Thursday Submission: 9-2x is a Swede of All Trades

saab 9-2x saabaru road trip
Car enthusiasts are often forced to compromise in certain areas in order to live with the vehicle that they love. Usually those compromises are things like reliability, efficiency, or trunk space. Enthusiast cars tend to be a master at one or two things. This is a story about a jack of all trades, but really, a master of none.
[Reader Stephen Rubke Sends us this story of putting his 9-2x through an automotive triathalon – Ed]

A brief history: The Saab 9-2x was built in 2005-06 as part of a goofy mashup between GM, Saab, and Subaru. The car is 98% Subaru WRX wagon with a different face and minor interior changes. It was a swing and a miss to help revive the slowly dying Saab brand. New, the cars sold for a few grand more than their Subaru family members.
Fortunately for me, Saab 9-2x’s are now generally a couple of grand cheaper than comparable WRX wagons. My desire was to get a wagon with manual transmission and powered rear wheels. That’s a pretty small market. I suppose the CTS-V wagon would have been my first choice, but sadly it was WAY outside of my budget. I ended up trading my 2006 GTO in on this used 9-2x with just over 70,000 miles.
The car is great, but not without its limitations. On the plus side, it benefits from the competent and relatively nimble chassis of the WRX family. Handling, while not razor sharp, is exponentially better than the hefty GTO. Power leaves a bit to be desired, but then there is a certain satisfaction in keeping the engine spinning fast in the turbo’s power band. Brakes were disappointing, but I have since installed a master cylinder brace, SS brake lines, and new rotors with Hawk HPS pads. I would now rate the braking as “acceptable”.
Essentially, the car I have now is a light, nimble wagon with AWD that can haul my family around safely in almost any kind of weather and is still a hoot to thrash around on a twisty road. Not the biggest, fastest or most efficient, but somewhere near the middle of a Venn Diagram that describes all of the best features you can get in a car.
The road trip
An old friend was having a long weekend bachelor party up in Mammoth and I was suddenly confronted with an interesting test of the car. Long road trip on both long, flat stretches of highway combined with twisty mountain roads, plus the opportunity to get the car off road in Mammoth. The total challenge was upped slightly when I suggested to my traveling companion that we take a detour through Death Valley on the way out since neither of us had ever been.

With the car loaded up and ready, we headed out of San Jose for the seven and a half hour trek out to Death Valley. Much of this segment was spent on rather boring sections of Interstate 5 in the central valley. After cutting through Bakersfield, we began the ascent through Tehachapi and then onto sparsely inhabited regions with empty roads. Ever heard of Trona, California? I hadn’t. But it looks like a great place to film a post-apocalyptic horror film. Just north of Trona, the route that Google maps had selected for us became an unpaved gravel road for about 2 miles. Naturally, the Saabaru handled it without protest.
Turning onto highway 190 east we began the extremely steep climb over the Panamint Mountain Range which saw the Saabaru’s only deviation from normal operations. In the heat of the afternoon, climbing the steep road at about 65mph in 3rd gear (for the HP), we got stuck behind an SUV for a few miles. It was then and only then that the water temp gauge rose ever so slightly from its normal resting place of just below the half mark. Once we had unobstructed air in front of us again, we were back to standard indications.
We wound our way into the Death Valley national park and parked briefly at Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America and 282′ below sea level. The temperature was an appropriate 112F, and a strong wind blasted us like a giant hair dryer as we walked out onto the salt flats. To borrow a phrase from one of the Apollo astronauts, I’ll describe the scene as “magnificent desolation”.

Back in the car and on the way to Mammoth, we were faced with another 3 and a half hours of drive time up the backside of California on highway 395. But first we had to take 190 west past Panamint Springs an into the Owens Valley. And now I will let you in on a little secret: Highway 190 west of Panamint Springs is perhaps one of the most perfect roads I have ever driven. Glassy smooth tarmac, a glorious variety of tight turns and long sweepers, beautiful vistas and … no traffic. Like, at all. As I attacked the road with almost-reckless abandon and the encouragement of my copilot, I kept waiting for the catch. But for over 10 miraculous miles we had the road entirely to ourselves. I nearly wept when it ended because I wasn’t sure when I’d ever have such a spiritual experience again.
Up through the Owens Valley, through Bishop and into Mammoth Lakes, the road itself isn’t very interesting; but the vistas on the east side of the Sierras are magnificent. That evening, the sun set over the tops of the peaks through smoke from a fire on the western slope. Combined with mostly empty surroundings, it was a surreal conclusion to our long but enjoyable day.
Into the dirt
As I mentioned earlier, this trip was also going to provide a chance to make good use of the car’s AWD. Following my friends in their full sized trucks with 4WD, we soon left the pavement and headed off miles and miles of dirt tracks in the surrounding hills in search of an empty spot to shoot guns (2 of our party were law enforcement in case you have any concerns). The first stretch was thick gravel, which honestly, is not very confidence inspiring when you’re hearing the underside of your daily driver being pelted with rocks. But she survived and the gravel gave way to fine sand which upped the fun factor significantly. Of course, driving around a mostly flat dirt roads is a challenge even the old GTO could have risen to. The last section was where things got interesting.
Now the road was going from “your Camry will be fine” to “off road vehicles suggested”. The track narrowed and the flatness gave way to sharp, undulating dips. I became genuinely concerned seeing my friends’ trucks bobbing up and down dramatically ahead of me. Yet somehow, the Saabaru only hinted at the slightest scrapes as I prudently navigated the fray. The final challenge was a steep descent into the small valley where we would be shooting.

Getting down was easy, but that was the only way back out. My concern was that the gobs of soft sand would trap the car if I lost speed on the ascent; but I also didn’t want to attack it too fast and hit a rut or dip that could cause real damage. I reluctantly removed the front tow hook cover in preparation for having one of the trucks assist me out. Nevertheless, I was going to make an attempt on my own first. I decided the best strategy would be to keep it in first and use the the meat of the power band to carry a reasonable amount of speed up the hill. After a quick scan on foot, I also elected to bias to the left side of the track to avoid the bulk of soft sand. The Saabaru worked perfectly and only managed to bulldoze a small area of sand with the chin of the front bumper, but everything was intact and functional.
The drive home was a 5 and a half hour jaunt over the Tioga Pass and through Yosemite on the way back to the bay area. Most of the vistas in Yosemite were obscured by smoke from fires, but the drive through park was still enjoyable except in the instances of Labor Day Weekend traffic jams in some areas.

The sum of the journey really cemented my belief that this is a great car. We covered just under 1,000 miles going from -282′ to 9,945′ at the Tioga Pass. Scorching hot desert to nearly freezing temps in Mammoth at night. From first gear in the dirt to 130mph (closed course, private road) on tarmac. Long straightaways and some of the most perfect twisty road I could dream of. Through all of that, this 10 year old car didn’t skip a beat. No new rattles or squeaks. It just keeps ticking like a Japanese quartz watch…with a Swedish face.

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  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    What a wonderful read and splendid photos! How did your truck buddies react to the Saabaru?

    1. Stephen Avatar

      They were thoroughly impressed. I’ve been pondering switching to 17s to open up more possibilities for aggressive street tires, but this trip had me second guessing that.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        It would certainly reduce the car’s versatility. Personally, I also think that too many cars roll on too large wheels – I’m always happy for enthusiasts keeping it close to stock.
        Also: Has this post already attracted as many as three – 3! – Saabaru-owners? That’s fascinating.

        1. Stephen Avatar

          Yeah, 17s are about the biggest wheel you could reasonably fit to these cars without looking preposterous. Plus, I figure I’ve driven this car about 16k miles, and only about 5 of those have been off pavement. A high performance street tire would be more useful to me.
          And yes, it’s interesting to see another Saabaru owner… anytime! Very exciting to see another one on the road! They’re not very common.

  2. Alff Avatar

    I agree with your assessment of the brakes. You may find, as I have with my ’05 Lego GT, that the calipers are problematic – I’ve had to replace several. I would have been better off to upgrade to something aftermarket early on. One thing that helps – grease the pins regularly.

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Thanks for the tip. There are a couple of vendors that sell the OEM calipers from the 06-07 Hawkeye years, and I’ve been thinking about it, but damn they’re expensive and would necessitate new wheels to clear them.

  3. Borkwagen Avatar

    I’m now envisioning slapping Forester suspension on a 9-2X for extra ground clearance. Wonder how well that’d work.

    1. HoondavanDude Avatar

      I loved my 9-2x 2.5i dearly except for the fact the seats were just a little too small for me (I’m 6’2″). The best mod I did was to swap the stock stereo for the double-DIN 6-disk STI head unit…which had an Aux-In jack in the back.
      I could definitely be wrong but I thought the Forester could easily interchange with STI suspension…but not the regular WRX.
      I saw a jacked up Forester XT yesterday with stickers all over it…this forum might be just what you’re looking for.

  4. mdharrell Avatar

    Fair warning: It’s a slippery slope from here to the installation of a trailer hitch.

  5. CraigSu Avatar

    IIRC, the Swedes also tweaked the suspension to make it more “compliant” than the stock Subie setup which slightly compromised handling in favor of more comfort.

  6. RobbieVT Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your experience with the 9-2x. It is on the short list of next car to buy, especially since the passengers have changed from kids and dogs to kids or dogs. I am slightly sad to miss the opportunity to have both bastard Saabs, the 9-7x and 9-2x. When the need to tow came up I
    went with a GMC Envoy, hence the missed opportunity to get an Envoy in Swedish drag 9-7x.
    With the Envoy large enough for everyone I still have the original candidates like the V70
    and 9-3 SportCombi, but now have the opportunity to add something smaller like the 9-2x. We will be moving to Idaho Falls, so all things Subaru have their appeal. While I’m of the opinion that while
    AWD will get you going, it’s snow tires that will get you stopped, I won’t argue the benefit of having AWD on Teton Pass in bad weather. The firm requirements are manual transmission, able to fit two
    oversized car seats, and able to fit a jogging stroller in the back. I’m curious if the hatch of a Fiesta ST is large enough for the stroller due to so many people gushing about the phenomenal driving
    Just to shore up my Hooniverse credibility my wife and I test drove a mechanic owned Caprice Wagon with the factory tow package and a restored Mercury Colony Park Wagon before settling on the Envoy. Three of our cars are manuals, two are roadsters, and we have a Toyota truck chassis mini-motorhome.

    1. Stephen Avatar

      Depending on your mission requirements, it must be said that the 9-2x is a very small car as far as interior dimensions. The back seat is tiny and the cargo area is pretty pathetic for a wagon. If you don’t need the back seats, folding them down does improve cargo volume quite significantly.
      I can tell you that 2 car seats in the back would be very tough. We put my daughter’s car seat in the middle and her feet dangle over the center console. The stroller does fit in the back but it doesn’t leave room for much else.
      If we had 2 kids I don’t think I could manage with this car. But 1 is okay. It’s definitely a compromise in a few areas, but I really do love the car. If I wasn’t so prejudiced against FWD, I’d be very interested in the Focus ST. I think the Fiesta is probably even smaller than the 9-2x.

      1. RobbieVT Avatar

        A Fiesta ST is probably not realistic. I only bring it up because it is the one car auto journalists frequently buy for themselves, so there has to be something to how well it drives. I’ve only sat in one at an auto show and aesthetically I actually prefer the Fiat 500 Abarth, but that one has no chance of being useful.
        I have more hope for a 9-2x being large enough. It would replace a 2006 Hyundai Elantra hatch, which is just big enough to fit two kids, the stroller, with any cargo going in the foot wells. I’d like to test drive a couple vehicles to be sure, though the issue is all of these being rather rare. I’ll likely have to test drive sedan versions or wagons with an automatic while waiting for the manual wagons to appear online.
        One model I haven’t yet mentioned is the Subaru Outback, which is large enough and would be easier to find. It just seems like they are all overpriced. I think their prices will hold or even increase as people shun VW SportWagens. Those might end up being the one. If VW can come up with a new fuel map that doesn’t completely ruin TDI hp and economy that might be the way to go. All the bad press might even tank gasoline engine prices enough for a comfortable, though not as sporty car.

  7. mallthus Avatar

    I’ve got my eye on a 9-4x for sale, speaking of bastard Saabs…