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Softening a Sibling's Muscle

2005 Saab 9-2x Aero Sport Wagon

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page G01

Colin Price has a difficult job. He is the product communications manager for Saab Cars USA Inc. That means he represents products sold by Saab Automobile, which is a Swedish subsidiary of U.S.-based General Motors Corp.

GM also owns other foreign car companies, such as Adam Opel AG in Germany and Vauxhall Motors Ltd. in Britain. But most of GM's global reach is through joint ventures, partnerships and "strategic alliances" with companies such as Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., which makes Subaru cars.



Nuts & Bolts

Downside: The Saab 9-2X and Subaru WRX are mechanical twins. That could hurt the luxury-laden 9-2X in a price-sensitive market where the less costly, less spiffy WRX might prove more appealing to buyers light of pocket.

Ride, acceleration and handling: For the 9-2X, there is delight in every category. Frankly, I could do without the bump and grind of the WRX's ride.

Head-turning quotient: The 9-2X looks good, even with its functional, modified hood scoop. The WRX looks ugly. Its oversized hood scoop and rear spoiler, although functional, hint at something approaching adolescence.

Body style, layout: The 9-2X is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, four-door, hatchback wagon. It is available in two trim levels -- base Linear and upscale Aero.

Capacities: The 9-2X seats five people. Trunk capacity is 27.9 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 61.6 cubic feet with the rear seat down. Fuel capacity is 15.9 gallons. Premium unleaded gasoline is recommended for the Aero.

Mileage: I averaged 25 miles per gallon in the tested 9-2X Aero in highway driving.

Engines/transmissions: The 9-2X Aero gets a 2-liter, 227-horsepower, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. The Linear gets the normally aspirated 2.5-liter, 165-horsepower engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard for both cars; a four-speed automatic is optional.

Safety: Side air bags and Saab-designed active head restraints.

Price: Base price on the tested 9-2X Aero is $26,950. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $25,603. Price as tested is $29,905, including $1,950 in options and a $695 destination charge. Dealer's invoice price with options and destination charge is $28,092. Base price for the Linear is $22,990. Dealer's invoice is $21,841.

Purse-strings note: Compare with the Subaru WRX. Do you want luxury or performance, or a combination of both? At what price?

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That is all good for GM. The giant car company can use its various ownerships and alliances to obtain cars that, usually for reasons of cost, it does not want to build itself. That is especially true for small-allotment cars, such as the 2005 Saab 9-2X sport wagon, this week's test-mobile.

The 9-2X is Saab's entry into what the auto industry calls the "premium sport compact segment."

Buyers in that group generally are young, affluent professionals and entrepreneurs. They want cars that go fast and handle well, but that also show off well in corporate and country club parking lots. That means they want automotive performance without big white racing stripes running down the centers of their automobiles, or racing-car numbers painted on the sides of their chosen rides. They want luxury-car interiors versus the stripped innards of NASCAR automobiles.

Saab executives figured they needed only 8,000 9-2X cars annually to make their mark in the "premium sport compact" market. That is a hard number to work with in the mathematics of the auto industry.

If the 9-2X cars were priced in the manner of limited edition Maybach motorcars -- from about $300,000 to $400,000 -- an annual production run of 8,000 cars would be okay. But the 9-2X is priced from $23,685 for the base Linear model to $27,645 for the tested Aero version.

No automaker with an ounce of fiscal common sense is going to spend the $2 billion to $3 billion it takes to develop a completely new car only to turn out one that will sell in minuscule numbers at a relatively small price.

So, Saab went to parent GM, who in turn went to partner Fuji Heavy Industries, who went to subsidiary Subaru to get a car that would meet Saab's market needs. Subaru offered up its hot, 227-horsepower weekend-racer Impreza WRX. Saab accepted, and turned the blue-collar WRX into the pinstriped Saab 9-2X sport wagon.

That is where Colin Price comes in. His job is to convince the media, and through the media the buying public, that the Subaru WRX and the Saab 9-2X are substantially different cars. It has been a very tough sell.

"We keep getting beaten up by journalists who don't understand the concept," Price said in a discussion over lunch. I could see the bruises. The pummeling is understandable to anyone who has driven both cars.

The 9-2X Aero and the WRX share the same, spirited 2-liter, 227-horsepower, turbocharged engine. They have the same standard, quick-throw five-speed manual gearboxes, the same all-wheel-drive systems, the same basic body structure. Both can get down and boogie on the road.

Yet, the two cars are different -- and the difference is more than cosmetic. For example, the Saab 9-2X offers a much more comfortable ride than its Subaru WRX sibling. Saab, with assistance from Fuji Heavy Industries, massaged the WRX's suspension system just enough to retain its sporting character -- minus the WRX's tendency to rock and sock you on anything less than a perfectly smooth road.

The Subaru WRX prides itself on having a race-ready interior, one devoid of almost anything that does not help the car go fast. But the Saab 9-2X takes a different approach. It understands that young affluent types, regardless of any previous personal rebellions, still long for the luxury with which many of them were reared. Thus, in comparison with the WRX's interior, the 9-2X's cabin is plush, replete with the kinds of amenities found in substantially more expensive cars.

Also, the 9-2X has a better-looking exterior than that of its swaggering cousin. The 9-2X is East Side Manhattan -- sleek, trim, sophisticated, free of anything approaching garishness, such as that huge, soaring air spoiler atop the trunk lid of the Subaru WRX.

In short, the two cars are fairly human -- same blood, same intestines and the same inherent talents. But they are of completely different breeding. They are not likely to share much of anything outside of their physical essentials, and that includes buyers.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company