2011 Saab 9-4X review and dealership experience

Our new 2011 Saab 9-4X Aero
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The day has finally come…we took delivery of our 2011 Saab 9-4X Aero this weekend (9/17/11…which just so happens to be my birthday…absolute best present EVER)!!!  The vehicle has Diamond Silver Metallic exterior, Jet Black interior, rear passenger package, panoramic moonroof, and clear 3M front end cover.  I had originally specified to have the towing package included, as well, but was later notified that the towing package would not be available on the 2011 9-4X, but would later be offered as a dealer-installed aftermarket item…which we will have installed when it does become available.  This will be a review of not only the 9-4X, but also a review of our dealership experience.  The current status of dealers in the United States has been a fairly hot topic of discussion as of late and I am more than happy to offer my own personal experience, opinions, and suggestions.  Please note that some of this may come across as a “soap-box” moment and I am quite certain that other personal opinions will vary greatly.  I am of the belief, however, that my personal opinion, regardless of how insane my perspective may be, is valid and should be valued since I purchased a new Saab and am therefore one of many target markets for Saab.  I consider myself to be a very logical, even-tempered, reasonable, methodical, and down-to-earth consumer, so hopefully my opinions won’t strike a nerve with anyone too severely.  As a point of reference, my history with Saab dates back to my early teen years.  My parents are huge fans of Toyota and Volkswagen, but somehow, I was able to see the light at an early age and sought the vehicle that was right for me…and so began my Saab story.  To date, I have owned a 1974 Sonett III (sold and shipped to Sweden), 1987 900S (RIP), 1990 900 Turbo (sold), 1996 900 SE Turbo (sold, but still in contact with the owner), and currently own a 1991 900 SPG (last year of the SPG and 1 of only 40 made in Talladega Red; purchased at the auction at the North American Saab Owner’s Convention in Copper Mountain, Colorado in 2009)…and now a magnificent 2011 9-4X Aero (also fairly limited production)!

Heading home from Red River, New Mexico
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Several months ago, my wife and I decided that the 9-4X was going to be our next vehicle.  Back during the great sale of Saab to Spyker from General Motors, there was an online petition going around and anyone that put their name on it vowed to, if at all humanly possible, to purchase a new Saab by 2012.  I gladly put my name on the list and remained resolved that I would make good on my commitment.  Due to my job, a Saab is not a possibility for me as a daily-driver, so my wife would be the regular driver of our new Saab purchase.  My wife is not a “car” person, so she just couldn’t see herself being totally satisfied with the 9-3 or the 9-5, even though she likes both of them very much…just not for her.  My wife is the type of person that doesn’t really care what she drives, so long as it looks nice, has air-conditioning, and gets her to whatever destination she may have.  Our trade-in vehicle was a 2006 Buick Rendezvous CXL.  The only good thing I can say about that vehicle is that it has been quite reliable…and yes, that really is the only good thing I can say about it.  I have hated that vehicle with a passion for quite some time now and have absolutely no regrets seeing it gone.  My wife was hesitant to purchase a new Saab without a dealership within 90 miles (versus the 3 miles from our current Buick dealership), but in our current day and time, that’s a risk we’re willing to take in order to do our part in ensuring the future prosperity of Saab.  Anyway, several months ago, I decided to get the ball rolling on our 9-4X purchase and that’s where our dealership experiences begin.  I’ll try not to name names, as everyone has a bad day at some point in time…but you can guess who I’m referring to, you know who you are, you can contact me directly for specifics, or you can take my experience as just a small sampling of what else is out there and what Saab Cars North America has to deal with.
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As mentioned above, we are located about 90 miles from the nearest Saab dealership.  I very rarely purchase vehicles locally, so that wasn’t a huge concern for me, but since this would be my wife’s car and not my own daily-driver, it is something that we had to convince ourselves would be alright as far as service and warranty matters are concerned.  I contacted approximately 20 Saab dealerships within a 1,000-mile radius from us and so begins my first rant.  I am the type of person that strongly prefers to correspond via electronic mail.  If necessary, conversation by telephone is completely acceptable, but I would much rather have everything in writing for future reference, comparison, etc.  Having that said, I initially contacted all of the dealerships online.  My opinion is that if you’re going to have a way for the public to communicate with you online or by e-mail, make sure that the contact form works, goes to a real person, and a response can be expected in a timely manner.  When I filled out the various information request/contact forms, a number of them were returned to me undeliverable due to a faulty e-mail address or other technical issue…unacceptable in my book.  I also received a significant number of automated response e-mails, but never heard back from a real live person.  I’m not sure how much more I need to wave my money around for people to take notice, but either of the above scenarios probably excluded that particular dealership from my list of potential contacts.  If you aren’t going to monitor e-mails or online submissions, simply put your telephone number on your website and I will gladly call.  Unfortunately, this is an issue that cost several dealerships my own personal business.
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I will say that I made contact with a number of very nice dealers.  Most of these individuals were very well-informed, courteous, and gave me a significant feeling of comfort in dealing with them.  There were, however, several instances in which misinformation or lack of information adversely affected the potential of a sale.  I was misquoted information and pricing regarding options, told one thing by a member of a dealer and later told something quite the contrary by another member of that same dealership, and was also told that they didn’t know what they had ordered or what they would be getting when I inquired about their 9-4X deliveries.  When speaking with various Saab acquaintances of mine in various geographical locations, I was told that I needed to speak with “so-and-so” at “such-and-such” dealer because they would be the right person to talk to.  Another opinion…not everyone knows who to talk to when they contact a dealership, so I shouldn’t have the need to hunt down all of the right answers.  If I contact a salesperson at any given dealership, they need to be knowledgeable and informed or at least have the courtesy to forward me on to someone else that can better assist me.  I know that a lot of people contacting Saab dealerships aren’t nearly as knowledgeable as I am regarding the history of Saab, current products, etc., but they need to be prepared to sell a Saab to Jan-Ake Jonsson or Peter Backstrom if they walked through the door.  Accurate, consistent, and reliable information is absolutely crucial.
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One piece of information I received from my nearest dealer did take me by surprise.  Following is an excerpt from an e-mail I received from them:

“Unfortunately, we do not have any Saab 9-4X on order right now.  There is some question being debated right now as to the availability of that vehicle in this area.  Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.  The system we use to get information regarding Saab is not terribly reliable.  Things aren't looking good for getting a 9-4X.   Saab is going through some pretty severe financial hardships right now, to the point where they've stopped paying their own employees!  A lot of people are concerned that the company is going under.  They've been under a production halt since April, saying they were going to resume production in July, but they've just filed for an extension of that production deadline.  I've got my fingers crossed that they'll be able to pull out of this funk, but for right now, it’s nearly impossible to be getting any new Saab vehicles for the immediate future.”

And an e-mail dated July 20, 2011 from the same dealer as above:

“Saab itself, the company, appears to be going under.  We're not sure how much longer they are going to be around.  They've stopped paying their bills, and recently had to stop paying their employees.  All Saab factories are under hiatus.  We don't know if they will ever pull out.  Nothing official yet, but it’s not looking good.”

I’m no salesperson, but that seems to be a very unorthodox way to instill confidence in the consumer.  Reverse psychology, perhaps?  Either way, attitudes such as this should be VERY concerning to everyone at Saab Cars North America.  I believe I have a pretty good grasp on what Saab has been through and the challenges that they currently face, but I also know how much progress has been made and the many reasons I can remain hopeful.  I just hope this particular dealer doesn’t wonder why they don’t sell more out of their Saab store than the GM side.

Clearly, most of you can see a number of issues with the correspondence I received…not only with the reliability of their e-mail contact, but also with their own confidence in the brand.  This also makes me question their ability and/or willingness to service our 9-4X in the event that a warranty or other item is needed.

I also received the following e-mail from a dealer when I inquired about their 9-4X deliveries:

“Right now we are awaiting the introduction of the 9-4X into the market in this area.  It is currently being held off due to the 2010's that are still in the market but once we get rid of all the 2010's in inventory we will get our first shipment.  The next possible reason is that Stryker is currently holding off the production of all new Saabs due to the fall in sales.  But they are also predicting that the new 9-4X will compete with the Cadillac SRX on all levels.  But at this moment we have no ETA on those vehicles.  But we do have several SRX in all trim levels and colors.”

Misinformation after misinformation.  And Stryker?  Really?  Oh, but they could interest me in a Cadillac…I’ll pass, thank you.  Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done with the Saab dealer network and I offer my experience as a springboard for conversation.

One dealer I contacted stated that they would not be receiving any 2011 models, but were excited to receive the 2012 9-4X.  Since there will only be a couple of months between the release of the 2011 and 2012, this may be a wise financial decision on their part, but it also delays those, like myself, that want to see the vehicle, drive it, and take it home.  I appreciated their honesty and enthusiasm for the brand, though.

Gebhardt European Autos, Boulder, Colorado
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The one dealer I have failed to mention thus-far is the dealership we purchased our 9-4X from.  Gebhardt Saab of Boulder in Colorado is probably one of the lesser-known Saab dealerships in Colorado.  When I filled out their online contact form, I received a very prompt response from Gregg Sunfield.  Gregg was knowledgeable, courteous, and I instantly got the impression that he would go above and beyond to make sure we were happy before, during, and after the sale…and that’s exactly what happened.  I initially inquired about their 9-4X deliveries and Gregg provided the specifications of the vehicles that they currently had on order.  I responded to Gregg with the exact specifications that we were looking for (which was not on his original list).  I knew that Gebhardt would be able to at least place a custom order for us (even if it would have been for a 2012 model year), but Gregg said that he would gladly change one of this stock orders to match our exact specifications.  That way, we would not be responsible for placing a deposit on the vehicle and we would be able to see it, drive it, etc. prior to committing to anything.  Gregg kept us fully informed throughout the next few months as deliveries began and he handled all of the financing, scheduling, and delivery…one of the easiest and best transactions I’ve ever made!  I can not thank Gregg and Gebhardt Saab of Boulder enough for giving us this outstanding experience.  500 miles of driving one-way was more than worth it!  The last time I was in Colorado was for the Save Saab support convoy sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Saab Club in Denver in early 2010…and I was glad to be back.  Evidently, Colorado has become my Saab playground.
Gebhardt Saab, Boulder, Colorado
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After weeks and weeks of grueling anticipation, I got an e-mail from Gregg that our 9-4X had arrived and was available for delivery.  On 9/16/11, my wife and I (kids stayed with my parents) loaded up in our trade-in vehicle after I got off work (5:30 CST) and headed to Boulder, Colorado.  We arrived at approximately 12:30 a.m. (MDT) (1:30 a.m. CST) on 9/17/11, checked into a hotel, and tried to get some sleep despite our anxiety.  The next morning, we were up bright and early, grabbed some breakfast, and headed over to Gebhardt Saab of Boulder.

We arrived several minutes before the dealership opened, so we had the opportunity to browse what I believed to be a very diverse stock selection for a fairly small dealership.  The facility itself was a bit dated, but everything was in very good repair and you could sense that the store owner takes pride in the appearance of the facility.  I’m not one that is sold on big fancy architecture, high overhead expenses, and plush waiting areas.  The dealership was practical, functional, and definitely served its purpose on this occasion.

Gebhardt Saab, Boulder, Colorado
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Once the dealership opened, we were promptly greeted by Gregg and he proceeded to direct us to Bob Printz, who handles all of the financing, title work, trade-in, etc.  Bob was extremely professional, personable, friendly, and knowledgeable.  All of the necessary paperwork was an absolute breeze and any dealership would be fortunate to have someone like Bob.  While we were with Bob, Gregg was putting the finishing touches on our 9-4X.  Gregg, my wife, and I then proceeded to take the vehicle out for a test-drive.  I had driven the new 9-5 Aero at the North American Saab Owner’s Convention in Aurora, Ohio last year and I can say with absolute certainty that the vehicles feel extremely similar in regard to handling, interior appearance, sound, etc…and that is a very good thing.

Our lowly trade-in 2006 Buick Rendezvous CXL
Click photo to enlarge...but why would you want to?

One thing that I will say about Bob and Gregg is that they were both highly optimistic about the future of Saab, they are clearly dedicated to the brand through thick and thin, and I failed to receive a single ounce of misinformation from them…highly knowledgeable regarding the current situation of Saab, very optimistic regarding the future, and they would have instilled a true sense of confidence in me even if I had been one of the world’s great pessimists.  I will clarify my previous statement, as the information they provided and the confidence that they offered was not salesperson-speak…it was based on factual information and was very well-founded.  Kudos to each of them and to the entire Gebhardt family for getting it right!

Prepped and ready to go

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Now, on to the 9-4X itself.  I’ll readily admit that I am extremely critical of vehicles, especially if I’m spending a significant amount of money on the purchase of one.  I’m setting aside all Saab-bias that I may have for this particular review and hope that it may be viewed from a neutral standpoint.  Quality of materials and fit-and-finish is extremely important to me, as I absolutely can’t stand something cheap that’s trying to look expensive, nor do I tolerate any misplaced rattle, groan, or squeak.  I don’t want gimmicks and bling…there is definitely something to be said for clean functionality.  Handling and performance are vital…not only do these attributes influence the overall experience, but they also affect various aspects of safety.  I don’t want a vehicle that feels like a brick on wheels, but by the same token, I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m driving around a slinky atop a waterbed.  My experience with Saab in the past has proven that a delicate balance of the aforementioned characteristics is a shared ideal.

20" monsters
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When I’m looking at a new vehicle (or just about anything, for that matter), I research the death out of it.  I compare numbers, look over it, sit in it, drive it, read reviews…I never want to buy something and then have something surprise me (and not in the good way).  Buyer’s remorse is my enemy and I think I wage a pretty good battle against it in most instances.  I also look at the competition and wade through significant amounts of information, even if it’s for a vehicle that I probably wouldn’t ever even remotely consider purchasing…just to make sure I’m getting a good balance, a good value, and a reasonable deal.  I also compare against vehicles that aren’t really even competitors to get an idea of what it would take to move up or down (in regard to price and size).  My philosophy is to purchase a vehicle that meets most of your needs most of the time.  Ideally, we would love a larger vehicle with a third-row seat since we can turn into the neighborhood taxi on occasion…but that scenario isn’t “most of the time” and there is a valid debate regarding the safety of a third-row...Saab, are you listening?  Size-wise, the 9-4X is a slight step down for us and if something larger were offered by Saab, we would probably be looking at it instead.  I am of the realization that everyone has different needs and I understand that the majority of Saab owners don’t require the amount of space in a vehicle that we do.  I am 6’4” tall, my wife is 6’, and our two kids (ages 2 and 5) are definitely following in our footsteps, so there can be a fine line between a reasonable amount of room and reasonable comfort.  Several reviews of the 9-4X have mentioned how enormous the 9-4X is, but I certainly don’t think we would want to (or even could) go smaller.  I’ve driven the new 9-5…I’m still amazed at the interior space of that car!

Cargo management system
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Even though I am quite tall, I require very little legroom to be comfortable…I can cram myself into just about anything and be just fine…but only if the seats themselves are comfortable.  Having that said, the seats in the 9-4X leave nothing wanting.  Back, side, lumbar…basically, everything is supported in tremendous comfort.  The heated and ventilated seats will become extremely useful and will be greatly appreciated in the harsh winters and summers of West Texas.

In reference to driving dynamics, handling, etc., I tend to lean quite strongly towards the sporty influence.  I love to feel the road and nothing is more engaging and rewarding than to have an ongoing dialogue with the car and really drive it…I’m definitely not an auto-pilot kind of guy.  Mushy rides are not for me, so this portion of my review should be read in context with the previous statement.  The 2011 model comes with Drive Sense, in which you can choose Sport or Comfort.  The 2012 model will feature a third option, Intelligent.  It is my understanding that this, in addition to a few extra exterior colors, will be the only differences between the 2011 and 2012 model years for the 9-4X.  We probably would have chosen Diamond Silver Metallic regardless and I simply don’t believe I would even use the Intelligent mode of Drive Sense, so the 2011 is a perfect fit for us.  I’m quite certain I will keep the Drive Sense system in Sport mode the majority of the time and the difference between the two settings is quite discernible…as it should be.

Spare tire under the cargo floor
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The materials used on the vehicle (interior and exterior) are top-notch.  I tend to notice the very smallest details in relation to materials, fit-and-finish, etc. and the 9-4X is a true home-run.  I haven’t been able to find a single thing that I would change and my expectations (somewhat unexpectedly) have been greatly surpassed.  I have had the opportunity to sit in and visually inspect a new Cadillac SRX and there is absolutely no comparison whatsoever.  The 9-4X looks absolutely fantastic, the interior is extremely practical and functional, and the 9-4X even feels SO much bigger than the SRX.  This is without a doubt the finest vehicle I have ever been in, much less owned.

I only have one very minor complaint about the 9-4X.  I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a complaint…more of an item that I noticed that just didn’t seem to agree with the Saab philosophy that I’ve become so accustomed to.  The interior of the vehicle looks magnificent…understated, practical, functional, and just enough eye candy to keep things interesting and to make the vehicle look very very smart.  There are, however, two brushed chrome-look areas on the steering wheel and near the gear shift that, when the sun hits them just right, you will get a little glare/reflection coming off of them.  I wouldn’t say that this is significant enough to be a safety issue, but nonetheless, it is noticeable.

Rear seat with dual DVD players, ACC and audio controls, and heated seats
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As previously stated, I am 6’4” tall and my wife is 6’ tall.  When we sat in the Cadillac SRX, we were very concerned.  We both felt very cramped, headroom was awful, rear legroom was unacceptable, and we just got an overall sense of being crammed into a sardine can.  The 9-4X is the total opposite in just about every respect.  Front legroom is more than generous, headroom is fantastic, and the overall interior layout provides a sense of safety, but not constraint…everything just feels right.  Ergonomics are superb and are simply unrivaled by anything else on the market.

The cockpit with every bell and whistle you could imagine
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My wife and I were both extremely intimated by the technology on this vehicle at first - Drive Sense, navigation, Bluetooth, XM radio, and every programmable/customizable setting you could ever imagine.  All of the systems are extremely user-friendly, logical, and intuitive.  We had everything mastered before we even got home…once again, Saab has put a lot of thought into every aspect of this vehicle and it has paid off exponentially.  I would go into all of the features and technological advances that the 9-4X offers, but it would literally take me several hours to compile everything here, so I urge you to read up on the many offerings of the 9-4X and I will be more than happy to address any questions or concerns in that regard.

Panoramic moonroof
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On our way home, we actually averaged a much better MPG reading than I had expected, especially since there was a lot of mountain driving involved and we did tend to test the limits a bit from time to time.  West Texas (where we’re from) is completely and totally flat, we drove the 9-4X home from Denver, and made a detour to Red River, New Mexico, which is situated in a mountainous region of the northeastern portion of New Mexico…lots of narrow curving back-roads with which to get a really good feel of the 9-4X.  I’ll have to check the trip computer to be certain, but I believe the average on our first tank of gasoline was right around 23 miles-per-gallon.  One VERY big problem that we encountered was that you can fly in this vehicle and never even know it.  Acceleration is actually much quicker than it feels and a steady eye on the speedometer is essential.  The car feels extremely tight on corners and possesses almost overly-capable passing abilities.  The brakes are firm, the exhaust note is spot-on perfect, interior noise is terrific, and the feedback that you receive from the vehicle while driving is very typical Saab.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, I want to feel like I’m really driving the car and not just coasting along in a self-propelled, auto-piloted recliner.  I almost want to say that the 9-4X provides the perfect balance of everything, but in all reality, it seems more like the 9-4X has maxed out everything…forget balance!  Top-notch safety, handling, performance, technology, appearance, etc.  I simply fail to find any compromises on this vehicle and Saab has undoubtedly created a machine that they can and should be proud of in the 9-4X.  And for anyone that wants to argue against the value you receive in the 9-4X regarding the purchase price…I argue that your comments will be unfounded.  To us, the 9-4X is worth every single penny that we spent on it and we would do it again in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.  BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Acura, Infiniti, Audi, Volkswagen…nothing could provide us with a better value and I am absolutely certain of that.

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So, take a leap of faith like we did and if you are even remotely in a situation to buy a new Saab, please do so!  We are in a Saab-barren land with no independent Saab mechanics anywhere remotely near us, our nearest dealer (who is currently questioning their future with Saab) is over 90 miles from us, our nearest backup dealers (in the event that our nearest dealer calls it quits) are over 300 miles from us, and the future of Saab (warranty, parts, etc.) remains somewhat in question…but that did not stop us.  We choose Saab.

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NOTE: I am no photographer, so I apologize for the lack of high quality photographs.  There are some stunning images of the 9-4X out there, however, and I would urge you to go take a look at them.  Also, please do not hesitate to contact me directly if you have any questions, comments, rants, feedback, or if you just want to talk Saab.  This site may not be reproduced, distributed, and/or shared in part and/or whole without the written consent of the author.  Drive safely and KEEP ON SAABING!!!

Clay J. McNeely

Hereford, Texas USA