Spare a moment’s thought for Saab. It’s a car company that enjoys almost universal respect: when was the last time you heard someone have a go at a Saab product or a Saab driver? It’s a combination of Swedish origins and a reluctance to follow the crowd, and products that don’t slavishly follow the fickle finger of fashion hold a certain appeal.
Not that Saab is a company that will ignore its customers however. The recently updated 9-5 received some detailed tweaks in response to customer feedback, and now there’s a whole new car that arguably meets a need - Saab is going soft-roading with the 9-4X. The ‘X’ suffix indicates four-wheel drive and off-road capability, and however modest it is most owners will rarely trouble more than a raised kerb. That makes it more of a crossover, a tag that Saab is happy for the 9-4X to wear and in doing so it takes on a host of premium rivals.
Unlike some of those rivals the 9-4X successfully transplants the family DNA onto the SUV template. It shares many of its styling cues with the 9-5 saloon, including the ice-block headlights, three-piece grille and full width rear reflector. It also has the ‘floating roof’ design, created by having a wide rear pillar and blacked-out front pillars. For a class of car that is often regarded as a little unsubtle or ostentatious the 9-4X manages to look suitably tough without inviting invective from other road users.
A modest climb into the cabin reveals a layout that again follows a sound mix of practicality and style. Anyone familiar with the inside of a 9-5 will be at home here, as the 9-4X carries over much of the dashboard’s design and function. That’s no bad thing however, as Saabs have always had a firm eye on the need for good ergonomics and a few miles behind the wheel confirms that everything is as it should be.
Space is certainly not in short supply either. Those up front enjoy the traditional high-riding SUV seating position, but even in the back the view out is very good. Heads and legs will be able to stretch out, and because the 9-4X is a five-seater only, luggage space is not a problem. The boot is one of many places that show the clever and practical design, as it uses a clever under-floor storage compartment to stow the metal boot divider - another smart feature. There are stacks of cubby holes, double door bins, a huge glovebox and a cup holder with two levels to suit different sizes of cup - this is clearly a cabin that benefits from plenty of forethought.
In terms of its mechanical make-up, the 9-4X shows its focus on the American market. Saab’s XWD system is fitted as standard putting drive to all four wheels, while under the bonnet there is the 2.8-litre twin turbocharged V6 already seen in the 9-5 mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.WIth just the one engine option at present, diesel fans will have to look elsewhere although there are a number of diesel powerplants in other Saabs that would do just fine.
In the meantime however, the V6 turbo gives the kind of performance expected of a 300bhp powerplant. With the Drive Sense system set in Eco mode, the 9-4X maximises economy by reducing the sharpness of the throttle response and makes the gearbox shift into high gears early. That works fine at lower speeds but on the open road Comfort or Sport modes demonstrate the full performance. It may not be the absolute fastest of the compact SUVs but it’s hard to imagine needing something quicker.
There’s a good balance between comfort and handling in terms of the suspension too, again helped by the Drive Sense system which electronically adjusts damper setting to the driver’s needs. The 20-inch wheels certainly contribute to a ride that is a fraction firmer than most, but few buyers would find fault with comfort levels. On the flip side the 9-4X is happy to be hustled through a series of bends, giving little indication of its size and weight.
With prices likely to put it between premium rivals and more mainstream offerings, the Saab 9-4X will meet the needs of many while also appealing to those with a streak of individuality. The introduction of a powerful diesel option would offer a real threat to the best in the class.