl Saab 9-5 2.0T with XWD was – without doubt – my favourite combination on this car. It doesn’t have the flat-out power of the 6-cyl, nor the HiPerStrut front suspension, but it feels lighter and slightly zoomier (if that’s a word).

This isn’t just a XWD thing. It’s what the XWD system open up in terms of suspension setups.

XWD versions of the new 9-5 come with the linked H-arm rear suspension system, which is tighter than the standard 4-link rear suspension. It’s just one of the things that take the higher spec versions of the 9-5 to such a high level. You may not need or want XWD but if a spirited drive is a priority for you, then the improved handling that comes from the higher spec suspension systems will be very handy in such a large car.

Without XWD available, it means you’re running the standard chassis and European members of the press who drove the TiD with standard chassis weren’t exactly complimentary about the handlink of the car. You might be able to get a Sport Chassis as an option, however I’m unaware as to how much that will improve the feel of the car (experiences with the 9-3 would indicate that it definitely makes a difference).

So why has this happened? I haven’t heard this explanation explicitly from anyone at Saab, but I’ll give it a shot.

I think that like many of the hot models the US misses out on, it comes down to your fuel economy standards and the fleet-wide requirements mandated by regulators there.

If it comes down to a choice between offering BioPower and offering XWD, then it makes sense under current regulations to offer BioPower. Carmakers get a credit on their fleetwide fuel economy readings when there’s E85 involved. That’s why you see so many E85-capable SUV’s in the United States. They’re not actually running on E85, but GM and Ford get some slack when it comes to calculating their Corporate Average Fuel Economy ratings.

In this instance, Saab have got a large car that’s getting 27mpg highway when in V6 guise. Figures for the 4-cylinder aren’t available yet, but this is a big car, so it’s going to be relatively thirsty, though better than the 6. Add XWD into the mix and you reduce fuel economy straight away. Bring in BioPower and you raise your fuel economy reading thanks to government regulations that allow you to do so.

My guess is that it’s these fuel economy requirements, which will only get tougher in the future, that are the reason behind the drive for economical readings in the 4-cylinder version and restricting the performance characteristics to the higher priced 6-cylinder Aero.

Of course, perhaps a bigger question might be why can’t they offer both BioPower and XWD? Preliminary questions on this subject were met with some technical answers stating it was difficult to do both from an engineering perspective. But if it’s good enough for Belgium……

I can see Saab’s dilemma here. The 9-5 2.0T with XWD is a very desireable car. It may be that very desireability and the consequences on corporate fuel economy that high sales would bring, that is ruling it out of the US market right now.

Here’s hoping that some smaller Saabs with better economy in the future might open up more options.

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