Unveiled at a sneak preview on the eve of the Geneva Motor Show, the 9-X Biohybrid is a sleek, three-door hatch. It’s a rival for Audi’s A3 Sportback, BMW 1-series – and the Toyota Prius! That’s because GM has thrown all its powertrain tricks at the show car, as the Biohybrid name suggests. There’s a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine in the nose, tuned to run on bioethanol, and supplemented by hybrid electric power. It’s funky, fast, front-wheel drive and heading for production. 'This vehicle provides a glimpse of a future progressive compact car from Saab,' said GM product boss Bob Lutz, as the covers were pulled from the concept.
If you’d ask me to sketch a Saab hatch, I’d have pretty much drawn this – aside from the rear end…
That’s because the 9-X draws on the design direction Saab spelled out with the Aero X, its 2006 Geneva show car. The 9-X shares its 21-inch ‘turbine’ alloys pushed out to each corner, a wraparound windshield inspired by Saab’s aviation heritage, and a deep front grille.
It's a highly desirable car, with surfacing cleaner than a vicar's sermon, and a macho, wide stance. The big surprise is the unique rear end, which appears to have an unusual reverse rake, and intriguing features such as the frosted light bar and a chunky spoiler that resembles half a Polo mint.
‘This car is all about efficiency in design and performance,’ says Anthony Lo, GM Europe’s director of advanced design. So the 9-X has active aerodynamics, with the shooting brake body getting more slippery above 43mph, thanks to the deployment of an underbody diffuser and the roof spoiler. The spoiler also acts as an air brake, launching upwards if you hammer on the stop pedal.Does a special powertrain boost efficiency too?
Like Volkswagen, Saab is embracing small but punchy engines, too. The 9-X runs a 1.4-litre turbo, also equipped with direct injection and variable valve timing to conserve fuel and boost performance. Running unleaded, the 1.4-litre develops a decent 170bhp. But the engine is also calibrated to run on higher octane E85, increasing peak power to 200bhp and developing a healthy 207lb ft.
But the 9-X Biohybrid has another green trick up its sleeve. GM has packaged an electric motor/generator and battery pack in the chassis, to assist the petrol engine. Like the Prius, the 9-X Biohybrid runs solely on electric power at low speeds, cuts out at idle, gets extra grunt during acceleration and recharges the battery pack using the kinetic energy saved from deceleration. Will this car save the planet?
No, but for a warm hatch that can dash to 62mph in around 8.0secs, it’s commendably green. Combining petrol and electric power, the 9-X is calculated to return 57.6mpg – bang on Prius’ economy – and emit 117g/km of CO2. Throw in E85 and CO2 theoretically goes down to 105g/km (because E85 comes from biomass that initially sucked carbon from the atmosphere) but fuel consumption goes up – to 44.1mpg – because of ethanol’s higher octane rating.Does the cockpit ooze Saab cool?
Of course. The sides are clean thanks to keyless entry eliminating the need for handles. The 9-X does away with a floor-mounted centre console, introducing a driver-focused instrument panel that sweeps out from the base of the windscreen pillars. Five display screens serve up key info, with functions controlled by touch sensitive panels. Saab has also teamed up with Sony Ericsson, to ensure that nomadic electronics such as cell phones, PDAs and MP3 players can be operated through the 9-X’s controls. The 9-X has seating for four, although Saab presented the car with its rear perches folded to emphasise its practicality. What else is cool about the 9-X?
There are plenty of neat tech features, too. There’s a solar panel in the roof to also charge the battery pack, and a front-mounted camera monitoring whether you stay in lane, which also triggers headlamp dip if it detects you’re approaching another car at night with full beam blazing.
So, without the concept car gimmicks, will they build it? GM has long been thinking about a model beneath the 9-3, and using the next-generation Astra platform, it should realise its ambitions. The concept car’s spec is so detailed – even outlining its electric assisted power steering, torsion beam rear suspension and six-speed manual gearbox – that there’s no question over the 9-X making production. There’s just a question mark over the name: 9-2, 9-1 or something else entirely… We’ll find out in two to three year’s time.
Saab will enter the premium hatch market around 2010, with the production version of this 9-X Biohybrid concept.