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.
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]