The cars we loved.
It was 2004 and things were going well for Saab. It had record sales in America, despite having a small model lineup. The company was able to maintain some of what made it unique despite having its strings pulled by owner GM. While things were good, Saab knew that it would need to eventually expand its line up to include more affordable small models.
The problem was that it would take years for Saab to develop a new compact car on its own. Enter GM and one of its other partners Subaru. As a major stake holder in Fuji Heavy Industries, GM was able to leverage its relationship with Subaru’s parent company to build a badge engineered version of the popular Impreza for the North American market only.
Called the 9-2X, it would basically be a Impreza that had graduated from finishing school. The Impreza platform was an impressive basis for a small car: all wheel drive, practical and potentially very high performance. While the Impreza had all those traits, it was rather dull looking or in WRX trim, looked like a teenager’s ideal of a hot rod.
Saab would design front and rear clips that made the second generation Impreza look like one of it’s own. In addition to making the exterior more upscale in appearance, Saab would swap Subaru suspension components like brushings for lighter Saab designed parts. The biggest improvement over the host car was the interior.
Subaru cars, especially the Impreza had featured basic interiors that were less than posh, even as the insides of other small cars were improving in the materials and finish department. Subaru seemed to lag behind. Saab addressed the issue with new more comfortable seats. Those seats faced the basic Impreza dash, but with improved materials and a redesigned center stack. It still retained the simple look of the Impreza, but aluminum bits gave a subtle upscale look. Increased sound deadening hushed the drone of the normally aspirated or turbocharged boxer engine.
There were two models, that followed the Saab convention of aeronautical themed trim names. The “Linear” trim used the 2.5-liter engine with 165 hp., while the top model called the “Aero” was essentially a WRX in a smart suit. It used the WRX engine, a 2 liter turbo that made 227 hp. The steering rack from the WRX STi, improved steering feel on all Aero models. All wheel drive was standard on both models as well as a four-speed automatic transmission. A 5-speed manual was a seldom chosen option, vs. the Impreza which had a higher percentage of drivers willing to shift their own gears.
Sales were slow out the gate. Subaru loyalist got a glimpse of what a polished Impreza could be and Saab snobs were lukewarm to the ideal of their beloved brand redressing a Japanese product. Sales did however pick up with refinements to both models and a bit more targeted advertising and promotion. Sales were beginning to pick up as the public realized that they were getting the best of both worlds: European refinement/style and Japanese engineering/dependability.
That was not enough to save the 9-2X, as GM would offload its shares in Fuji heavy Industries, thus ending the partnership between Saab and a newly untethered Subaru. Less than 11,000 9-2Xs were built in the two model years that they were available. Most of them being the Linear (later called 2.5) model.
History would record that Subaru survived and thrived in a post recession climate while Saab became one of its victims. Given more time, the 9-2X might have been a sound strategy. After all it was almost as fun to drive as the WRX at the top of the range and was quieter and more comfortable at the bottom. GM’s frustration with Saab showed with its inability to create a long-term strategy soon enough for Swedish brand.