LE MALBAIE, Quebec -- A sprint from Quebec City to Le Malbaie on route 138 along the St. Lawrence River in Canada's French-flavored province of Quebec shows off the exuberant personality and four-wheeling traction capacity of the first SUV to sport the badge of Saab. Yes, you read that right: Sweden's unique automaker, long-standing advocate of small cars with turbo-charged engines directing all torque to the front wheels for steering as well as gripping in order to plow steadily through arctic snow and ice, has a large new non-turbo SUV with the up-front engine sending all power to all of the wheels through an all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction system.
The new Saab is called 9-7x, with the 'x' denoting the AWD traction mode. Conformed as a shapely mid-size SUV with four cabin doors and cushy leather-clad seats for five passengers, Saab's newest product is packaged as a luxurious AWD wagon with options for two naturally-aspirated engines including the first V8 for Saab. But before assuming that Saab's factories in Trollhattan, Sweden, have converted assembly lines to produce AWD mechanisms and big V8 engines, you should understand that the new 9-7x SUV is built to Saab's standards at a plant in Ohio owned by General Motors. With Saab organized now beneath the corporate umbrella of General Motors, it seems that products and technologies from companies linked to GM may be leverage through joint ventures for economic efficiency.
To develop a bona fide SUV for the Swedish brand, Saab's product planners jump-started the design process by selecting as a foundation the GMT360 truck platform and powertrains used to build the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Buick Rainier wagons. Then Saab's stylists and engineers applied Swedish design traits to the sleek aerodynamic package plus premium appointments in the passenger compartment and taut tuning for the suspension. The result is a dashing design with knife-edge-keen lines and contours that diminish the squareness of a SUV.
Actually, the 9-7x looks sleek because a wagon's rear bay is disguised due to blacked-out center roof pillars and a forward tilt of back pillars plus wrap-around black glass at rear corners. Also, the curvy face features Saab's signature three-port grille sandwiched between corner wrap-around multi-lens headlamps in a style that resembles Saab cars. Inspiration for the layout of the 9-7x cabin came from the pilot-oriented cockpit of an airplane.
Keep in mind that Saab is so steeped in aviation design that its name is an acronym for "Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget," which translates into English as "Swedish Airplane Company." Plan for the cabin shows a pair of bucket seats on the front row and a bench for three on the second row. From the driver's bucket, all controls as well as the dashboard center stack tip toward the driver. Round analog gauges in the instruments cluster include a large tachometer to the left of the centered speedometer, with all dials rimmed in chrome and displaying faces in black and needles contrasted in white.
Saab aficionados will also find familiar Saab touches, such as sliding-plate air vents in the dash and the ignition key switch planted on the center console. Due to the long 113-inch wheelbase, legroom for the rear three-person bench is ample. The seatback splits into sections and folds down to fashion a flat floor in the cargo bay with double the space at 80 cubic feet.
Saab's SUV comes with a high content of standard equipment like power windows and locks and mirrors, dual zone automatic climate system, adjustable floor pedals, the leather upholstery with front seats adding heat elements and power controls plus memory settings, a Bose sound system with six-disc CD changer and XM satellite radio service. Options range from a moonroof to a DVD-based video entertainment system for backseat riders plus OnStar telecommunications with a DVD-based navigation system. We select the base issue 9-7x for our trek north on twisty two-lane route 170 traveling across fir-covered mountains to La Baie on the Saguenay River.
Saab's work on the GMT360 chassis includes a one-inch drop in the ride height, to lower the vehicle's center of gravity, and reinforcements at the front end of the frame to support the stiffer suspension. Dunlop all-season tires -- P255/55R18 -- were specified for road-gripping capability and they mount on 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels. Also, a quick steering gear ratio for the rack and pinion steering system in concert with stiff mounts conspire to produce tight and responsive sensations for the steering with a good on-center feel. As a result, the 9-7x handles all of the kinks and curves of the convoluted road to La Baie with confidence-inspiring agility as a sophisticated and smart AWD system keeps the four tread patches planted firmly on pavement.
The AWD device operates automatically and requires no input from the driver. For stopping, four large vented disc brakes with front aluminum dual piston calipers connect to an intelligent four-wheel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic stability control (ESC). Passive safety equipment extends to dual-stage frontal air bags for both front seats plus curtain-style side air bags for outboard seats in front and back as keyed to a rollover sensing system (RSS). And within the five-place cabin, Saab's SUV reveals an impressive quality of quietness in terms of reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).
For locomotion, 9-7x presents two choices. Standard engine is the in-line-six powerplant developed by GM to generate the high horsepower of a V8 but the fuel efficiency of a V6. The 4.2-liter six, with dual overhead cams and four valves for every cylinder, delivers 290 hp at 6000 rpm and a flat band of torque to 277 lb-ft at 3600 rpm. Optional power comes from a 5.3-liter V8 with GM's Displacement on Demand (DOD) technology to pare by half the number of cylinders engaged in the combustion process to conserve fuel when boosted power is not needed. It makes as much as 300 hp at 5200 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. A smooth-shifting GM Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic transmission mates with either engine.
Saab whittles price points for the 9-7x as low as $38,270.