Saab traveled to the 2003 Los Angeles Motor Show to unveil the 9-2x, an oft-rumored five-door hatchback with a familiar shape. Based on the Subaru Impreza, the 9-2x was a perfect example of blatant badge-engineering, for better or worse, whose story traces its roots to GM’s ambitious expansion plans in the Asia-Pacific region. Although decades away from achieving classic car status, the ill-fated 9-2x deserves to have its story told.
GM purchased a 20-percent stake in Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI) in December of 1999 for around $1.35 billion, a move the American automaker billed as a way to increase its presence on the quickly growing and increasingly lucrative Asian market. The purchase made GM FHI’s largest shareholder by the turn of the new millennium.
A joint statement claimed the deal called for the common development of products in Asian, North America and Europe. “Where there is a need, we will move aggressively together to meet it,” explained FHI CEO Takeshi Tanaka.
Select Subaru dealerships started selling Saabs in Japan shortly after the alliance was formed but the first jointly-developed car was the Chevrolet Borrego Concept that bowed at the 2001 Los Angeles Motor Show. Unrelated to the Kia that bears the same name, the Borrego was a wild vehicle that blurred the lines between a SUV, a coupe, and a Baja racer. Its front end was clearly inspired by Chevrolet’s design language but it was powered by a Subaru-sourced 2.5-liter flat-four engine that sent power to all four wheels via the same all-wheel drive system that was found in the Legacy. Like most of the overly futuristic concept cars that characterize major auto shows, the Borrego was designed to test the public’s reaction to a GM product with a Japanese heart and it was never considered a candidate for mass production. However, it previewed the innovative mid-gate that would become of the Chevrolet Avalanche’s biggest selling points.
A Quick Entry Into a Fast-Moving Segment
The Borrego created a buzz in the press but contributed nothing to Subaru and GM’s coffers. Eager to reap the fruits of their partnership, the two companies started planning a mid-size SUV but quickly changed their mind and focused on what the media reported was a “small, high-performance all-wheel drive car” that was similar to the Subaru Impreza WRX, a car that outspoken GM executive Bob Lutz openly admired.
The so-called internet rumor mill reported the jointly-developed car would see the light of day under the Pontiac banner but there is no concrete evidence to suggest giving Pontiac the car was ever considered. Saab was a favorite from the beginning because it needed a small, entry-level car to compete against what GM forecasted would be a veritable onslaught of premium European cars like the Audi A3, the rumored BMW 1-Series that was unveiled in 2004 and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class. GM briefly considered giving the Swedish firm its own version of the Opel / Vauxhall Astra but Saab CEO Peter Augustsson pushed for the Impreza because it was a better match for the brand’s image. The Astra was infamously brought over to the United States as a Saturn.
GM hoped that giving Saab an entry-level hatchback would help it double its annual sales to 200,000 units. The automaker sold 45,000 cars in 2003, a figure that it ambitiously predicted would grow to anywhere between 125,000 and 150,000 by 2006. Saab execs expected to sell about 7,500 examples of the 9-2x a year.
The Sheet Is Pulled
GM wanted the 9-2x to compete in the burgeoning premium small car segment so the car was rushed to the market without being previewed by a concept.
The overall silhouette betrayed the 9-2x’s Subaru genes but Saab head of design Michael Mauer (known for his work with the smart fortwo during the DaimlerChrysler days) entirely redesigned the car’s front and rear ends. The Saab-specific parts included the hood (made out of aluminum), the front fenders, the headlights, both bumpers, the tailgate and the tail lamps. The chassis underwent minor modifications, the suspension was tuned to provide a smoother ride and the steering rack was borrowed from the rally-bred Impreza WRX STi.
The interior underwent fewer modifications and the 9-2x didn’t have the floor-mounted ignition that brand enthusiasts had come to expect from a car wearing the iconic Griffin badge. Extra sound deadening all around helped justify the price increase over a regular Impreza.
Mechanically, the entry-level 9-2x Liner was powered by a 2.5-liter flat-four that made 165 horsepower and 166 lb-ft. of torque. The more expensive Aero model packed a turbocharged 2.0-liter flat-four that churned out 227 ponies and 217 lb-ft. of twist.
Borrowed from the Impreza and the WRX, respectively, the mills sent power to all four wheels via a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic.
The 9-2x launched in the United States on June 1st, 2004, a full month ahead of schedule, as a 2005 model. The Linear model started at $23,685 (roughly $3,000 less than a 9-3) and the Aero retailed for $27,645.
In Saab’s own words, the 9-2x’s average buyer was a 28-year old city-dwelling single man with annual household income of $75,000 – the very definition of a niche if there ever was one. The 9-2x was the target buyer’s first Saab and first premium car, and it was priced at the top end of his budget.
The 9-2x got off to a promising start and 8,514 examples found a home during the 2005 model year.
The following year, the Linear trim was rechristened 2.5i and gained a 2.5-liter flat-four good for 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft. of torque. The Aero’s 2.0-liter four-banger was replaced by a turbocharged 2.5-liter rated at 230 horsepower and 235 lb-ft. of torque.
The partnership turned sour and GM announced that it was going to sell 8.7 percent of its stake in FHI to rival Toyota on October 5th, 2005. The remaining shares were either purchased by FHI as part of a share buyback deal or sold on the Tokyo stock market. Troy Clarke, the president of GM’s Asia-Pacific region, announced that GM ended the partnership because “there were not enough collaborative projects to sustain [it].”
Subaru briefly continued supplying Saab with 9-2xs but the model was phased out after 1,832 2006 models were built, bringing the total amount for the car’s two-year production run to 10,346 units. The bulk of those were sold in the United States but a small percentage went to Canada.
Before the partnership ended, Saab was in the process of badge-engineering a Subaru B9 Tribeca to give dealers the seven-seater crossover that they were clamoring for. The premium small car segment hadn’t grown as much as analysts predicted, but car-based crossovers were beginning to replace traditional body-on-frame SUVs at the top of shoppers’ lists. Dubbed 9-6x, the crossover was cancelled about halfway through its development phase.
Saab was not shy about admitting that the 9-2x was essentially a last-ditch attempt to grab a share of what everyone thought would be a highly profitable market. The car was only designed to stay on the market for a couple of years before it would be replaced by an all-new model developed jointly by Saab and Subaru. Early reports indicated the two cars would wear distinct looks and not share any sheet metal.
Speaking with trade journal Automotive News, CEO Augustsson affirmed that the second generation model would be offered with a diesel engine and would be distributed in Europe. There were also rumors circulating around the media that the second-gen 9-2x would be built in the United States and not imported from Japan.
Nicknamed the Saabaru, the 9-2x has a small cult following among Saab and Subaru enthusiasts alike but many analysts see it as the beginning of the dilution of Saab’s brand image, a process which contributed to the firm’s demise.
Speaking several years after the 9-2x was phased out, ex-CEO Jan Ake Jonsson recognized this by stating that the badge-engineered Saabs like the 9-2x and the 9-7x were “more detrimental to the business than beneficial.”
Sources: The production figures come from enthusiast forum Saab92x.com, and the quotes come from Automotive News articles.