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Name: Saab 9X

Debuted: 2001 Frankfurt Motor Show

Specs: turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 with 300 hp and 302 lb-ft, four-wheel drive, six-speed manual gearbox, Brembo brakes

Why We Remember It Now:

Was it a coupe? Roadster? Wagon? Pickup? Yes. The 9X concept embodied all of those things and that’s why it deserves a close-up in our weekly series.

Introduced about a year after Saab became a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, the quirky concept was a Swedish take on the idea of a Transformer. It was able to take the shape of no less than four body styles, prompting Saab back in the day to refer to the 9X as a “four dimensional sports car that defies automotive convention.”

The multi-talented 9X was envisioned with two electrically operated glass panels that were also removable to transform the 2+2 coupe into a roadster without having to leave those panels at home as there was a special stowage place inside the car.

Saab also described it as a wagon thanks to its entirely flat load floor with a total volume of 600 liters with the rear seats folded. With passengers sitting in the back, the vehicle’s cargo capacity stood at 230 liters. Seeing as how it had an elongated rear end and only two doors, we might as well call the 9X a shooting brake.

2001 Saab 9X concept
2001 Saab 9X concept

Its fourth and final dimension was of a pickup since it had an extendable rear load space with a sliding floor derived from the 9-5 Sportwagon. The permanent roof rail that separated the two aforementioned glass panels ensured the concept’s structural integrity as it connected the two B pillars without the need of additional roof reinforcements. That way, Saab was able to engineer a floor-mounted tailgate that wasn’t hinged from the roof, thus effectively transforming the 9X into a pickup when necessary.

Besides being a concept with multiple personalities, the 9X also had the credentials of a veritable sports car thanks to its turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 engine developing 300 horsepower (224 kilowatts) and 302 pound-feet (410 Newton-meters) of torque. Despite the body’s increased complexity and the adoption of all-wheel drive, the concept had a projected weight of only 2,932 pounds (1,330 kilograms).

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Saab said its offbeat 9X would do 0 to 62 mph (100 kph) in a brisk 5.9 seconds and top out at an electronically governed 155 mph (250 kph), but these were also only projected figures.

A report issued by WardsAuto about two weeks after the concept’s debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show talked about Saab’s plans to roll out a production version “virtually unchanged in terms of appearance.” Unfortunately, it never happened.

Gallery: 2001 Saab 9X concept

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The multidynamic Saab 9X breaks cover at Frankfurt

Saab’s mould-breaking Saab 9X concept, unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) on September 11, challenges the automotive rulebook by opening up new dimensions in car design.

The stunning Saab 9X is a four dimensional, sports car that defies automotive convention. For the first time, features commonly associated with a coupe, roadster, wagon and pick-up are all combined within one vehicle.

The extremely compact Saab 9X is a car designed to combine the highest levels of driving satisfaction with great flexibility of use. A car that is impossible to pigeonhole, the Saab 9X may be best described as a sporty, multi-dynamic car that captures the essence of Saab’s brand appeal.

The dramatic, wraparound windscreen and high waistline are unmistakably Saab and, combined with an aggressive stance, create the expectation of exceptional performance. That promise is fulfilled by an all-new, 300bhp, turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine, all-wheel drive and a very low kerb weight, giving an outstanding power-to-weight ratio.

The Saab 9X breaks new ground in simultaneously offering the following ‘dimensions’ and advanced features:

  • Coupe 2+2 format – seating for four, fibre-optic headlamps, neon strip rear lights, keyless security and ignition system
  • Roadster format – two powered sliding/detachable/stowable glass roof panels, frame-less doors
  • Wagon format – fold-flat seating, flip-down tailgate, retracting rear window, flexible cargo securing system
  • Pick-up format – open rear deck, electro-hydraulic telescopic floor extension, detachable rear roof rail

The Saab 9X project is led by Saab’s Advanced Design department in Sweden with technical support for the chassis and powertrain from teams within the Saab Advanced Concept Center (SACC).

“The Saab 9X shows that the traditional way of classifying products is dead,” says Saab Executive Director of Design, Michael Mauer. “It is no longer enough to have a vehicle that is good at satisfying just one role. Today’s drivers want more. In this case, they want an exciting, sporty car which also has great functionality. The Saab 9X is the solution.

“It is first and foremost a real driver’s car, but it also shows that the performance element can be combined successfully with true versatility.”

“We have designed and built the show car as a fully working, entirely feasible prototype which could go into production with very little modification. I regard it very much as a statement of intent.

“It is also a signpost to the future – it shows where Saab is going. It is real, physical proof that we are embarked on an exciting journey.”

That journey will see the announcement of “at least one new product or concept every year for the next six years,” says Saab Automobile President and CEO, Peter Augustsson.

As a result, worldwide sales volumes are expected to almost double, reaching about 250,000 units a year by 2006. “It is a product and marketing offensive that is unprecedented in Saab’s history,” adds Augustsson. “It will see us become an increasingly important worldwide player in the premium car sector.”

The Saab 9X – a vision of the road ahead

Saab’s Executive Director of Design, Michael Mauer, explains why the Saab 9X was created and how it symbolises the arrival of a new design genre that challenges the old, established order.

Michael Mauer is reminded of a popular phrase when discussing the creation of the mould-breaking Saab 9X. “I have often heard people say that you cannot have your cake and eat it,” he says. “but I have always wondered what is the point in having a cake unless you can enjoy it? With this car, you do both!”

Mauer is not a culinary expert, but he has always wanted to create a design recipe that will extend the boundary lines of automotive taste. The Saab 9X is the end result. It demonstrates that exciting, driver-focused performance and genuine, real world practicality are not mutually exclusive ingredients.

A bold and sporting design language was essential for the concept that has become the Saab 9X. Its compact size and purposeful looks clearly position it as a highly efficient, sports car. However, Saab is going further by threatening to re-invent the sports coupe/ roadster genre. The Saab 9X is a car that offers a much greater breadth of experience.

In explaining the Saab 9X perspective, Mauer asks: “Is it wrong to expect a real driver’s car to be more versatile? I believe today’s drivers want a true driving machine to provide something more. They want exciting, sporty cars, sure, but they also want practicality. This car is an interesting solution.”

It is a car that symbolises the arrival of a new, more feature-focused design emphasis. “I believe the motor industry’s old segmentation approach to products is now effectively dead,” says Mauer. “It is no longer enough to have, say, a sedan, a roadster, a wagon or an SUV that are each good at satisfying just one particular need. Today, people expect a vehicle that can perform several different functions and roles. It is an expectation that presents an exciting challenge for designers. We are seeking to deliver new breeds of vehicle.”

The Saab 9X breed offers a unique fusion: high performance driving, roof fixed or roof removed; wagon-like load carrying potential and – as the ‘fourth’ dimension – the open deck versatility of a pick-up. It is a multidynamic vehicle delivering all-weather driving enjoyment and the ability to meet a variety of leisure or more mundane load-carrying needs. The execution is a master class in clever design and innovative packaging.

Driver’s Car
A car offering ‘best-in-class’ performance and driving appeal was the starting point for the design process. Mauer and his team regarded a light, extremely compact chassis as a pre-requisite to achieve their goal. Here the design team utilised the cross-disciplinary flair of the Saab Advanced Concept Centre to produce an all-aluminium platform capable of satisfying their requirements.

The SACC at Saab’s Trollhattan base affords a very special environment, allowing small teams of engineers, designers, technicians, IT and marketing specialists, to work together closely on a project-led basis. The informal atmosphere helps encourage the teams to adopt new perspectives, thinking ‘out of the box’. SACC has no permanent staff; those who work there are on temporary secondment from other departments within Saab. Its minimalist, all white, frosted glass interior was designed by a leading Scandinavian architect to engender a spirit of free, unfettered thinking.

The SACC team created a platform to accommodate the Saab 9X’s diminutive external proportions and its four-wheel drive layout. To ensure an excellent weight distribution, a low centre of gravity and a low polar moment of inertia – all essential for the quick reflexes of a high performance car – the SACC team were able to install the engine and gearbox almost completely behind the front axle line.

The Saab 9X is projected to use a new generation, all-aluminium, 3.0-litre V6 turbocharged engine, delivering at least 300 bhp and extremely high torque values. This high feature engine is not yet in production and a prototype unit is currently in use. It is linked to a six-speed, sequential change, manual gearbox and four-wheel drive.

Externally, the Saab 9X represents a unique variation on the traditional two-door, two-pillar coupe layout. Saab genealogy is immediately apparent in the dramatic wrap-around windscreen, which conceals the A pillars and is integrated with the door windows to give an uninterrupted sweep of glazing right round to the B pillar. Allied to a high waistline, it gives the car an unmistakable Saab identity. In the same way, the grille is an extremely bold extrapolation of more traditional Saab proportions.

The ‘cocoon-like’ styling of the interior, the four, low-slung bucket seats and prominent transmission tunnel reinforce the Saab 9X’s performance mission. The instrument layout and interior ambience also evoke a subtle hint of Saab’s aviation antecedence. However, Mauer is quick to point out that his team consciously refused to play ‘the retro card’ when adopting a design theme for the Saab 9X. “I think so-called ‘retro-styling’ is something of a soft option these days which can be overplayed to the point of cliché,” he says. “We are looking ahead with this car – not backwards. The emphasis on performance and versatility, alone, echoes a strong Saab tradition. And there are other features, of course. However, we should not be prisoners of our past.”

The Saab 9X’s handling and performance are expected to place it firmly at the head of the compact, sports coupe class. Again, the design team were clear that the Saab 9X’s credentials as a pure driver’s car should not be compromised by the need to incorporate talents in other areas.

“We wanted to create a car which, in itself, should be a joy to drive,” says Mauer. “For example, I would like the owners of this car to want to get up in the morning and head off to work half an hour early, perhaps, so they can take a little detour, just for the sheer joy of driving.”

Into Four Dimensions
Ensuring the Saab 9X had those other, unconventional talents, was a more detailed, technical challenge for the design team. The innovative way all this is executed and accommodated within one vehicle sets the Saab 9X apart. “The more unusual features had to work well and give real benefits,” says Mauer. “This is a car for the real world.”

For example, the roof system comprises two separate, fully powered glass panels that can be easily removed and stowed onboard – without taking up important boot space. Similarly, the roof panels do not have to be left at home in the garage, as is the case for roadsters with a conventional, removable hard-top.

The Saab 9X also offers a completely flat, fully useable load space with an extended volume comparable to a medium-sized wagon. And all this within a sporty format.

However, it is the adoption of a traditional two (A + B) pillar coupe-like foundation which, ironically, gives Mauer and his team the freedom to introduce their most eye-catching innovation – the pick-up, or ‘fourth’ dimension.

They have been able to achieve a completely open, unobstructed rear deck because, unlike a sedan, hatchback or conventional wagon, the Saab 9X does not have roof reinforcements connecting the small ‘C’ pillars. The structural integrity of the car is ensured by the permanent roof rail, a stressed cross-member, connecting the substantial ‘B’ pillars.

Aft of this line, the body can be completely open because the team have dispensed with a traditional tailgate hinged from the roof. The detachable rail at the rear is required solely to mount the rearmost roof panel and locate the retractable rear door window.

The benefits of this layout are optimised by another key innovation: the extending rear load space. Here Mauer says the team took inspiration from the sliding floor feature of the Saab 9-5 Sportwagon. For the more compact Saab 9X, it was essential to be able to enlarge the rear loadspace. “We took the sliding floor concept and developed it a bit more,” he says. “It is now fully automatic and we were able to add ‘walls’ at the sides. The extending floor carries the tailgate, of course, which can also be lowered to create even more load space.”

Another innovative feature developed from the Saab 9-5 Sportwagon is the adoption of load-securing tracks to allow leisure items and all sorts of cargo to be stowed safely and securely. The system is extremely flexible in use and for additional practicality the team has also introduced new hard-wearing materials for the rear of the car.

“We have put together a package that allows people to interact with the car during their other activities, apart from driving,” says Mauer. “You can carry a surfboard, a small dinghy, skis, or whatever, and still have enough room to take some luggage. You can have the roof up, roof down or half way up and half way down!

“Whilst the car’s proportions are not those of a family car, the rear seating is adequate and the headroom is particularly good for a car of this type. There is easily enough room for adults or children for short journeys.”

Into the Future
Mauer describes the Saab 9X as a ‘signpost’ to the future. “Saab must continue to push out the boundaries of design,” he says. “Of course, we will not specialise in producing only ‘niche’ products such as the Saab 9X. We see other opportunities to put together features from different types of vehicle… some interesting solutions are possible.

“There are no major technical obstacles to prevent the car going into production and I very much hope we produce it, or something very similar. This car is an icon for the future of Saab – it shows where we are going. It is real, physical proof that Saab is embarked on a very exciting journey.”

The Saab 9X – A Concept In Four Dimensions

The task of turning a vision into reality was taken up by Saab’s Advanced Design studio. They had to meet key parameters, in terms of compact design and packaging, and finalise the all-important detailing that would give the car its unique Saab character.

The 10-strong design team received valuable support from the Saab Advanced Concept Centre and also supervised the final assembly of the show car at Bertone in Italy.

The major design features of the Saab 9X are best appreciated through looking in more detail at each of the car’s four ‘dimensions’ or formats. Chief Designer Anthony Lo, who led the team, is our guide. “The whole team has found it very exciting to provide a first glimpse of what is to come from Saab in the future,” he says. “This is not just another show car, it has been developed with the serious intention of production.”

The Coupe
Externally, that Saab signature, wrap-around windscreen is the Saab 9X’s most striking feature. The steeply raked, heavily tinted glazing gives the car a strong ‘cockpit’ look and this effect is balanced by the rear side windows which appear to flow round without interruption into the rear screen.

The curvaceous, muscular bodystyling is just as clean and uncluttered. There are no swage lines down the sides, only a soft, clean surface wrapping around the front wheels and extending the length of the car. The gently flared wheel arches accommodate 19-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels, which are located, with minimal overhangs, at each corner of the chassis to optimise interior space, allowing a relatively long wheelbase of 2.7 metres within an overall length of just over 4.0 metres.

The purposeful looks and stance of the car are reflected in the frontal styling, dominated by a bold interpretation in polished aluminium of Saab’s traditional grille, within which the eight headlamps are located. These use fibre-optic technology and are extremely small, yet will provide a powerful spread of light for safe night driving. “We’ve adopted fibre-optics to provide more freedom for design,” says Anthony Lo. “Headlamps with reflector units can take up a lot of room and get in the way of other structures under the bonnet.”

A smoked glass panel extends right across the rear of the car and this covers thin, neon-strip rear lights and indicators, as well as the number plate. The overall effect contributes to the car’s clean and uncluttered lines.

This desire for simplicity is reflected in the complete absence of door handles. The Saab 9X functions through a keyless ignition system and the frame-less doors are opened from the outside by a one-touch panel or remote control.

Inside, sweeping, scalloped curves encapsulate four bucket seats, mounted low down and either side of a prominent transmission tunnel. The two-tone interior is warmly swathed in black leather and a dark beige fabric. Satin-finished aluminium is adopted within the fascia layout and forms a ‘rib’ that runs across the floor and up both doors to the waistline.

The steering wheel design also incorporates the aluminium and leather theme and a short ‘pistol grip’ gear lever for the six-speed, sequential gearchange leaves no one in doubt that this is a thoroughbred driver’s car. “The front airbags are mounted in the A pillars,” says Anthony Lo, “so there is no need for a large boss on the steering wheel, which has given us the freedom to put a bit more design into it.”

Driver information is concentrated in a single, large binnacle, via digital displays, on a ‘need-to-know’ basis as in modern fighter aircraft. However, the team adopted an analogue appearance for the rev-counter with a sweep that turns a deeper shade of red as the upper limit of the engine’s power band is approached.

“We’ve tried to introduce a little emotion in some areas,” says Anthony Lo. “For instance, there is also a single red button under a glass hatch on the transmission tunnel for starting and stopping the engine. The ignition sequence includes a driver display where a 3D model of the car is scanned as a systems ‘health’ check. You can customise the computer to have your own suitable ‘all systems go’ type of message.”

There is a noticeable absence of gauges, switches or buttons because many ancillary functions are incorporated within a single control on top of the transmission tunnel. Best described as an automotive ‘mouse’, this controls the air conditioning, telephone and ‘infotainment’ systems. It is turned and clicked in response to on-screen prompts from the central fascia display. The Sat-Nav system is also controlled here but, for driving safety, its instructions are displayed in the driver’s binnacle.

Another interior innovation is the use of lighting. The lights, in fact, never go out inside the Saab 9X. Day or night, there is a welcoming feint blue glow within the cabin, giving an ambience similar to the interior of a passenger aircraft. The diffused light emanates from thin, almost invisible openings within the fascia and doors and appears to have no direct source. These same, narrow louvres also provide ventilation and air conditioning, dispensing with the need for separate air vents.

“The ambient lighting is designed to make the interior warmer and more inviting,” explains Anthony Lo. “It also has a more practical use by making it rather easier to find things at night inside the car. We think it is more relaxing for the driver and passengers to be able to see and enjoy the interior of the car rather than sit in complete darkness, which is what normally happens at night.”

The Roadster
The freedom of open top motoring, to be enjoyed with the agile handling of a true roadster, is just a button push away in the Saab 9X.

The highly adaptable roof system comprises two tinted glass panels and it can be deployed to allow a number of permutations for driver and passengers. Both panels will be electrically-operated, allowing the front section to slide back over the rear panel which, alternatively, can also slide forward over the front section, although this panel is fixed in the show car.

In either mode, the side windows of the doors and rear screen can be raised or lowered. Both roof panels are also completely detachable and, for maximum effect, the rear roof rail can be easily removed as there is no top-mounted tailgate.

The design team believes the Saab 9X succeeds better than many other attempts to deliver a top-down option. The starting point is, of course, much closer to a roadster format than fixed-head ‘conversions’, and the Saab 9X goes about the task in a more practical way.

When removed, both roof panels can be easily stowed, on their side, at the front of the load space up against the rear seatback. Unlike Convertibles or sports cars with folding metal roofs, there is no loss of valuable luggage space when the roof is down. The system also provides a great deal more flexibility than using a hard top for a conventional roadster.

The Wagon
All seatbacks in the Saab 9X fold down neatly into their squabs. The design team have been able to ensure that when ‘wagon mode’ is adopted, there is a flat deck throughout the car. This area is 955mm long when the split/fold rear seatback is down and extends to 1900mm if the front passenger seat is also folded.

Access to the load space is more than adequate thanks to the large doors designed for good rear passenger entry. At the rear, the tailgate is effectively split; the electrically-powered glass window section can be lowered completely into the door.

As you would expect with Saab, the design team concentrated on providing useful ways to safely secure loads. As a further development of the cargo securing tracks first seen on the Saab 9-5 SportWagon, there are now four removable tracks that clip into the floor. In conjunction with fittings for the central roof bar, leisure items, such as bikes and skis can be carried securely, as well as a variety of other loads.

The entire load space, and much of the passenger compartment floor, is covered with an innovative silicone-treated fabric. This is extremely hard-wearing, completely waterproof and has a useful ‘non-slip’ finish. It is specially designed to meet the rigorous demands of everyday use.

“For the wagon format, it was essential to provide a completely flat load space,” says Anthony Lo. “We didn’t want this aspect to be compromised by the sports seating layout and the transmission tunnel. We’re quite pleased with the result.”

The Pick-up
The most unusual feature of Saab 9X is probably the extending floor area, telescopically mounted in the rear of the car. At the push of button, this can add 20cm to the length of the rear load space, and even more if the tailgate is also lowered.

The tailgate itself is attached to the telescopic floor, which also has sidewalls that retract longitudinally into the rear wheel-arches. The whole assembly is electro-hydraulically powered and can be deployed in about five seconds, via a button in the passenger compartment.

When this imaginative innovation is used in tandem with an open rear deck, the Saab 9X can justifiably lay claim to the kind of versatility more commonly associated with a pick-up.

A clever refinement allows the tailgate to be safely lowered, even when the floor is extended, because its top, inboard section carries a separate rear light display.

“The telescopic floor has certainly not been seen before in a car,” says Anthony Lo. “It has allowed us to capitalise on the open deck format because the rear roof rail can be completely removed. The separate rear light display is also a neat solution.

“There are a lot of sports items, such as surfboards, small dinghies or bikes, that can be carried more easily in this car because of the open rear deck. We also wanted to provide a very robust material to cover the cargo area. If you get caught in a rain shower, the silicone lining will prevent water doing much harm.”

The Saab 9X – an expression of the Saab brand

The Saab 9X concept is a bold statement of Saab’s future direction. Peter Augustsson, Saab Automobile’s President and CEO, explains its significance.

The Saab 9X is expected to become a watershed in Saab design, picking up the mantle of Saab’s heritage and giving it a new expression. It is a car that reflects the changing values and needs of sophisticated and demanding customers.

“This car symbolises the kind of products Saab will produce over the next six years,” says Peter Augustsson. “They will be innovative and distinctive, appealing to individualistic customers who make their own choices in life.

“Of course, we will not only produce sports cars. Whatever format is adopted, Saab products must always have a strong sporty, multidynamic quality, able to fulfil a number of roles through incorporating clever solutions. We will continue to build on the five foundations of the Saab brand: performance, safety, control, versatility and design.”

Whilst the design language of the Saab 9X may be new, it inherits a Saab sporting tradition that is founded in some 25 years’ experience of turbocharging technology, delivering high mid-range torque for performance that is easily accessible. It also echoes a Saab tradition for real-world versatility, first seen in voluminous hatchbacks and continued with the robust, ‘four season’ Convertible and the widely-acclaimed Saab 9-5 SportWagon.

“The Saab 9X and future Saab products are aimed at customers who place a premium on good, original design that is not derivative or commonplace,” says Augustsson. “These people are busy professionals, often running their own businesses and increasingly involved in active leisure and sporting activities. They don’t follow the crowd in what they do and they want products that reflect that independence, whilst also meeting the needs of their lifestyle.”

The Saab 9X marks the start of a bold programme that will see the announcement of at least one new product or concept from Saab every year for the next six years. It also heralds the development of new retail environments and new ways of engaging customers.

Just as the Saab 9X interacts with the driver in a number of different ways, the Saab brand is reaching out to engage its audience by innovative means. Saab ‘city centres’ will appear at prestigious metropolitan locations where potential customers may also enjoy promotional events, such as music recitals and displays of art. There will also be ‘brand centres’ at major airports – two have already opened at Heathrow in the UK – where visitors can use interactive communications to learn more about Saab’s brand values.

The international Saab dealer network is also undergoing an unprecedented period of redevelopment in all key markets that will see 100 newly-certified dealerships opening this year and 200 more next year and the year afterwards, leading to total of 500 new outlets by the end of 2003. These modern, well-appointed sites will more accurately reflect the Saab brand and will account for some 80 per cent of all Saab sales volume.

“We are taking the Saab message out to locations where our target audience works, socialises and travels,” explains Augustsson. “It is, therefore, essential that the quality of the experience in our marketing and retail environments matches the high standards of our product.”

To underpin the impact of these highly visible showcases for the brand, Saab is also focusing its marketing communications on a relatively small target group of just 10 million customers and prospective customers worldwide. This niche strategy will utilise high-quality relationship marketing and more closely-targeted advertising to allow Saab to directly address its audience.

These product, marketing and retail initiatives are expected to drive worldwide sales to new levels, virtually doubling current annual sales volumes to about 250,000 units by 2006. “The Saab 9X marks the start of a product and marketing offensive that is unprecedented for Saab,” adds Augustsson. “It is a level of investment that will see Saab become an increasingly important worldwide player in the premium car sector.”

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