The first official reviews of the 9-4x poured in to us at the end of last week, and by all accounts they’re extremely positive. We’ve gotten about 30 tips to the articles (and we appreciate all the emails!), but we waited until today to post (and I’ve delayed it now twice due to breaking news :P) to get official permission to use images and quotes from articles– trying to be ethical is always fun, but usually not as fast as I’d like.
These first reviews were held in Northern Virginia on a rainy thunderstormy day in March which we covered briefly here. This is the first of at least two rounds of first drives, aimed at long-lead publications that need more time to get ready for print. One of these testers was James Bell of the Motor Press Guild who came away pretty impressed, as we mentioned in our earlier post.
“…rest assured that this vehicle should put this venerable brand back on discriminating shopping lists across the country.”
In his review at Expressen, Matt Davis went a step further. He suggests that it might be “the car that saves Saab.” For those of you who want to read these first reviews of the 9-4x, by all means skip this article and go right ahead. Here are the links.
For those of you who want a more my take and reflection on these writers conclusions from a very personal viewpoint, click past the break.
Rather than take you through this as a generic rehashing of googleable news links, I’d like to take you through the mindset of an actual customer who is in the market for a new compact to mid-sized CUV, someone near and dear to me– my Mom. She’s been looking for something that’s big enough to fit a bulky piece of furniture or bags of mulch she might grab on a shopping trip while still feeling small enough to get around town like a car half its size. This segment seems to appeal most to suburban women like her, and since that group tends to go for the higher margin options and packages, it’s no wonder automakers have cashed in big off SUVs and now CUVs in the last decade.
Last week I had the opportunity to take her to the New York Auto Show for a morning and she had the chance to test out every single automaker’s entrants into the small CUV segment, including the unreleased Range Rover Evoque. Having a Saab nut son, you’d think I’d have sold her on the 9-4x already, well sadly she wasn’t sold by the initial pictures of the car (which is the real reason you saw me make so many Sport Package photoshops, I was trying to convince a family member). Truthfully she’s been ready to buy a new CUV for a while, but with so many new entrants focusing their sites on the segment, it wasn’t hard to convince her to wait just a little longer until the Saab was released.
No doubt the 9-4x has been a long time coming. It’s development started as a joint project between GM and Saab engineers, chiefly Peter Dörrich, whose father also worked for Saab. He’s now chief engineer of midsize vehicles in Trollhättan, so he’s got his hands full. As he’s stated in earlier conversations with Swade and Robert Collin the 9-4x is Saab through and through.
According to Peter when he was interviewed by Robert Collin for aftonbladet,
“We had many ideas that were not shared by Cadillac (that is, Cadillac didn’t see the value in them), not in the beginning anyway,” says Peter Dörrich when we meet in Los Angeles. But the American executives at GM had full confidence in me and I was working on getting the Cadillac people convinced of how we wanted the car…”
And indeed Motortrend takes it a step further having talked to him again at their test drive.
Though the 9-4x is shared, this time it might be Cadillac’s version that feels more like a Saab under the skin than the other way around.
As I stated before, the SRX is selling like hotcakes in the US right now. It’s even outselling their bread and butter CTS sport sedan. For those of you who don’t live in North America right now and have a hard time understanding why this model is so important, try to wrap your head around that last statement. CUVs are so huge in the US that they sell more than their car counterparts. It’s a fairly incredible statistic. That the SRX was improved on by Saab and that the authentic version will go on sale can’t be undersold, this is the car that should be a game-changer for US attitudes towards Saab and gives the company an incredible opportunity to press reboot.
The Interior is Just Right
One of the sore spots in initial reviews of the 9-5 sedan was that certain parts felt too standard (read: matte plastic dash). Thankfully there are changes in the works and that will be remedied soon. Fortunately, the 9-4x will launch from the start with a combination of interior materials and ergonomics that make it top of its class from the start. I can vouch, having sat in both the Aero and Base model trims, with aluminum and wood bits.
Matt Davis from Expressen seems to agree with me.
The design is so good it can be. Inside it is exactly what should have been 9-5 when it was launched a year ago.
From the french stitched leather dash surround to the subtle metallic effect dash panel, it feels every bit as premium as the competition. In fact, my mom who is shopping for a new CUV came away from the 9-4x saying that it was second only to Porsche in terms of her perceived quality, beating the X3, Q5, and ML from Mercedes (this comes from a woman who has driven a Jag or Merc for the last 20 years). There’s something about the layout of the dash and that huge nav screen cocooning the driver that really puts a driver at ease, and Saab designers worked hard to make every surface feel and look just right, the Leonardo dash buttons feel more at home in this dash than ever. Indeed the massive sunroof and cavernous headroom complete the effect of an open airy cabin, and the rear visibility sealed the deal for Mom– “Finally one I can see out of!” were her actual words.
Motortrend agrees with her.
Saab is shooting for big players like Audi and BMW, so there was no room to compromise. From the very top, designers started with a large panoramic roof. Even under dark, rainy D.C. skies, the interior feels light and open. Even if customers don’t opt for the giant roof, Saab’s traditional wraparound cockpit greenhouse allows for plenty of outward visibility.
In crowded beltway traffic, lane changes are never an issue and blind spots don’t seem nearly as bad as in some of the more swooping-roofed competition.
Tony Swan from Car and Driver focused on how unlike the SRX it is.
Like the SRX, the 9-4X is strictly a two-row proposition, comfortable for four but not so good for five, thanks to the center console. The rear seats fold flat, and there’s a nice little storage well below the floor of the cargo bay.
Unlike the SRX, the Saab’s interior is subdued, with a mostly black color scheme, albeit with high-quality materials and soft-touch surfaces. The seats are well shaped, with sporty bolstering; the instruments and dashboard will look familiar to anyone who’s been in a Saab recently; and the Denso nav system is excellent.
Paul Eisenstein (who also reports for the Detroit Bureau) had a similar take on the 9-4x’s genuine Saaby feel.
The interior is equally true to Saab’s roots, down to the green-on-black gauges in the five-passenger interior. There’s even a starter button located where you’d expect it in a Saab, between the front seats. The two front buckets, incidentally, are technically shared with the Caddy crossover, but you’d have to rip them apart to discern it. The shared frame is fitted with unique foam and bolsters, and Saab’s trademark active headrests.
During typical use, the 9-4X’s cabin is incredibly quiet, but there are two points worth quibbling about. Almost identical to that of the 9-5, the instrument panel of the new crossover is functional to the point of looking plain and dull. We also found the 9-4X’s driving position trying; it was difficult to get comfortable irrespective of where we positioned the adjustable steering column.
On the last point I have to disagree with Paul. The only difference I really could note between the 9-4x and the X3 or Q5 in terms of “plain” or “dullness” is that the vents on the latter CUVs are detailed in a brighter metallic plastic. Saab keeps the surfaces varying shades of deeper blacks, most likely for functional reasons which he overlooks (think Night Panel usefulness). Saab could have easily picked a brighter shinier surface, but I’m glad that as usual they opt for function and substance over glitz and shiny bits. Mom is usually a sucker for those shiny elements, but as she sat behind the wheel of the 9-4x and the instrument lights turned on for her, she was impressed by how clear, easy to find, and engaging the instrument panel appeared. I will say, lighter seats go a long way towards remedying the sea of black that Paul is referring to, and I’d advise dealers to try to order as many of the Parchment or Shark Grey models as they can– stay away from Jet Black leather. Another point I’ll disagree with Paul about is the lack of a comfortable driving position, Mom is 5’7″ and I’m 6’3″ and we both found great seating/steering positions. In fact she remarked how sporty the steering wheel was, and its flat bottom certainly gives it the feel of a much smaller car.
The back seat was especially comfortable. Michael Febbo who wrote the piece for Motor Trend had fun seeing how the tall marketing guy from Saab fit in the back seats.
That higher roofline means even adults have plenty of headroom in back. Our towering marketing engineer couldn’t complain about leg- or headroom in back for his day of journalistic-driven terror. It was so roomy, we even let him in the front passenger seat so we could experience life from behind the DVD monitor-equipped headrests.
I was impressed by the rear leg room in the back seats, and the controls for HVAC in the back of the rear armrest were easily accessible. Even easier was folding the 60/40 rear seats down flat, with the press of a button they dropped right down (standard in its class I know, but it was so immediate and even with the headrests fully extended that it surprised me).
It Just Looks Good
At the NY show last week, Swade mentioned to me that after seeing the 9-4x driving around Trollhättan two weeks ago, it was fast becoming his favorite Saab. I’d have to agree, its proportions, details, and height give it a certain weightiness and muscularity that really hasn’t been a part of Saab traditionally. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve advocated a proper 9-2x or 9-3x that is more along the lines of the original 9-3x concept proportions– a true BMW X1 or Audi Q3 competitor, with unique styling that could dominate what I believe will become the hottest new segment in the next decade. Sure Saab dominated the small car market in the 50s and 60s and Victor is keen to point out that a 92 is a natural fit for Saab, but I think that the idea of the hatchback, versatility, and practicality have moved the ethos of Saab to more naturally fit this new segment, and if Saab really wants to hit the jackpot in sales they should focus on a smaller crossover.
Surely Saab could do it better with fewer compromises than other automakers.
All that said, the subject here is the 9-4x and it’s a true looker in the metal. Motortrend thinks it stands out just enough from the crowd, but not in the wrong way.
The exterior will stand out in a crowd of German and Japanese crossovers, while still looking reserved and understated.
I agree, and at the NY Auto Show, it certainly stood out from the crowd.
…the new Saab 9-4X is more sporty and – to our eyes – more appealing than the Cadillac SRX with which it shares a factory. Its dynamic act is certainly polished enough to bear comparison with flagship petrol version of the Lexus RX and Infiniti EX.
You can almost smell the quotes wafting their way into Saab press brochures. Automobile likes it more than the SRX too, going so far as to say,
The Saab’s design is arguably the more handsome of the two, and looks right at home alongside the new 9-5 sedan.
Car and Driver goes further.
The SRX and the 9-4X may share the same architecture—exemplary in terms of rigidity—but even the most casual observer is unlikely to confuse one with the other. Besides the familiar Saab fascia and wraparound windshield, the roofline slants downward to the hatch with very little arc, à la Land Rover Evoque. And the blacked-out B-pillars lend drama to the profile, reminding us of the new Ford Explorer.
The 9-4X team also suggests that there are hints of the old cult-fave 900 hatchback in the new vehicle’s rear-window design, though it would take a very keen and practiced eye to perceive this. On the other hand, the Saab’s rear window is bigger than the Caddy’s, providing a much better view of whatever’s going on behind.
No doubt we’re the keen and practiced eyes he’s referring to. That C-pillar structure which Peter baked into the design is part of the structure that even the Cadillac shares. I’m guessing that he won whatever argument GM designers might have had to change it, and even the Cadillac though it disguises its original intent benefits from the squat proportions that result. It looks so Saab in person.
Sure it Looks Good, How Does it Drive?
This is one point I nor my mom had a chance to test. I hope to remedy that in the coming weeks and share my thoughts with SaabsUnited. Most initial impressions of the 9-4x included statements like “If it drives anything like the SRX, it will be tuned more for cruising than sporty driving.” I was shocked to see the testers mention almost no comparisons to the SRX’s road behavior. Motortrend suggested that it inspires the confidence of a heavy european sports sedan.
Saab DriveSense allows drivers to select from cushy, cruising Comfort Mode to stiff, stable Sport Mode via a center console-mounted switch. Not only does the system control damping rates, throttle, and transmission mapping, but also steering assist. Even in comfort mode, the steering effort is heavy by crossover standards, but most Saab customers will appreciate the sport-sedan level of heft and accompanying feel. The brake pedal requires even greater effort. The action is as immediate as mounting the brake pads directly to the sole of your shoe. The pedal barely moves, and brake bite is instantaneous. Stopping power is a direct result of pressure, not travel, which is the case in most cars. While racers will jump in and feel right at home, the average driver will need a little bit of time to learn to modulate. Saab salesman are probably going to experience a few tense moments on test drives.
I read every single SRX review, and I never heard of driving characteristics like those. Automobile magazine writer Joe Lorio thinks that the extra time in the oven served Saab engineers well. I think they’re just better than their GM counterparts 😉
The Saab’s long gestation was helpful in one respect: it gave the engineers time to rework both engines for better responsiveness. Indeed, the 9-4X Aero feels livelier than the last SRX turbo I drove, and engine noise is well suppressed. The turbocharger’s boost is nicely integrated, making for linear throttle response.
How does it compare with its European, even Swedish competition though? Matt Davis’s piece in Expressen makes a pretty extraordinary claim.
The 9-4X is a serious competitor for the title of best mid-sized SUV on the planet. And I’m not joking. The car is better than the Volvo XC60, better than the BMW X3 and better than the Lexus RX.
‘Dem’s fighting words. While Car and Driver didn’t necessarily feel like it gave thrilling driving performance (nor should it, it’s a CUV…), they did think it felt solid and differentiated from the SRX in a few important ways, notably damping and transmission.
Spring rates and damping are a little stiffer than those employed in the Cadillac, and there are two presets for the suspension: normal and sport. However, the 9-4X rarely lets the driver forget its substantial mass. Although the steering is tactile and nicely weighted, transient responses are deliberate. This is not a rig that wants to be tossed into turns or snaked through a slalom.
On the other hand, ride quality is surprisingly supple in both suspension settings; no noise finds its way into the cabin via the suspension; and the six-speed auto is much smoother than the SRX turbo’s we tested last August.
Automobile had a nice take on how it handled the roads of Northern Virginia, some of which are very similar to some UK roads I’ve driven.
Our drive in the 9-4X took us from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown out into the quaint, historic northern Virginia countryside — as well as the not-so-quaint northern Virginia countryside that has been overrun by the Toll Brothers and their ilk. On the drive’s scenic parkways, feverishly expanding freeways, and gentle byways, the 9-4X Aero’s chassis was pleasantly tied down. At the same time, it capably sopped up the few bumps we could find to throw at it, with decent ride comfort despite rolling on high-style, twenty-inch wheels. The Aero has the advantage of adaptive dampers, part of Saab’s Drive Sense system, which also varies steering effort and throttle/transmission mapping. (Drive Sense is not available on the base car.) The system also includes selectable Sport and Comfort modes (with a middle-ground, Intelligent, mode due to be added for 2012), but we could discern no meaningful difference between them. In either one, the steering is firm with rather high efforts, and the throttle is not too aggressive.
All in all, the 9-4X comes off bank vault solid, whisper quiet, with good road feedback while never feeling too stiff. Add to that a lower price than most of the competition and more usable interior volume, and you’re really starting to see the value the total package. Needless to say, mom’s convinced after shopping around that the 9-4X is the most CUV she can get for the money, and it’s the best looking of the group too. In the end it wasn’t as hard a sell as I thought it might be. Which leads us to a comparison of the 9-4x vs. it’s competition in pricing.
The base model 9-4X 3.0 (265HP) comes with a lot of standard equipment, and I predict it will take up a huge portion of sales in the US. Key equipment includes the wood and leather effect surfaces which to most actually come off appearing more premium than their Aero counterparts (weird but true), all the standard options people come to expect in this class of SUV like dual zone climate control with cooled glovebox, heated mirrors, keyless start/stop, a full slate of airbags, U-Rail cargo management, CD-Player with USB/Aux input and Bluetooth. Expect dealers to check the box for the $1,385 Power Package, which includes those sexy LED lipped Xenon headlamps, auto dimming/folding mirrors, power lift gate and pedals, and rear view camera and heated seats. That brings the sticker to $35,590. The Panoramic roof is a $1,400 option, but totally worth it…it almost feels like a convertible inside, and at a total price of $37,040, it makes the 9-4x a bargain (and in the configuration that nearly all customers will end up in). XWD is basically a $2,500 option on the 3.0L models, if you think you need it go for it, if not save some weight and get better gas mileage (I suspect most Northeastern dealers will go with all XWD configurations). With XWD the total is $39,535.
Optioned out in the same way (using truecar.com), here’s what the competition costs:
- Audi Q5 2.0T: $40,275
- BMW X3 2.8 (240HP): $44,065
- Lexus RX350: $44,292
- Lincoln MKX: $42,230
- Mercedes ML350: $53,700 (very close in size to the 9-4x, more so than the GLK)
- Infiniti EX35: $39,695 ($44,695 includes xenons but also adds navigation)
If you want navigation in your 9-4x, you need to opt for the premium trim which has more standard options including upgraded wheels, ventilated seats, auto air recirculation sensor, rain sensing wipers, remote start and keyless passive entry (those fancy door handles you touch and they open without needing the key), universal garage door opener, power passenger seat, and an Upgraded Bose Audio System. When combined with Nav brings the total to $43,270 ($46,265 with XWD). For an extra $2000 you can have an Aero which gets you a lot more features including the Drivesense, and add another $1,450 and you can add the moonroof and get the complete package. If you add navigation to the competition you get:
- Audi Q5 2.0T: $43,275 ($55,825 for 3.2L with Aero options)
- BMW X3 2.8 (240HP): $48,675 ($54,725 for 3.5L with Aero Options)
- Lexus RX350: $47,442 ($56,042 with Aero Options)
- Lincoln MKX: $44,110
- Mercedes ML350: $57,540 ($59,590 with Comparable Aero Sound System)
- Infiniti EX35: $44,695
As you can see, the 9-4x always comes out less and in many cases is far less expensive for what is a more complete package.
The word from Matt Davis at Expressen that Saab is only planning to build 12,500 this year, which means if you want one of these rare gems, you need to get to your dealer pretty quickly to snatch one up. Matt wrote:
This is the car that could save the entire Saab on its own. And so they plan to sell only 12,500 cars in total, 10,000 in North America and only in 2,500 in Europe, including Sweden. It’s crazy.
That’s right, only 10,000 will be sold in the US for 2011, seven times as many of it’s brother the SRX sold last year here. Hopefully presale orders allow them to boost that total, but with the supplier situation as it is, right now they’re sticking with the original plan. The fact that it is guaranteed to be more exotic than Porsche Cayennes and BMW X6s on US roads means you’ll definitely stand out from the crowd too. I’m not actually trying to hype up the car, I’m very seriously warning you that supply is limited and the 9-4x is actually so good that you might want to call your dealer to see exactly when their first shipments are coming in so you can test drive one for yourself.
I’m actually working on lining up a similar opportunity myself, except with other journalists from major blogging sites and newspapers in the US, which is scheduled to take place in the next few weeks. It’d be nice to get a thorough review aimed at real Saab customers that actually told you all the nitty gritty for a change wouldn’t it?
Going a step further, here’s my own comment and editorial on the 9-4x diesel situation.
Some might suggest that not having a deal breaker is a huge deal for Saab’s sales in the rest of the world. I don’t disagree. But I also don’t think that the diesel CUV segment in the rest of the world even adds up to a fraction of the scale of how big the gasoline CUV share is in the US. We’re talking millions of vehicles, all selling for premium dollars. The bigger concern is fuel economy using gasoline, for many here a diesel just isn’t a winning proposition (I’ve heard from my BMW dealer that they’re taking a lot of their X5 diesels back on trades actually). Diesel is more expensive, still not as clean smelling, and still gets a bad rap in the US among the kind of buyer that is going for an SUV. The real way to increase fuel economy in this segment and get more bang for your money is hybridization– every other manufacturer understands that it’s the way forward in the CUV segment (literally all of them are focusing their efforts on one– Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, VW Touareg Hybrid, Mercedes-Benz ML Hybrid, BMW X5/X6 ActiveHybrid, Audi Q5/Q7 Hybrids.
The most promising hybrids out there are the ones that use the latest battery technology and allow for plug-in capabilities. In the US, you can even deduct up to $7,500 off the price of the car depending on the size of it’s battery (the Volt qualifies for the full amount for instance). It just so happens that the car that the 9-4x shares its platform with is in testing to add such a system, with little else changed. Even if Saab were to charge $55-62K for it, with a full tax credit applied you’d still be paying around the price of the 2.8L Aero, except this new version is likely to have more power and better fuel economy. It will probably have an electric only range that allows the driver to go the first 20 miles or so without using gas. That’s the killer package, not diesel.
Going a step further, Jan Ake suggested that the 9-4x is going to stick it out with its current engines until it switches over to production in Trollhättan on the Phoenix platform. Meanwhile, the SRX is going to switch to the less thirsty, more torquey and stronger 3.6L V6 engine that it will share with the Cadillac CTS Sedan. It earned rave reviews in that car and doesn’t require the premium fuel that the SRX needs in 2.8L Turbo form (we’re still waiting to hear what the 9-4x requires, all indications are 91/premium or 10% higher cost gas than regular). Switching to the 3.6L would allow customers to use cheaper fuel, give better fuel economy (even better than a 2.0L 4 cylinder can offer thanks to fuel/cylinder management) and better performance than even the Aero offers.
It’s a no brainer for Saab to switch engines to whatever GM is planning to offer in the Cadillac. I understand there’s little money left over to pay for certifications, testing, etc. and Saab need to focus every cent on their current cash crisis and development of the 9-3. I understand that GM has placed restrictions on 9-4x production too. But I genuinely think that the 9-4x is the best car Saab will have in its dealers this summer, and it’s the car that will save Saab at least in the US if they get their strategy right. It would save GM money to streamline engine operations at their Ramos Arizpe plant, and simplify the line and production to only have 2 engine lineups. Rather than rush production back to Trollhattan, why not take advantage of GM’s incredible platform that Saab so heavily invested their time in (or at least Peter Dorrich) and get a little more out of it? Why not enjoy the currency benefits production in North America will bring them? If terms can be negotiated with GM to produce more 9-4xs on its current platform (I’m still waiting to hear an official response from Saab on that) then I seriously think they need to rethink their long term strategy for the 9-4x. Just one man’s opinion.