We learned three things about Saab after hanging out with its 9-4x team for a few days in Washington, D.C. One: You have to be taller than 6-foot-3 to work there. Two: You have to be an engineer. (They did bring a marketing guy from Sweden, but it turns out he is an engineer as well.) Three: You have to be an optimist.

Saab has had a pretty tough decade. Becoming wholly owned by General Motors in 2000 after a decade of partial ownership, it has struggled on both marketing and manufacturing fronts. Tight finances demanded shared platforms, which made it difficult to build traditional Saab products. Small budgets made it nearly impossible to achieve the marketing penetration necessary for Saab to attract new customers.

Toward the end of the decade, things looked even more grim. Parent company GM established a date at which the company would either be sold or left for dead. The first unsuccessful purchase attempt was made by Swedish supercar builder Koenigsegg. That fell through. Suitor number two was Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Corp, and that deal also fell through. Finally, at the 11th hour, Saab was purchased by Dutch supercar builder Spyker. Even through all this, employees kept their heads and hopes up.

"With each new event and new product, we looked at it as this will be our time. This time, it will work. Each time, we knew we had tried too hard to let the next challenge stop us. We are going to succeed," exclaimed Saab's 9-4x product manager while holding on for dear life in the back seat during the press drive. I still can't say if his voice cracked from pride or fear.

While the rest of the world waits patiently for the launch of the new 9-5 Sport Combi, Saab is convinced the 9-4x Crossover will be the hit it has been waiting for here in the States. Saab believes this is the first shared-platform vehicle (its mate is the Cadillac SRX) that truly embodies all Saab's core qualities right from the start.

The all-wheel-drive system is Saab's XWD, a front-drive-based Haldex system. In normal driving, the system splits power 90/10 front to rear. If the situation calls for it, up to 90 percent can be transferred to the rear by the computer-controlled center power coupling.

Working in conjunction with XWD is ELSD, an Electronic Limited Slip Differential in the rear axle. Both systems direct power to the wheels that can utilize it best. Under most conditions, the system is completely transparent. Only during hard cornering on muddy roads or extra-exuberant freeway interchanging did it make itself known.

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 tothe 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.

In stark contrast to the heavy controls is the level of luxury Saab has built into the 9-4x. 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. 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.

Saab offers two engine choices. We drove only the high-level Aero, which is equipped with GM's imported-from-Australia 300-horsepower, 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6. The throttle mapping felt a little lazy on our preproduction cars, but if it doesn't change for production, drivers just need to boot the pedal a little further. The engine has plenty of grunt, but with inputs filtered through a computer system that then decides on requested boost, optimum valve timing, and throttle opening, it makes drivers miss the days of a simple cable connected to a butterfly.

Base level and Premium 9-4xs are powered by a 265-horse, 3-liter direct-injection V-6. While we didn't get a chance to drive either of these models, we can assume they are relatively quick, but a far cry from being considered fast. Both models are available in either front drive or with optional XWD all-wheel drive, which is standard on the Aero. All three models use a six-speed automatic transmission that offers up gears in smooth and orderly fashion. The transmission features an Eco Mode selectable at the touch of a center console-mounted button that saves the planet by upshifting sooner and providing a glowing green reminder of your commitment to the environment.

Saab is convinced that, although it shares platforms and powertrains with the Cadillac SRX crossover, very few consumers will cross-shop the two. That may actually bring a sigh of relief from Cadillac since the Saab version is substantially cheaper. The interior and exterior styling are unmistakably Saab, with Swedish quality and minimalism. The materials used in the interior look and feel apropos of the luxury class into which the 9-4x is slotted. The exterior will stand out in a crowd of German and Japanese crossovers, while still looking reserved and understated.

The driving experience may be unconventional for this category, but it might draw enthusiasts looking for more than just luxurious transportation. Saab has historically leaned on other companies for engines, platforms, or sometimes both. 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. The Swedish crossover may fly off lots like IKEA flat-pack coffee tables, but it still won't singlehandedly get Saab to its lofty goals of selling 80,000 cars per year. It might, however, keep things going until Saab's next big chance.


2011 Saab 9-4X
BASE PRICE $34,200-$48,900 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV
ENGINES 3.0L/265-hp/223-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6; 2.8L/300-hp/295-lb-ft turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 4250-4650 lb (mfr est)
WHEELBASE 110.5 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 190.1 x 75.0 x 66.1 in
0-60 MPH 7.7-8.4 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 15-18/22-25 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION CITY/HWY 187-225/135-153 kW-hrs/100mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.94-1.11 lb/mi
ON SALE IN U.S. Summer 2011
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