Driving the Saab 9-4X

A couple of weeks ago, when I took delivery of a Saab 9-4X test car for a few days, a wistful thought arrived with the keyfob: this could well be the last new Saab I’d ever drive.

The Swedish automaker, rescued from General Motors last year by Spyker Cars of the Netherlands, is again in the 11th hour of a fight for survival. Its Trollhattan plant has been quiet since April, after unpaid suppliers stopped delivering parts. Both white- and blue-collar workers have gone unpaid, prompting unions as well as suppliers to file bankruptcy petitions. Unless a white-knight investor emerges, and quickly, Saab could be shut down.

If that happens, we will never see the sleek new models envisioned by Jason Castriota, who previously designed Ferraris at the Pininfarina studio. The dreams of Victor Muller, the founder of Spyker and an inexhaustible cheerleader for Saab’s possibilities as an independent company, would go unrealized.

If the worst happens, the 9-4X will be Saab’s last testament.

As Lawrence Ulrich notes in his weekend review, there could be worse ways to go. Like him, I found the 9-4X to be a handsome and generally pleasing crossover, more likable in some respects than the vehicles on which it is based, the Cadillac SRX and Chevrolet Equinox.

Yet despite the 9-4X Aero’s pleasing disposition (and eye-opening $52,000 sticker price), Saab’s financial pressures show through in herky-jerky downshifts and subpar braking. In a typical auto company, the engineers would provide some last-minute finessing of such details before the car came to market, but Saab’s cash-starved situation is hardly typical.

In any case, the 9-4X makes a more convincing case for Saab’s survival than the mediocre (but also handsome) 9-5 sedan that preceded it. And both of these vehicles, which were brought out under Spyker’s control, improved on the watered-down Saabs and Saabarus of the G.M. years.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, the Saab faithful — though their numbers are not large, their passion runs deep — will be able to recall an illustrious history of innovation and noncomformity. For a long time, “quirky” was a word that turned up in nearly every commentary on Saab, and it was often a compliment. A world without Saab would be a less interesting place.

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