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In its quest to make Saab into a profitable division and give its dealers and customers more choice, General Motors has added the Saab 9-7X to its lineup. The 9-7X is Saab's first truck-based SUV, and the first-ever Saab available with a V8 engine.
As American as apple pie, the Saab 9-7X is built in Moraine, Ohio, on the same truck platform as the Chevy TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, and Buick Rainier. However, it's been given a Swedish massage inside, outside and underneath.
We think the 9-7X may be the best execution of this solid truck platform to date. The combination of blocky good looks, Saabesque design cues, improved handling and ride quality, with reasonable power and fuel economy make the new Saab 9-7X worth a long look. Inside, it's thoroughly Saab-like, nicely finished and comfortable.
The 9-7X is built on the shorter of the two wheelbases used for the GMT 360 platform, which is the one we prefer. It rides lower and the chassis is a bit stiffer than the other GM models, and comes with a retuned suspension and bigger brakes.
Overall, the Saab 9-7X offers a lot of value for $40,000, which comes in the form of luxury and safety features, both active and passive. Among them: six airbags, all-wheel drive, electronic stability control. Leather upholstery is standard.
A superb inline six-cylinder engine comes standard. A more powerful V8 is optional. Saab says major competitors will include the Volvo XC90 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, both excellent SUVs. We suspect Saab's new truck will also compete with GM's in-house brands.
The exterior makeover from the Chevy/GMC/Buick version features Saab's signature three-port grille, multi-element headlamps, rear quarter windows that wrap around the D-pillars, Saabian taillamps, and a flat hood (it opens from the front, Saab fans).
When you see so much giant-grille, aggressive, I'm-coming-to-get-you, high-riding military styling on the roads, it's refreshing to see an SUV with a borrowed body that looks so good when treated to the understated Saab nose and lamp and fender treatment, with its stylized airplane at the center of the grille opening (Saab built airplanes long before it built cars). We think, as far as exterior Saabness, they have pulled it off beautifully, much more so than with the Buick Rainier. This is a luxury SUV much more in the vein of the understated Acura MDX than a chrome-grille Buick.
The rear end of the GMT 360 has been remade as a Saab with an extended, big-cornered rear bumper and cool Saab taillamps and graphics. Not to mention the tasty wheels, one style for the I6, another for the V8. It really does look like a Saab from the back.
Apparently, the designers and marketers fought hard for this much interior redesign, and they certainly got it. We don't know how much it cost GM to retool the interior in such a thoroughly Saab fashion, even to the extent that the ignition key and wiring have been moved to the customary Saab location on the center console behind the shifter, antitheft interlock and all, but we like it.
The 9-7X interiors we experienced during a driving introduction along the edge of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in Quebec, were understated, nicely stitched, beautifully wood-trimmed, with thin chrome surrounds on the instruments to add a touch of class, white-on-black gauges with sharply defined graphics, and a dashboard architecture lifted directly out of a current Saab 9-3. All of the major items were easy to find and use.
The instrument panel is reshaped, rounded and angled toward the driver on the right-hand side, and it mimics the interior design of the current 9-3 successfully, if simply and quietly. All of the controls were in their customary Saab locations, including the Saabesque air vents and the hidden dual cupholder assembly in the right side of the dashboard.
The seats were continuously comfortable at 160 kph and every other speed. Very nice. Front-seat head, leg, and shoulder room is generous, even for a 6-foot, 4-inch driver. The seating position is commanding, which adds to the Saab feel. Rear-seat room is less generous, but good enough for most children.
The behind-the-scenes security of OnStar and the optional XM Satellite Radio made the 9-7X a delightful companion, especially in a fierce rainstorm we encountered on the way to Quebec City airport at the end of the second day. The 9-7X is relatively quiet, with the fat tires contributing to most of the little bit of noise that was there. This is typical of all the GMT 360 trucks, to a greater or lesser degree.
SUVs sooner or later have cargo-hauling duties to perform, and when the time comes, the Saab 9-7X delivers nearly 40 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and 80 cubic feet with the rear seat stowed. The rear seat splits wider than usual, Saab says, at 65/35. An extra bonus is the onboard air compressor system, normally used to pump air into and out of the air suspension sysem, which can be used, along with a standard 22-foot hose, to inflate tires or recreational gear.
We really like the silent-servant way in which this Saab drives. It would be even more silent with a fifth gear, but Saab makes do with lots of engine torque, the right-size tire, and the right gear ratios to present a very pleasant four-speed automatic overdrive in a highway cruiser that can hold, haul and tow like the big boys, because underneath, this is a Chevy truck. Body on frame, gutty engines, isolated cabin and all.
But the Saab tuning guys have done a remarkable job in improving the chassis. They lowered it one inch. The front end of the frame has been stiffened, as has every spring, shock, bushing and stabilizer bar in the entire vehicle, up to 15 percent stiffer, keeping the body roll, nose pitch, and a big portion of the usual harshness out of the Saab version. It steers much more tightly than most trucks in this class, with a nice hefty feel at the wheel rim, it rides quietly, handles the big bumps and holes quietly, and doesn't feel like a racing yacht in the corners. It just hunkers down and all four wheels work together whenever the electronic system is triggered by conditions and velocities.
The Saab guys also tweaked the entire steering system, its mounts, and components for more stiffness and greater isolation. They stiffened the shock absorbers as much as 70 percent compared to the stateside brands.
The six-cylinder version feels lighter in front than the V8 model and in that respect we like it better. The 4.2-liter inline-6 is rated at 290 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 277 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. The six-cylinder gets an EPA-rated 15 mpg city, 21 mpg highway. The inline-6 features double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and continuously variable valve timing.
The 5.3-liter V8 is rated at 300 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 330 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Its greater torque helps the V8 version achieve a tow rating of 6500 pounds. All models come with a hitch receiver and receiver cover as standard equipment. The 5.3-liter V8 engine, the latest in GM's 50-year development program of the smallblock, overhead-valve V8, features displacement on demand, which automatically and imperceptibly deactivates four of the engine's cylinders at light loads, and puts them right back to work instantly when called upon to do so. GM says DOD is worth up to 8 percent in increased highway mileage. It's a prime reason for the V8's good highway mileage, even at a curb weight approaching 4800 pounds. The V8 is EPA-rated rated 15 mpg city, 19 mpg highway.
The Saab development team enlarged the brakes to 12.9-inch front and 12.8-inch rear ventilated discs, and they were extremely powerful, smooth, and linear in getting the 4800-pound 9-7X down from interstellar cruising speeds to small-town puttering speeds on Route 138. The automatic self-leveling rear air suspension made a huge difference in the Saab's braking behavior and quiet ride.
The world of $40,000-$45,000 entry luxury SUVs offers lots of worthy choices that have been designed from the ground up, and lots of others that have been adapted for the task at hand, either from cars or trucks. We think the Saab 9-7X is by far the best iteration of the GMT 360 platform, regardless of brand name, and we think the price is right for either the I6 or V8 models. And you can get serviced and fixed at a nice, quiet Saab dealership instead of a Chevy store.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Quebec City.
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