While we have truly unique vehicles like the next-generation 2013 Saab 9-3 to look forward to—or at least hope for, given the current uncertain state of Saab's future—in the meantime the Swedish automaker is subsisting on designs directly shared with its former owner, General Motors.
The last of these to be introduced is the new 2011 9-4X. With all Saab's ties to GM over many years, it's surprising that it took so long to get one of the things it most needed: a manageably sized luxury crossover. But after spending a half-day driving the new 9-4X around Washington, D.C. and the surrounding suburbs and countryside, we can say that Saab gets the most appealing, tastefully appointed version of the so-called Theta Premium platform.
The new 9-4X doesn't look like any Saab we know from the side profile (we can't help but see a reworked Saturn Vue if we squint, or even up close around the cowl), but truthfully, you might never know—whether at first glance or even after driving it—that the new 9-4X crossover is closely related to the Cadillac SRX. Saab officials say you can park a 9-4X alongside an SRX (they're both made at the same plant in Mexico) and you'll see few if any common details between the two vehicles. While the SRX gets lots of creases, the Saab has mostly smooth sheetmetal; there's no lower-body cladding; and a high rear spoiler helps play the visual trick of making the roofline seem a little lower than it is. In back, the 9-4X is at its most generic and ubiquitous, but there's a LED light bar that Saab says will be one of the brand's new distinguishing features. But it's squarely from the front that the new 9-4X is at its most aggressive and expressive, thanks to a vertically-stretched version of Saab's three-port grille, flanked by nicely detailed headlamps that are given a blue hue around the edges—a controversial detail, though one that we liked.
Inside, it's (almost) all Saab
Inside, the instrument panel in the 9-4X looks and feels all the part of a Saab. Yes, the ignition button is at the center console, and the green gauge pointers and the brand's distinct gauge font are a constant reminder, along with the odd joystick air vents and old-style black-plastic gridplates over them. And the instrument panel smoothly wraps over and downward and is canted toward the driver. Only the sound-system and climate switchgear look like familiar GM parts-bin pieces. The one especially cool functional design feature that the Cadillac sibling has and Saab doesn't get is the retractable, partially hidden navigation screen.
The 2011 9-4X is offered in three different performance variations: 3.0i, 3.0i XWD, and Aero XWD, with XWD referring to the brand's all-wheel drive system. The 3.0i models come with a 265-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6, which in the SRX we've observed as neither very responsive nor fuel-efficient (it's also an engine that needs to be revved a lot to get to its power).
The only versions that Saab made available were of the Aero version—featuring a powertrain that Cadillac has decided to cancel (it comprised just 5 to 10 percent of SRX sales). While the 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6 is modern enough, with direct injection, and variable valve timing, its power delivery feels more like the turbo powertrains of a decade ago. There's nothing instantaneous about the torque delivery here (as in BMW's sweet turbo six), even if it can make its peak 295 pound-feet as low as 2,000 rpm; it takes the twin-scroll turbo surprisingly long to spool up for squirts of the throttle. That considered, the 9-4X launches quickly off the line, but not nearly as quick as you'd expect for its 300 hp and high torque output.
How many horses again?
It shows in the numbers, too; Saab has revealed acceleration specs for the two models, and the Aero with XWD is only two tenths of a second (7.7 seconds) quicker to 60 than the standard non-turbo version with AWD. And it felt a little slower in transitions than those numbers would suggest.
The elephant in the room is weight. In Aero XWD guise, as we tested it, the 9-4X is almost embarrassingly overweight for a two-row utility vehicle that's on the smaller end of mid-size: about 4,650 pounds. As such, it's considerably heavier than the Mercedes-Benz GLK, which we'd put in the same category, also heavier than the Acura MDX or Lincoln MKX in similar guise.