The 9-7X looks, smells, and sounds like a GM midsize SUV. It's even built on the same assembly line. But it sure doesn't feel like one--actually, it feels better. Our initial driving impressions of the Saab 9-7X--the first SUV offered by the GM-owned Swedish car company--is that it rides and drives better than any of GM's GMT360 SUV platforms.

The 9-7X, introduced as a late limited-edition 2005-model run of 5000 and in full production for 2006, shares 80 percent of its parts with the TrailBlazer, Rainier, and Envoy and is powered by the same 4.2-liter inline-six and optional 5.3-liter V-8.

But it's the Saab touch on the other 20 percent that sets the 9-7X above its kin and puts it on a pedestal alongside Acura, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo all-wheel-drive midlevel luxury SUVs.

Before you gripe, know that such praise doesn't come lightly. We spent a long day driving the 9-7X over 200 miles of narrow, twisting, rolling Canadian highways in northern Quebec, where smooth pavement is the exception, not the rule. Such distance and road conditions allowed ample time to get to know the new truck.

After a few minutes behind the wheel, we were surprised to discover that Saab chassis and suspension engineers have done in two years what GM's truck designers haven't been able to do in 10: Give a GM midsize SUV the handling and ride quality of a sports car without sacrificing the utility of a frame-on-chassis truck.

Irregularities are absorbed with ease, keeping the 9-7X planted on the road and the occupants comfortable. Saab's 'ute tracks down the road as if glued in the lane, and when you make a steering change, it responds--immediately.

Such performance comes not from major suspension changes, but from attention to suspension detail and fine-tuning the parts that work to provide ride quality and handling.

"We used our suspension knowledge from designing the 9-3 sport sedan and 9-5 sport-combi [wagon] to tune the 9-7X chassis and suspension," said Per Janssan, chassis integration engineer Saab AB, as we smoothly but speedily exited a sharp uphill corner. The broken washboard surface (rippled from years of wear and weather) beneath the 9-7X's meaty P225/55R18 Dunlops may as well have been freshly paved blacktop.

As the miles rolled on, Janssan explained how engineers tuned the GMT360 platform to better fit the Saab ideal: an emphasis on driver-focused performance.

For example, they added a couple of small braces between the front subframe and chassis to stiffen the front frame, while also stiffening the front coil springs and shortening them by one inch. These refinements improved steering response and overall handling.

To improve body control and ride comfort, Saab completely reworked the Bilstein shocks, adding 70 percent more rebound control in V-8 models and 40 percent more in the I-6, at the same time increasing compression control by 20 and 10 percent, respectively. Firmer shock-mount bushings and a larger anti-roll bar (by 2mm) completed the front suspension mods.

Rear suspension changes include the use of natural rubber bushings for the body-to-frame mounts instead of urethane--again to improve body control and ride quality--along with stiffer upper and lower control-arm bushings that are part of the air-activated, self-leveling rear suspension.

Stiffer steering mounts, a quicker steering ratio (18.5:1 versus 20.3:1), larger brakes, fatter tires, and an electronically controlled limited-slip rearend round out the changes that most strongly set the 9-7X apart from its GM kin. The result is an SUV equally at home on long drives as it is over undulating twisting roads. (Saab insiders say the chassis and suspension improvements will only be shared with the coming TrailBlazer SS.)

Then there are the luxury touches in the cabin. They're the same as would be expected on a high-end 9-3 sport sedan--power amenities, rich, stitched-leather upholstery and trim, dark burled wood on the console with chrome-accented handles, satin-nickel-ringed gauges, and, of course, the ignition key switch on the center console rearward of the shifter. Couple those items with plenty of sound-deadening material strategically located in and around the cockpit to muffle road and wind noise, and you have a midsize sport/utility vehicle that rivals the comfort and quietness of the best upscale SUVs.

As for power, both models feature a standard four-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. Base models are equipped with the Vortec 4200 I-6. At 290 horsepower, it's a nice match for the 9-7X, for those who value fuel economy over pulling power. (Horsepower is up by 15 over the current I-6, as a result of increased compression ratio and improved airflow. This upgrade will be seen in all 2006 GMT360-based SUVs.) The inline-six is smooth and is said to deliver 21 mpg on the open road; however, the popular model likely will be the 300-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8--a $2000 upgrade that includes unique six-spoke, 18-inch wheels, adjustable foot pedals, and Xenon headlights. The V-8 has nearly 60 pound-feet more torque than the six and gets the 9-7X moving much faster when onramps and passing come into play. The V-8 also has that sporty exhaust note the I-6 will never have, unless it someday gets paired with a twin turbo. The 5.3-liter's highway fuel economy is said to hover around 19 mpg, with city numbers in the mid-teens.

The advantage the V-8-powered all-wheel-drive 9-7X has in the luxury midsize market is that it can tow 6500 pounds and can save fuel with the latest version of Displacement on Demand technology. The current generation of cylinder-shutoff software makes the system invisible during acceleration and coast-down.

That cutting-edge technology, combined with sporty performance and distinctive Saab looks and styling, ensures this new entry will turn heads wherever it goes.

Get 'em While They're Hot
The Saab 9-7X SUV reflects the most recent (and maybe the pinnacle) of General Motors' GMT360 platform. But if you're thinking of buying one, don't wait too long--9-7X production life is going to be short.

GM is completely redesigning its midsize SUVs for 2007, doing away with the GMT360 platform. According to current marketing plans, Saab will not continue production of the 9-7X beyond the 2007 model year. Instead, it plans on filling its SUV void with a crossover vehicle built in collaboration with Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of Subaru. All signs are pointing to a Saab version of the Subaru B9 Tribeca.

"We continue to see a working relationship between FHI and Saab as a natural fit," said Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product development during the announcement last year. "It makes sense for FHI and Saab to work together early in the development process to deliver their own distinct interpretations of a sporty and versatile crossover product."

That means if you like the 9-7X, get one while you can.--BWS

2006 Saab 9-7X
General
Location of final assembly Moraine, Ohio
Body style Body-on-frame 4-door, 5-pass SUV
EPA size class Midsize utility
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD
Airbags Dual-stage front; side and head curtain (std)
Powertrain
Base engine type Vortec 4200 I-6, iron block/head
Bore x stroke, in 3.66 x 4.01
Displacement, ci/L 256/4.2
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Valve gear DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, continuously variable valve timing
Fuel induction Sequential fuel injection
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 290 @ 6000
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 277 @ 3600
Opt engine type Vortec 5300 V-8 (DOD), iron block/heads
Bore x stroke, in 3.78 x 3.27
Displacement, ci/L 325/5.3
Compression ratio 9.9:1
Valve gear OHV, 2 valves/cyl
Fuel induction Sequential fuel injection
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 300 @ 5200
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 330 @ 4000
Transmission type 4L60-E four-speed automatic
1st 3.06:1
2nd 1.63:1
3rd 1.00:1
4th 0.70:1
Reverse 2.29:1
Axle ratio 3.73:1
Final-drive ratio 2.61:1
Transfer-case model N/A (AWD)
Recommended fuel Regular unleaded
Dimensions/Capacities
Wheelbase, in 113.1
Length, in 193.2
Width, in 75.4
Height, in 68.5
Track, f/r, in 63.1/62.1
Headroom, f/r, in 40.2/39.6
Legroom, f/r, in 41.4/37.1
Shoulder room, f/r, in 58.5/58.5
Cargo volume, back row, seat up 39.8
Cargo volume, back row, seat down 80.1
Ground clearance, in 7.7
Approach/departure angle, deg29.0/23.0
Load lift height, in 32
Base curb weight, lb 4770 (I-6); 4790 (V-8)
Payload capacity, lb 1138
GVWR, lb 6001
GCWR, lb 12,000
Towing capacity, lb 5500 (I-6); 6500 (V-8)
Fuel capacity, gal 22.0
Chassis
Suspension, f/r IFS, double A-arm, coil springs/live axle, five-link solid axle, self-leveling air
Steering type Hydraulic assist rack and pinion
Ratio 18.5:1
Brakes, f/r Vented disc, alum dual-piston calipers/vented disc, 4WABS
Wheels 18.0-in alum
Tires Dunlop P255/55R18
EPA fuel econ, city/hwy 15/21 (I-6); 15/19 (V-8)
Price
Base price $40,000 (I-6); $42,000 (V-8)
Options Navigation system, sunroof
Price range $40,000-$45,000

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