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 Chinese dealership giant Pang Da Automobile after its initial savoir, Hawtai Motor Group, withdrew.

But 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 start rolling off boats late next year at the Port of New York and New Jersey.

It's an unfortunate circumstance, 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 its 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle, it could buy those precious days it needs until the 9-3 rollout.

We enjoyed Washington's 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 place in one of the most profitable and fastest-growing segments.

Last year, Middle Luxury CUVs accounted for 354,672 sales, up 24.6% from like-2009, according to Ward's data.

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 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 on a plate of chicken-fried steak, despite weighing 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, is disappointing. We logged 18.5 mpg (12.7 L/100 km) over a day of testing.

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 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.

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.

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 middling fuel economy.

The CUV felt remarkably light on its feet, with quick steering. It handles as much like a car as any in the segment.

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 allows drivers to black out all instrument-panel readouts except for the speedometer.

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

Exterior styling 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.

Ideally, Saab would have delivered the 9-4X years ago, but that's all water under the bridge now. Let's hope it's the first of many more new models to come.

PROS/CONS

+

  • Engaging turbo V-6
  • Driver's cockpit
  • Handles superbly

-

  • No punchy turbo-4
  • More Scandia style, please
  • Saab's sun up, or down?

'11 Saab 9-4X

Vehicle type: front-engine, 5-passenger AWD CUV

Engine: 2.8L DOHC turbocharged V-6

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Power: 300 hp @ 5,500 rpm

Torque: 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 110.5 ins. (280.7 cm)

Overall length: 190.1 ins. (482.9 cm)

Curb weight: 4,650 lbs. (2,025 kg)

Price as tested: $48,010

EPA 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