TROY, MI – A cross/utility vehicle is heir apparent to Saab Automobile’s fledgling SUV, while the Swedish auto maker continues to evaluate whether to introduce a compact car to replace the 9-2X.

Saab Automobile U.S.A General Manager Jay Spenchian tells Ward's a Saab CUV, which could take the 9-4X name, will slot in for the truck-based 9-7X SUV after parent General Motors Corp. updates its midsize SUV platform that underpins the vehicle.

“We’re going to continue with the 9-7, and there will be slight overlap with the 9-4, or whatever we (decide to) call it,” Spenchian tells Ward's here at Saab’s largest U.S. dealership. “One will be going away as the other one is coming in, and there will be very little overlap.”

The 9-4X designation isn’t official, but press speculation on the vehicle has contributed to the moniker.

“It’s written about so much as a 9-4 that we’re laughing about it, because we’re probably going to have to call it a 9-4 now,” Spenchian says. “We’ve been pretty open to everybody that is a segment we’re going (into) in a couple years.”

Spenchian does not say when Saab will unveil or begin selling the new CUV. Nor does he reveal the platform on which it will ride. The 9-7X shares a platform with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, both of which are built in Moraine, OH.

The TrailBlazer is expected to exit by 2010, as car-based utilities are forecast to surpass SUVs in market share by 2009, according to Ward's Auto Forecasts.

Sales of the 9-7X through June reached just 2,908 in the U.S., compared with the Acura MDX and BMW X3, which sold 24,280 and 15,927, respectively.

Early this year, Saab Managing Director Jan-Ake Jonsson said a new CUV would be developed “from scratch.” A French forecaster told Ward's the so-called 9-4X could be based on the Cadillac BRX, a CUV to be built solely for Europe at Saab’s Trollhattan, Sweden, plant.

“The price range (for a 9-4X) is going to be very close, like right on top of the 9-3,” which ranges from $27,570 to $43,320. “Here (in the U.S.), it’s not going to be real expensive,” Spenchian says.

“I think some of the styling cues you see on the Aero X (concept) you’ll definitely see on that vehicle,” he adds.

Rebecca Lindland, auto analyst with Global Insight, projects the 9-4X will come out in late 2009. That would be consistent with GM’s vow to re-invest in the brand under a 5-year business plan that began in late 2005.

“The next couple of years are very lean for this brand in terms of models coming out,” Lindland says. “It sounds like they are trying to (keep) Saab with a truck lineup that suits their consumer and the lifestyle of the typical Generation X. But because of the kind of tenuous situation at Saab, they do need to rebadge.”

Saab this year released the 5-door 9-5 SportCombi, a refreshed 9-5 sedan and continues to offer the 9-3 SportCombi, all of which are available with a 250-hp 2.8L turbocharged V-6.

The 9-4X will be an all-wheel-drive vehicle, says Spenchian, who expects replacements for the 9-3 and 9-5 also will offer optional AWD.

“We’ve been a little late to the party (with AWD),” he says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s been harder to get above that 40,000 (U.S. sales) threshold. We just haven’t had it, and our competitors all have had it.”

Elsewhere within Saab’s product lineup, Spenchian says there are no plans to directly replace the Subaru Impreza-based 9-2X, Saab’s smallest entry that goes away at the end of the ’06 model year.

But with the small-car market revving up in response to escalating fuel prices, a compact is something Saab continues to review.

“A lot of people are trying to get into that segment because its price range could give you a lot of volume,” he says. “But it comes with caveats that you have to do it right.

“If you can’t execute well, you’re better off not being there. Globally, it would definitely make sense. Whether it makes sense in the U.S., I’m not sure. But we’ll continue to look at that.”

Spenchian cites BMW AG’s Mini as the ideal execution of a luxury line rolling out a small vehicle.

Saab has been considering a hardtop convertible version of the 9-3, mirroring the Pontiac G6, or the 3-panel retractable hardtop featured on the similarly sized Volvo C70, in order to buoy sales.

But ultimately, that feature would sacrifice trunk space on the 9-3 and increase its price too much, Spenchian says. A hardtop also would take some of the cachet from the Saab’s 9-3 ragtop convertible, which has been released as a 20th anniversary vehicle this year to strong reviews.

The auto maker continues to smart from the gaffe created by the 9-6X, which was seen as a hasty entry into the CUV market last year. Based on the Subaru B9 Tribeca CUV, the 9-6X was yanked in the fall after GM sold its stake in Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., parent company to Subaru.

Purists have been especially tough on the 9-7X, 9-6X and 9-2X, which they cite as examples of a diluted Saab under GM’s wing.

Public criticism prompted GM Vice Chairman-Global Product Development Bob Lutz to fire off a GM blog entry in defense of the 9-7X, noting the vehicle’s suspension modifications, larger front stabilizer bar and overall European feel – all of which distinguishes it from the TrailBlazer.

“It not only feels like a Saab but looks like one too,” added Lutz. “We focused on fits and broke the mold in designing the front-end appearance.”

scanderson@wardsauto.com