2005 Saab 9-2X: Can an Asian play Swede?

2005 Saab 9-2X Aero

2005 Saab 9-2X Aero

The Saab 9-2X says it’s payback time. When they made the Charlie Chan movies of the thirties and forties, it wasn’t acceptable to Hollywood to put a genuine Asian in a leading role, even when that role was an Asian character. Thus when Detective Chan of the Honolulu Police was solving mysteries in exotic locales world wide, the part was played by Warner Oland. Or, to use his birth name, Johan Verner Ölund…born in Nyby, Sweden. With acceptable makeup and better acting than usually attributed to him, Olund made a credible Chinese detective.

Now some seventy years on, an Asian is playing a Swedish role. You won’t find any mention of it in Saab literature, but the new 2005 Saab 9-2X, under the makeup, is a Subaru Impreza WRX. Turnabout is fair play.

Here’s how it all happened. A decade or so ago, Saab automobiles (Saab Aircraft AB and truck maker Saab Scania—Scania AB—not included) became part of the GM family. General Motors now owns Saab’s automobile lineup and facilities lock, stock and aquavit and Saab enters the GM melting pot. As the General owns 35 percent of Subaru and Saab was deemed to need an entry-level sedan to anchor its more upscale 9-3 and 9-5 models, the WRX took on a new role.

The 9-2X then has two burdens to carry: is it a good enough car on its own merits? And is it sufficiently differentiated from its Subaru donor to be a “true Saab”?

Actually, Saab stylists have performed a minor miracle. Park the 9-2X alongside a WRX and the profiles are similar because no major changes could be made to the rear two-thirds of the car, but the Subaru is sufficiently rounded to pass as an aerodynamic Swede with the cosmetics applied.

The Subaru snout has been replaced by a reasonable facsimile of the Swede’s, complete with the three-opening grille and appropriate Saab logo. The front end lacks the traditional Saab clamshell hood (wrapping over the top of the fenders rather slotted between them), but then so does the Opel platform-based 9-3. Of that current lineup, only the “last Swedish Saab,” the 9-5 has that feature.

There wasn’t much the Swedes could do with the 9-2X’s midsection, but with the optical legerdemain of wrapping the rear glass around the WRX’s D-pillar and the roof spoiler, the 9-2X’s posterior masquerades reasonably well as baby version of the 9-5 wagon’s.

There’s nothing in Saab heritage for the hood scoop, a functional and necessary part of the Subaru turbocharged powerplant in the 9-2X Aero (the Aero has a 227-horse turbo four; the base 9-2X Linear has a 165-horse naturally aspirated engine). The scoop feeds outside air to the engine’s intercooler, which cools the turbo-compressed—and heated—air before it enters the engine itself, improving power and efficiency. No doubt it would please the original Saab engineers who came to automotive design from aircraft designing and who would respect the scoop’s functionality.

Saab stylists made the interior Saab-like as possible with colors, fabrics and a tuning of the dash’s center stack with battleship gray and a lighter “metallic” insert (Aero only). It isn’t exactly Ikea, but it will pass. There’s an impression of quality materials important to the upwardly mobile buyers Saab hopes to attract. Our test Aero had two-tone bucket seats in blue with black bolsters (complementing the sophisticated Deep Blue Mica exterior) and the seats are well bolstered for sporty handling. Interior room falls in the “fine” category for front seat, while rear leg room is snug.

The Saab masquerade starts to come apart when the engine starts. Saabs inline fours have always, at least for recent memory, been notable for their creamy operation. But while Subarus have been smoother than the generic Magic Fingers inline four, there’s a distinctive rocking motion and the engine sound has a distinctive cadence that just ain’t Saab. Saab also has a history of strong low-rev torque, even at the expense of top end zing. Subaru recent high-performance history is just the opposite.

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John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.