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MARK PHELAN: Handling, design set Saab SUV apart from other GM vehicles

June 9, 2005

BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC

The Saab 9-7x will need its big engines and all-wheel-drive if the new SUV is to overcome the mountain of skepticism in front of it.


Moraine, a suburb of Dayton, is a long way from Saab's origin in Trollhattan, Sweden, and the truck-based 9-7x, with its big engines and 6,500-pound towing capacity, is equally far removed from the nimble little front-wheel-drive cars that built Saab's reputation.

Many observers assumed GM would simply slap a new grille and a griffon badge on a TrailBlazer and call the result a Saab, but the company went to great lengths to avoid the badge engineering that has blurred the distinctions among its American brands. Saab expects to sell about 7,000 9-7xs a year. The vehicle is hitting dealerships now. Prices start at $38,270 for the six-cylinder Linear model and $40,270 for the V8 Arc.

There's no doubt Saab needed an SUV to boost its U.S. sales, but all the Swedish engineers knew about GM's midsize SUVs was what they'd read in magazines, so they rented a TrailBlazer in Sweden for a test drive early in 2003.

They decided it could work, but the ride and handling had to become more controlled and responsive, said Per Jansson, Saab's chief chassis development engineer.

They developed a quicker steering ratio, new low-profile Dunlop tires, stiffer springs and shocks, and bigger roll bars to give the SUV a sportier personality than its U.S. cousins.

They also lowered the ride height and produced a new grille, headlights, hood and front fenders for a face that will look at home in a Saab dealership. They even had a supplier come up with new roof rails that would be compatible with accessories like bicycle racks that Saab owners already had.

The interior also got a Swedish massage, including a new instrument panel with elegant, driver-oriented gauges and European-style materials.

All the controls were replaced with parts that match other Saabs.

Saab even moved the ignition switch from the steering column to the company's traditional spot on the center console just aft of the shift lever.

That's a change that won't mean anything to newcomers, but it speaks volumes to brand loyalists. It's also a change that cost $50 per vehicle, which is probably more than the entire amount GM spent trying to create the impression of a difference between some Pontiacs and Chevrolets.

"We want people to get out of a 9-3 or 9-5 and say, 'This is a Saab,' " said Sean McNamara, group manager for product at Saab Cars U.S.A.
 

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Hi all,
With GM wanting to move production from Sweden how long before we have GM junk with a SAAB badge on it. Sorry but i sometimes think maybe we should have lost another famous name. I work for a Vauxhall and SAAB dealer at the moment, but started with SAAB when the 96 was still in production. Im not sure i like what i see. All am i just an old [expletive deleted] not in touch with the modern world.
Clive Fletcher, AMIMI CAE SAAB Master technician.
 
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