Saab 9-7X

You have to feel sorry for Saab engineers. The firm that built its reputation on safe, environmentally friendly cars has endured some tough times of late.

What makes a Saab a Saab? This is even harder to answer with the 9-7X, a huge truck that moves away from some of the maker's key principles. A few buyers may be able to get past the size and fuel economy. But the fact that it's left-hand-drive only doesn't help. GM hopes the rest of us will stick around for a real Saab crossover - not due until at least 2008.

You have to feel sorry for Saab engineers. The firm that built its reputation on safe, environmentally friendly cars has endured some tough times of late.

Absorbed by General Motors, and charged with piling on sales, Saab has been forced to embrace a future which is not entirely of its own making. First came the 9-2X five-door, using Subaru Impreza underpinnings. Now, that is followed by a huge new SUV based on the US-only Buick Rainier.

On first sight, it is clear designers at the company have worked hard to give the Yank tank more of a European identity. There is an unmistakably Saab nose, along with an upmarket interior. Under the skin, the new 9-7X features revised mechanicals, including suspension that's tuned to improve road comfort at the expense of some off-tarmac ability.

At present, two petrol engines are available: a 290bhp in-line 4.2-litre six-cylinder and a torquier 300bhp 5.3 V8. Both promise to combine decent performance with reasonable economy, thanks to the US giant's 'displacement on demand' technology. This works by shutting off the fuel flow to two of the cylinders when the SUV is cruising at motorway speeds, reducing consumption on the combined cycle to 18mpg.

So far so good, but scratch the thin veneer and the newcomer's GM roots come shining through. The 9-7X we drove weighs in at a hefty 2.2 tonnes, and the V8 powerplant emits a raspy howl that resonates in the cabin, despite ample sound deadening. What's more, even though improvements have been made to the suspension, it is clear over the first few miles at the wheel that the Saab is still every inch the American off-roader on which it is based.

Car-like handling is a holy grail for SUV engineers, and sadly, in the development of the 9-7X, it has remained out of reach. Although the steering is tighter than in the Rainier, the Swedish model thumps over even small bumps. Through corners, its big anti-roll bar proves effective, but it becomes clear there was only so much Saab could do to improve the chassis responses.

It is not all bad news, though, and the company can be proud of the fact that this is the most handsome GM SUV money can buy. The good looks continue inside, with the two-tone leather and wood trim livening up the standard plastic. And in a bid to woo unconvinced Saab buyers, GM is piling on the equipment. The 9-7X is on sale now in the US, and for $40,000 (£22,300), the entry-level edition comes with stability control, leather seats, curtain airbags and a 275-watt Bose stereo complete with a six-CD multichanger. There is even a choice of a power sunroof or a rear seat DVD entertainment system.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see the 9-7X as much more than a stop-gap measure. Saab is destined to sell a version of the new Subaru Tribeca in the US, and this car will not only offer a diesel, but better road manners, too.

However, the powers-that-be at GM say the 9-7X will prevent buyers from defecting to Japanese luxury brands - and prepare fans of the marque for the arrival of a better developed successor.

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