In an effort to expand their appeal among younger buyers, many manufacturers of premium cars are digging deeper into the $20,000-$30,000 price range with their product lineups. These lower-end offerings typically blend the luxury amenities and high style younger buyers crave with the day-to-day practicality they need. Guided by a "me too" philosophy laid out by parent company General Motors, Saab added an entry-level model to its lineup for 2005.
Available only as a wagon, the Saab 9-2X boasts a base price that's thousands lower than that of the cheapest 9-3 sedan. Thanks to GM's 20-percent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Saab got more than a little help from Subaru with this endeavor. In fact, except for a few unique styling details, revised suspension tuning and some new interior fabric, the all-wheel-drive Saab 9-2X is an Impreza wagon. That's right. The seats, gauges, door handles, controls and interior plastics are all of Impreza origin. Simply borrowing the car from Subaru allowed Saab to bring the 9-2X to market that much quicker. Unfortunately, any semblance of Scandinavian heritage was lost in the process.
The "X" in the 9-2's name denotes a standard all-wheel-drive system, a main selling point and core Subaru product characteristic. Available only as a wagon, the 9-2X's exterior lines have been smoothed to soften the Impreza's edgy look. The front and rear treatments are unique to Saab, including the tailgate, spoiler and wraparound lights. Standard 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55R16 all-season tires were designed exclusively for the 9-2X. In an effort to give the 9-2X upscale dash in place of the Impreza's flash, you won't find any Saab cars in Subaru's signature Rally Blue paint; instead, there are more refined color options including a dark navy blue. As with the Impreza, two engines are available for the Saab 9-2X: a naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder rated for 173 horsepower on the base 2.5i model, and a 230-hp, turbocharged 2.5-liter, four-cylinder boxer on the Aero, which is essentially a WRX wagon. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard on both the 2.5i and Aero, while both can be optioned out with a four-speed automatic.
So, has Saab performed enough of an Impreza transformation to justify paying a few thousand dollars more for the Saab version? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Despite its slightly longer warranty and handsome styling, the 2006 Saab 9-2X strikes us as poor value for the money. True, the Aero model performs every bit like the wonderful WRX, but its 100-percent-Subaru interior feels inappropriately downmarket, and it doesn't deliver the sort of refined ride quality you expect from a vehicle in its price range. Additionally, upscale features like stability control, a high-end audio system and a navigation system simply aren't available. If you want a premium wagon in this price range, the Audi A3 and Volvo V50 are much better choices. If you just want a fun-to-drive wagon with reasonable monthly payments, proceed directly to your local Subaru dealership.
The Saab 9-2X is available as a four-door wagon only in two trims, 2.5i and Aero. Standard items on the 2.5i include a 16-inch alloy wheels, rear roof spoiler, tinted glass, cloth sport seats, a height-adjustable driver seat, manual air conditioning, full power accessories and a four-speaker, single-CD sound system. Step up to Aero and the goodie bag swells to include metallic-framed gauges; a leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob and handbrake; automatic climate control; a cabin air filter; front foglamps; and a six-speaker stereo with an in-dash CD changer. Options include 17-inch twin alloy wheels, leather upholstery, seat heaters, HID headlights, de-icing wipers and a moonroof.
Inside, the 2006 Saab 9-2X is almost all Subaru. Clean, legible gauges are easier to read than most Saab-designed instrumentation, but they're also rather plain in appearance. The two-tone cloth upholstery is attractive and the textured plastics and vinyls on the dash and door tops are actually better than the stuff in some of the more expensive Saab cars, but you'll also find hard, shiny plastic on the console and pillars as well as a cheap headliner that feels like cardboard. This is also the only premium-brand vehicle we know of that doesn't have retained accessory power. A 60/40-split-folding rear seat is at the ready, should you have the need to stow bulky cargo. Maximum cargo capacity is 62 cubic feet -- about the same as an Audi A4 wagon.
Two engines are available for the Saab 9-2X. The base 2.5i model comes with a naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder rated for 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft. The Aero model gets considerably more juice in the form of a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer four that makes 230 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard on both the 2.5i and Aero, while a four-speed automatic is optional. All-wheel drive is standard on both trims.
Although the Impreza's suspension settings were softened for the Saab 9-2X, the wagon still lacks the refined ride quality of the Audi A3 and Volvo V50. However, it's certainly fun to toss around on back roads, especially in Aero form. The engine in the 2.5i provides ample get-up-and-go for everyday driving, but it can feel sluggish during highway passing maneuvers. Aside from a smidgen of the off-the-line lag, the Aero's turbocharged engine is a delight, with a broad powerband and a smooth delivery. In either case, the automatic transmission tends to blunt its performance, so get the manual gearbox if you can.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes and side airbags for front occupants are standard on every 9-2X. Also standard are active front head restraints, which help protect against whiplash in the event of a rear-impact collision. In NHTSA crash tests, the Saab 9-2X received a perfect five stars in frontal-passenger protection, and four stars in driver protection.
The Saab 9-2X enters its second year of production with a new engine: The Aero model now has a larger 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 230 hp and 235 pound-feet of torque. The base Linear model has been renamed the 2.5i and its engine is now rated 173 hp. The Premium Package has been deleted, and the Sport Package has been revised to include 17-inch wheels and xenon headlamps; additionally, a Leather Package is now available for both models. The moonroof on the Aero becomes a stand-alone option.