Smart Americans say 'Hi' to the Saabaru

Svenska Aeroplan may have finally found the mainstream success it has been seeking for the past 20 years, says Hilton Holloway

Most famous brands grow from a small company that builds a reputation for a distinctive approach to product design and development. An approach that can sometimes be called a philosophy. BMW's "ultimate driving machine" for example.

Most famous brands grow from a small company that builds a reputation for a distinctive approach to product design and development. An approach that can sometimes be called a philosophy. BMW's "ultimate driving machine" for example.

But what happens when a small company ticks the boxes - quality, stand-out design, innovation - but fails to graduate into mainstream desirability and the premium profits that go with it? Such a company might find itself filed under "enduringly eccentric" and find further expansion very difficult indeed. Such a company might well be called Saab.

Svenska Aeroplan AB (Swedish Aeroplanes Ltd) was established before the Second World War and switched to car production post war with the distinctive teardrop-shaped 92. Saab stuck with the teardrop shape through to the late 1960s before switching to the classic 99/900 series, marked by the upright, wrap-around windscreen. This old war horse lasted until 1993, and its death marked the end of the truly eccentric Saab.

Ailing after a boom in the 1980s, 50 per cent of Saab was sold to General Motors in 1990. In a search for mainstream success, the 900 was replaced by a new 900 based on conventional Opel bits. Despite the more modern undercarriage and a raft of safety features, Saab didn't take off. It spent most of the 1990s in the red and struggled along with just two model lines. GM took full control in January 2000. The thoroughly de-quirked 9-3 Sports Saloon of 2002 was better, but still didn't light fires. The company struggled on, selling about 140,000 cars a year. That might have been the end, had it not been for the intervention of General Motor's "product tsar", Bob Lutz. He grabbed Saab by the scruff of its black polo-neck and called for radical measures. The Swedes needed more products, especially in the US. The quick-fix answer was to take existing models from GM's vast portfolio and give them a Saab-esque makeover. America's vast appetite for giant SUVs and the developing "premium-compact" market were targeted. About 18 months ago, Lutz commissioned Saab versions of the GM's mid-market 360 SUV family and its Subaru Impreza.

At the California launch of the 9-2X, the Saab chairman, Peter Augustsson, admitted that his firm was 20 years late into the SUV market and early into the premium-compact slot. "Perhaps that makes for a not-bad average," he admitted ruefully.

He revealed that 39 per cent of US customers had deserted the brand to buy an SUV. GM research reveals Saab customers are the most highly educated and some of the most widely travelled car buyers on the planet. Go figure.

Rivals in the premium compact will include the Volvo S40, Audi A3 and BMW 1 series. These cars, it's reckoned, will be bought by college graduates in their late 20s. Saab is offering two Japanese-built 9-2Xs, powered by Subaru's distinctive flat-four engine - a 165bhp 2.5-litre Linear and a 227bhp turbocharged Aero model. Prices start at $22,990 for the Saab 9-2X 2.5 Linear and at $26,950 for the Saab 9-2X Aero.

The 9-2X makeover involves a brand new nose, new tailgate, rear bumper and rear lights. Inside, the crummy Impreza interior gets new door-trim panels, a new centre console, new heater controls, new instrument dials and a new stereo. And there's a smart new steering wheel.

Saab's chassis engineer, Per Jansson, gave the suspension new, damper settings, six-times stiffer wishbone bushes and new tyres and wheels. The Aero model also gets a quicker steering rack on a twice-as-stiff mounting.

First, I tried the 2.5-litre Linear. We don't get this engine in the UK Impreza, but we should. It's torquey, flexible and enthusiastic. On the winding mountain roads, Saab's improvements are clear in the steering, and in ride and refinement. There's no doubt it enjoys being flung around, helped no end by the permanent four-wheel drive. On Saab's mini test track even ultra-aggressive cornering failed to upset either car, though the Linear rolls more and has a slight tendency to understeer lacking in the ultra-focused Aero. On concrete motorways the "chuckachucka" from road imperfections and background thrum from the engine has been almost eliminated. It's a much more peaceful place than any previous Impreza. It's got strong brakes too, with decent pedal feel. There's a sense that the 2.5 Linear has the long legs of fast weekend tourer.

The turbocharged Aero is a surprisingly different machine. The engine note is much more evident and the bigger 17in wheels and 45-profile tyres deliver a more aggressive ride and more road noise. The steering is noticeably quicker, and even the clutch is heavier (though there's an optional four-speed autobox).

With just 1,200 miles on the clock, the Aero's engine was exceptionally tight and slow to respond. Even so, it's obvious that the combination of a smaller (2.0-litre) engine and a turbo is not ideal. It doesn't have enough wallop at low revs and suddenly bursts into life at high revs. It goes very well at the top end, though. Overtaking is a breeze. The Aero has a very crisp and responsive chassis, and despite the greater racket it's still an advance on the Impreza. Even though the package is ageing - the cabin is cramped and narrow and there's some wind noise from the frameless side windows - the car feels very stiff and rattle-free.

The 9-2X won't last much more than two years or so (one of the reasons its not coming to Europe), but it's a surprisingly convincing start for the last-chance revival of Saab. It should easily hit modest sales projections. And there are three more new Saabs to come in the next 24 months, but I'm sworn to secrecy. The end of the runway is approaching. Svenska Aeroplan won't get a better chance to fly.

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