Saab delivers a competent but utilitarian crossover vehicle with only a few familiar but minor weaknesses

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It is the best of times and the worst of times for struggling Swedish automaker Saab. Ongoing financial problems have led to a supplier boycott of Saab’s headquarters plant in Trollhattan – a major disappointment considering the maker is in the midst of launching the broadest product offensive in its six-decade history.

For the moment, at least, production of the 9-5 saloon and estate, as well as the older 9-3, are on hold.

But production continues at General Motors’ plant in Mexico where one of Saab’s key new offerings, the 9-4X, is assembled.

The last major project developed under GM’s ownership, Saab’s first proper crossover vehicle replaces the unlamented 9-7X SUV, which was itself a weak clone of a large Chevrolet 4x4. True, the 9-4X also shares its basic underpinnings, but in this case with the latest-generation Cadillac SRX, not a bad starting point.

An attractive basic exterior design features Saab’s familar rounded front-end and angular grille, as well as a sloping, swept-back roofline that mirrors that of the maker’s 9-5. The interior is equally true to Saab’s roots, down to the green-on-black gauges in the five-passenger interior.

There’s even a starter button located where you’d expect it in a Saab, between the front seats. The two front buckets, incidentally, are technically shared with the Caddy crossover, but you’d have to rip them apart to discern it. The shared frame is fitted with unique foam and bolsters, and Saab’s trademark active headrests.

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During typical use, the 9-4X’s cabin is incredibly quiet, but there are two points worth quibbling about. Almost identical to that of the 9-5, the instrument panel of the new crossover is functional to the point of looking plain and dull. We also found the 9-4X’s driving position trying; it was difficult to get comfortable irrespective of where we positioned the adjustable steering column.

Saab’s 9-4X range will open up in North America with an entry-level normally aspirated 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine that produces 262bhp and 223lb ft of torque. Higher up in the range is the turbocharged 2.8-litre V6 Aero version, which we drove – and which will be the only version of the car offered in Europe. As things stand, there will be no turbodiesel version.

The Aero’s twin-scroll turbocharger responds without lag or torque steer. At peak, the Aero makes 296bhp and 295lb ft, channeled through Saab’s Cross-Wheel-Drive, or XWD, system. That torque-vectoring system not only shifts power front to rear, but juggles it between the 9-4X’s left and right rear wheels, to help guide you through corners.

A programmable drive system called DriveSense controls a number of adaptive chassis systems in the 9-4X, from suspension damping to steering feel, allowing the driver to tailor its on-road behaviour. An auto-adaptive version will be added for 2012.

While neither as nimble nor as quick as the latest-generation BMW X3, the new Saab 9-4X is more sporty and – to our eyes – more appealing than the Cadillac SRX with which it shares a factory. Its dynamic act is certainly polished enough to bear comparison with flagship petrol version of the Lexus RX and Infiniti EX.

Saab has a variety of problems to deal with, but on this evidence it’s got the new 9-4X largely right. If the Swedes survive what’s proving to be a troubling period in its history to actually launch the 9-4X in Europe later this year, it should provide a worthy alternative for those who can live without a default-choice diesel engine, and who don’t want just another ‘me-too’ crossover. It won’t save the company, but the 9-4X is a commendable enough car all the same.

Paul Eisenstein