WASHINGTON – As we put pen to paper for our critique of the new-for-’11 Saab 9-4X, the affable Swedish auto maker’s future stood in doubt, cash-strapped and hunting the four corners of the Earth for investors.

Saab appears to have found its white knight in the form of a Russian financier recently cleared of criminal allegations and the Chinese dealership giant Pang Da Automobile after its initial savoir from the East, Hawtai Motor Group, withdrew.

The investors are awaiting approval of regulators, but production in Trollhattan, Sweden, has restarted after a 7-week shutdown.

If Saab’s recent rollercoaster history is a guide, it would be wise to postpone giving the patient a clean bill of health until new 9-3 sedans under development now, and critical to its future, start rolling off boats late next year at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

It’s an unfortunate mess, especially given the rock-solid 9-4X.

Happiness might indeed be a Swedish sunset, as Mark Twain said, but if Saab can get the word out about this 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle, it could buy those precious days it needs until the 9-3 rollout.

We certainly enjoyed our day plying the Beltway and country roads of Virginia and Maryland in a pre-production 9-4X.

A spunky, turbocharged 4-cyl. engine would be a nice alternative to the thirsty but thoroughly engaging 2.8L 6-cyl. turbo we tested. And could the interior use a few more spoonfuls of Scandinavian-ness? Sure.

But the 9-4X combines impressive performance and an appealing design certain to land Saab’s owner, Netherlands-based Spyker Cars, a piece of the action in one of the industry’s most profitable and fastest-growing segments.

Last year, Middle Luxury CUVs accounted for 354,672 sales, up 24.6% from like-2009, and good for 24.7% of the luxury market, according to Ward’s data. Through March, deliveries in the segment totaled 92,097, up 21.7%, for 25% of luxury sales.

About two-thirds of the 18 entries in the segment are all-new or redesigned in the last two years. That means sharks swim there, so go boldly. The 9-4X does just that.

Our tester was a loaded Aero model, with all-wheel drive and the 2.8L turbo V-6 sourced from GM Holden in Australia.

The engine earned a spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list in 2006. While it might be dated, it still does yeoman’s work in the 9-4X.

The transversely mounted engine features a single twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection and sophisticated breathing to provide a wide band of smooth, exhilarating torque. Saab claims 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.7 seconds.

The 9-4X eats pavement like a truck driver with a plate of chicken-fried steak, despite weighing in at close to 4,650 lbs. (2,109 kg). The turbo spools freely, allowing us to hold second gear past 5,200 rpm.

The smooth torque delivery comes at the expense of tip-in. But that’s a minor quibble to an otherwise respectable powertrain with a 6-speed automatic transmission featuring adaptive shifting logic, which consistently finds the right gear at the right time, and a manual mode.

Fuel economy, however, remains stuck in the 20th Century.

’12 Saab 9-4X
Vehicle type Front-engine, 5-passenger AWD CUV
Engine 2.8L DOHC turbocharged V-6
Power (SAE net) 300 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 110.5 ins. (280.7 cm)
Overall length 190.1 ins. (482.9 cm)
Overall width 75 ins. (190.5 cm)
Overall height 66.1 ins. (167.9 cm)
Curb weight 4,650 lbs. (2,025 kg)
Base price $48,010
Fuel economy 18/22 mpg (13-10.7 L/100 km)
Competition Cadillac SRX, Lexus RX 350, BMW X3, Mercedes GLK 350, Audi Q5, Infiniti FX35
Pros Cons
Engaging turbo V-6 No punchy turbo-4
Driver’s cockpit More Scandia style, please
Handles superbly Saab’s sun up, or down?

We logged 18.5 mpg (12.7 L/100 km) over a day of testing that saw everything from lengthy highway sprints to a bumper-to-bumper jam-up on the George Washington Parkway.

And while that number might be a tick over Saab’s own combined-cycle estimations and competitive in its segment, a European OEM billing itself as forward-thinking should deliver more.

Saab offers a naturally aspirated 3.0L DIG V-6 as standard, but estimates peg its combined-cycle fuel economy at 19 mpg (12.4 L/100 km) – not exactly a more efficient choice given the loss of 35 hp and 72 lb.-ft. (98 Nm) of torque.

The Cadillac SRX, which shares a platform and Mexican assembly point with the 9-4X, suffered from the same dilemma, prompting GM to drop the 3.0L and outfit it for ’12 only with the 3.6L DIG V-6, another Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner. Sadly, the 9-4X will not see the 3.6L.

Wouldn’t something like the 2.0L I-4 of the 9-4X concept shown in 2008, which promised 300 hp, 295 lb.-ft (400 Nm) of torque and flex-fuel capability, be more appropriate?

In Saab’s current state of affairs, we know the short answer. But without a diesel option and with plans to sell the 9-4X globally, it would be a smart investment for the future.

The 9-4X also handles well for its girth. Credit goes partly to the AWD system, which appears on the SRX but owes its technical development to Saab, delivering infinitely variable torque between the front and rear axles.

The AWD system combines with an adaptive chassis system using real-time damping control to respond to driver inputs and changing road conditions. Add in driver-selectable settings for Comfort, Eco and Sport, and the vehicle dynamics seem tailor-made for any situation.

We spent most of our test drive in Sport mode, pushing the 9-4X in the corners and hammering it down the straight-aways – perhaps at least partly explaining the disappointing fuel economy.

The CUV felt composed and remarkably light on its feet, with quick steering. It handles as much like a car as any in the segment. Clearly, effort to build a rigid body was money well spent.

Saab does a nice job differentiating the 9-4X interior from that of the SRX. Past the B-pillar, it’s a twin right down to the flip-up DVD screens in the seat backs.

But up front where it counts, it’s all Saab.

There’s the console-mounted ignition, although push button these days, and the night panel function allowing drivers to black out all instrument-panel readouts except for the speedometer, like the fighter jets Saab’s founder still builds.

The gun-metal interior of the tester includes brushed-nickel-like accents to the shifter, door pulls and steering wheel. Instrument needles glow green. Nicely done.

An electronic parking brake frees up space in the foot-wells, and seats unique to Saab contain foam specially shaped for optimal comfort, benchmarked against those in the Lexus RX.

But here’s the downside: too much GM switchgear. Saab obviously did what it could to create a unique center-stack design, but the buttons and knobs betray its work. The steering wheel comes from Buick, along with its redundant controls. Alas, independence rarely is won in a day.

Exterior styling of the 9-4X on purpose bears a strong family resemblance to the 9-5 sedan and Aero X concept car.

Note the clean sheet metal. Up front, the CUV carries the fresh face of Saab, punctuated by the new logo on top of a 3-hole grille and bookended by the auto maker’s “ice-block” lighting concept combining green and blue hues.

There’s also the peaked roof, blacked-out greenhouse, Saab’s classic “hockey-stick” waistline treatment and a light bar across the rear liftgate. The spoke wheels resemble turbines, another nod to Saab’s aviation history.

Saab promises more downsized turbocharged engines in the future, along with a return to more expressive styling as it separates from former parent GM.

For now, we have the 9-4X, which, like the 9-5 preceding it, shows Saab striking off on its own but still trying to shake years of parental indifference from its shoulders.

Ideally, Saab would have delivered this vehicle years ago, but that’s all water under the bridge now. Let’s just hope it’s the first of many more new models to come, not the last.

jamend@wardsauto.com