The 9-4X arrived too late to save Saab. But could it have done so?
When General Motors acquired Saab, they were not taking control of a healthy, thriving carmaker. Saab was already losing money and furthermore, required massive investment. It’s clear that GM made many mistakes over its stewardship, but perhaps the most glaring of them was (and GM were by no means alone in this) a growth policy which placed speed and market presence over quality of execution.
Having spent vast sums of money acquiring European prestige car brands, General Motors, like their Dearborn rivals saw expansion as the favoured route to amortising their outlay. No stranger to the 4×4 segment – GM were already making hefty profits from their broad ranges of SUVs and pick-ups. But never the most far-seeing of automakers, the General was relatively late to recognise the growth in upmarket 4×4’s, apart of course from the Escalade, which at its 1998 debut, was hardly the quality item befitting the fabled Cadillac nameplate – if indeed it ever became one.
Having identified the necessity for Saab to be represented in this growing US market sector, Detroit management did what they knew best, scouring the GMpire for hardware that could be inexpensively repurposed for the job. Both Subaru and Chevrolet were variously employed – GM having acquired a 20% stake in the Fuji Heavy Industries business – the resulting vehicles painting none of the various protagonists in a positive light – Trollhättan least of all. This bought GM time and presence, but little else; certainly not credibility, nor return on investment, sales being of a rather paltry nature.
Having instigated a nose-heavy facelift of Subaru’s Tribeca crossover, GM’s divestment in FHI in 2006 saw the proposed 9-6X model cancelled, and a new programme initiated, twinned with Cadillac. Although widely stated to be based upon GM’s Theta platform, Saab insider, Peter Dörrich who was engineering lead on the programme told Swedish publication, Aftonbladet that not only was the platform unique to both models, but that the conceptual engineering was led from Trollhättan.
Dörrich, who became Saab’s head of product development following GM’s sale of the Swedish carmaker to Spyker, spoke of his (successful) efforts to convince Cadillac’s management of the necessity for both 9-4X and SRX to feel European in driving characteristics, lobbying for a Haldex eLSD four-wheel-drive system to be fitted, when Cadillac had opted for a cheaper, less sophisticated set-up.
Both cars shared powertrains, with both Cadillac and Saab opening their respective accounts with a GM sourced 3.0 litre V6, developing 265 bhp, driving the front wheels only. Further up the price range was a smaller capacity turbocharged 2.8 litre V6 with 300 horses, all wheel drive and all the toys. Those artificially aspirated horses were necessary, because both were on the portly side.
But while there was little difference under the skin, the 9-4X was given its own identity with a bespoke bodyshell. Stylistically, during the immediate pre-disposal period, Saab design appeared to be going through something of a creative purple patch; a new, more coherent direction being previewed by a series of highly credible concept cars. And while the 9-4X was perhaps not a shining example of their craft, it was at least attractive and recognisably marque specific.
Carrying seemingly inviolate features such as blacked-out A-pillars (suggesting an aircraft cockpit), a rising DLO towards the rear and both surfacing and styling elements not only redolent of the previous year’s 9-5 saloon, but also the proposed 9-3 from the hands of Simon Padian and Anthony Lo, the 9-4X looked both up to date and cohesive. Furthermore, unlike previous attempts, it was a product with sufficient market potential to succeed both in the US and in Europe.
There was little question about where the primary focus of the model was directed however, and at the time, there was a degree of logic in that. However, the 9-4X’s primary enemies were weight and powertrains. It was obvious the large-capacity (and thirsty) V6 units were not going to cut it outside of the US, and efforts were made to source appropriate diesel powered engines. According to Dörrich, units from GM (a four-cylinder) and VM Motori in Italy (a V6) were tried, but they were neither sufficiently powerful, nor fuel efficient. Both were abandoned.
But the biggest enemy of all overtook Dörrich, Saab and GM. In the messy aftermath of the 2008 crash and GM’s subsequent Chapter 11 declaration, the troublesome Swedish satellite was pawned off to Victor Muller of Spyker N.V, who made a valiant if futile attempt to breathe life into the flatlining carmaker. Production of the 9-4X, which was built alongside the Cadillac SRX at GM’s Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico ceased with Saab’s subsequent bankruptcy in 2011, with somewhere between 600-900 9-4Xs built in total.
Many have posited the view that had it arrived in a more timely fashion, the 9-4X could have saved Saab’s fortunes – in the US market at least. Certainly, by 2010, sales of Saab’s saloons were in reverse, partially a factor of both their age and appeal, partially due to market conditions during that febrile post-crash period, but equally owing to the knowledge that the Swedish carmaker was in deep trouble and up for sale.
The 9-4X was in itself a convincing product, with both the New York Times and Car & Driver giving the model a positive review, with some understandable reservations. The NYT described it as packing “a surprising degree of Scandinavian charm“, while Car & Driver applauded its “surprisingly supple ride“, lack of suspension noise and the smoothness of the six-speed Aisin Warner automatic transmission.
The cabin design was also heavily influenced by the concurrent 9-5, being almost identical in style and layout. Car & Driver called it “subdued”, lauding its “high quality materials and soft touch surfaces.” The New York Times noted, “your eye takes in its charcoal-tone surroundings in a clean, unbroken sweep. The cabin is also just right for the jet-inspired Saab, a blast of individualism against the more conformist vibe of, say, an Acura MDX or Lexus RX”. Boot capacity was criticised however.
Nevertheless, considering its high pricing, dipsomaniac thirst, not to mention its competition, Car & Driver concluded that the 9-4X was “a pretty tough sell“.
“For decades, the automotive world welcomed small-scale underdogs like Saab, with its loyal individualist owners. But that world is dying“, opined the NYT. So too it seemed was Saab itself, and while the 9-4X was perhaps a decent product, with sufficient potential for development, it simply wasn’t good enough, notwithstanding the timing, which wasn’t in any way auspicious. No one model line would have saved Saab by 2010. The damage was done at least a decade before.
Datasource and quotes: New York Times/ Car & Driver/ Saabsunited