Thursday, July 21, 2011

First impression: 2011 9-4x

Because the world works the way it does, and because I cannot cloister myself from the written opinions of others, I know that when I have a first impression of a new model that it is somewhat sullied by everything that I have already read or heard about that model. I guess, barring a paradigm shift, it will always be that way. Thus, having read many accounts of the 9-4x already, and having seen it in New York in April, I took my first drive in our new model yesterday.

The 9-4x I drove was one of two Aeros we received last week. This one is silver with a gray interior. I am not yet versed enough to know which of the features are standard and which are optional, and I chuckled when I tried to read the Monroney sticker to find out that the window tint is so dark as to render the sticker illegible. First stop was at the trunk, which I had to open to hang the dealer plate. I really like the “U-Rail” divider in the trunk. Of course, never willing to let any concept be good enough as it is, my mind immediately saw that it would be extra cool if the fence extended not only horizontally but also vertically to accommodate parcels of varying heights. Still, it is a very Saab feature, and the attached pictograph instruction sheet looks like it was prepared by the folks at IKEA. When I opened the trunk floor, I was surprised at the size of the sub-floor storage, but that’s the upside to having no spare tire. I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the floor was a composite and not wood as is found in many of my favorite Saabs. I played with the remote release and power closing tailgate. While technicians in the shop did test and pass the “anti-crush” feature of the auto-closing, I can say that when I just grabbed the tailgate and tried to restrain it, it kept closing undeterred. I did find it odd that the auto-close button was on the bottom lip of the tailgate and was a reach for me. Being short, I am sensitive to height issues, and I could see that for those even shorter than me it might be difficult to reach that button when the tailgate is fully opened. However, there is a second control for this on the driver’s door panel.

Stepping into the car one is greeted by a dash and console that are, if one has driven the 9-5, very familiar. Overall, I like the execution and prefer some of the detail work over that of the 9-5. Truth to tell, I had to keep looking between the two to see the subtle differences. In all, despite any minor criticism I might have for the interior styling, I am relieved to see that Saab is staying with a uniform design strategy across the model range. Seats are great, and the ventilation was appreciated given the heat-wave we are enduring at the moment. The steering wheel, right out of the 9-5, is magnificent. I don’t actually like the look of it, but when I’m driving, I only know the wheel by its heft and tactile sensation, and in that regard it is beyond reproach. The dead pedal is perfectly positioned. While a carry-over from GM, I do still like the shift lever in this car.

For a vehicle which is fairly compact, there are some facets which are enormous. On the Aero, the 20” wheels look almost too large, but as such enhance the overall appearance. The sunroof is one of those panoramic wonders, again like the 9-5, and when seated in the rear, the view is glorious. What a way to give someone a tour or, say, Manhattan where they could actually see the skyscrapers from very comfortable confines. Lastly, the A-pillars bother me some. I’ve seen smaller tree trunks. This is where reading other reviews might compromise my objectivity. While I didn’t get into the 9-4x and look right at the pillars, I had just read Swade’s account and as soon as my eyes noted the A-pillars, they were all that I could see. Was I predisposed to this from my having read his account? Perhaps, but fat pillars have bothered me before. The B-C-D pillars do not bother me. I use mirrors exclusively for rearward and side views, and when properly positioned are far more reliable than looking directly out of a car. When driving the 9-4x, I did encounter a corner where the pillars really impeded my vision and I had to crane to the right so see where I was going. The last new model which left me feeling pillar-phobic was the 1994 900, whose pillars were a bit larger than the C-900, but more importantly were positioned such that they encroached the driver’s visibility, which was very disconcerting at first. If I could make a suggestion regarding these large pillars, and this does nothing to help visibility, only perceived visibility: make the pillar trim dark so it disappears against the backdrop.

Speaking of visibility, the backup camera arrangement is excellent. This is not a unique system, but a first for Saab. It has trajectory indicators which I find to be reassuring. I have seen these in other cars, and for those who are concerned about backing in a larger vehicle, I would highly recommend this system.

The driving experience offered no surprises. Again, though this car sits very high in comparison, it feels, as it should, like a sibling to the 9-5. For those who haven’t driven a modern CUV, the real surprise is in the handling. While higher, the handling is not only sedan-like, but sport-sedan-like. I instructed once at a Porsche event, and had the pleasure of thrashing lots Boxers, Caymans, 911s and a Cayenne GTS. Once I got over my initial apprehension, I found I could be virtually as aggressive in the Cayenne, which appears slightly taller and larger than the 9-4x, as I could in the sports cars. In my jaunt, I did challenge the handling prowess of the 9-4x in a few spots, and it was very sure footed and predictable, with lots of reassuring feedback and an overall sense of great stability. There was one bit of weirdness on one corner which surprised me. I was taking a hard left, accelerating moderately and ascending. I did not engage the ESP, but it almost felt like I did, and there was a bit of tug at the steering wheel. I don’t know if I was sensing some torque redistribution by the XWD, or maybe I just did something wrong. I could not reproduce the sensation, so maybe….

I have two disappointments with the 9-4x. One is weight. As with the 9-5, the weight seems disproportionate to the overall size. There is no positive that comes from more weight, whether it’s around my waist or in the chassis of an auto. Weight reduction in a car feeds on itself—lighter weight means smaller brakes means less unspung weight which means lighter control arms etcetera. Likewise, being overweight has the opposite effect. Now if the 9-4x came in at a weight more in line with the RX350 or the Q5, then instead of the 3.0 V6 perhaps Saab could have put the 2.0 T4 from the 9-5. Oh, and that would have saved more weight . More importantly, it would have kept the line more consistent with current offerings and Saab tradition. I long argued that despite its shortcomings, if the 9-7x had been offered with a turbocharged I5 version of the 4.2 I6, we might have warmed to it more. As it is, Audi does offer their 2.0 I4 in the Q5, so why not us!

The other disappointment is the absence of a head-up display. I have quickly grown fond of this, especially with navigation as the approaching directions are indicated in the display. On a positive note, the multi-color screen for the Driver Information Center is so much better to look at than the green-monochrome screen in the 2011 9-5 (the 2010 9-5 was multi-color) and as such is a very attractive and readable focal point for the instrumentation. [Note: the website picture of the 9-4x instruments shows a monochrome display.]

In all, I am very pleased with the results of the 9-4x. I only hope that there is enough in the coffers to promote it, as it deserves to be seen and considered.

[For MUCH more information on the 9-4x, and significantly better pictures than I could ever take read Swade's three recent posts about the 9-4x at InsideSaab .]

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