Another 9-3SC review

The following article comes from The Detoit News.

Saabs can be sensible but need fresh design appeal

Chamonix, France – "This part is almost safe," says our highly qualified but ever so nonchalant ski guide, Michel Fauquet. The words are hardly reassuring, but Saab PR manager, Steve Janisse and I have no choice but to keep going.

Taking advantage of a day off from the launch of the Saab 9-3 SportCombi in this famous French ski resort, we are making our way down Europe’s longest skiable glacier, the Vallee Blanche.

It is a five-hour endurance test of quite challenging powder skiing, punctuated by scary ice cliffs – requiring roped descents – and the knowledge that a false move could mean tumbling into a crevasse hidden by a thin layer of snow. In case of such a fall, Michel has fitted us with harnesses so that one could be pulled out. That’s the theory. The reality, he states blithely, is that some crevasses are so deep that should one even survive the fall, his rope would probably not be long enough to help.

Halfway down the glacier Steve and I reflect that we are the only skiers in sight and wonder why we agreed so casually to try the Vallee Blanche earlier that morning. Once safely down in the village we feel drained but exhilarated. We realize that a calculated risk had paid off with an experience we will never forget.

For me the day’s connection to Saab seems entirely appropriate. In my view this slightly oddball Swedish car company has long been about spirited performance, a risk-taking attitude and a willingness to be different. That spirit and an associated design ethic pretty much died in the early 1990s, when lack of investment and a mistaken desire to create more mainstream sedans left Saab with a distinctly uninspired portfolio.

While fellow Swedish brand Volvo successfully transformed itself from safe but stodgy-looking, to safe and good looking, Saab lost its edge and sales drifted downwards. In recent years General Motors Corp. ownership has brought some life back to the brand. The 9-5 wagon, while long in the tooth and underwhelming visually, is great to drive and remains an undervalued luxury market contender. The GM Epsilon platform-based 9-3 sedan and convertible are decent looking, crisp handling and head and shoulders better than their very disappointing predecessors. But the 9-3 still lacks sufficient visual distinctiveness and struggles to compete with the crushingly dominant BMW 3 Series.

The first, quick-fix effort by GM to give Saab a much needed entry in the US SUV market, in the form of the Subaru-based 9-2X, has yet to move the needle. As for the forthcoming 9-7X, which uses the GM360 truck platform (aka GMC Envoy), it remains to be seen whether such a conservative design can be transformed into a truly entertaining Saab. Coming later is the 9-6X crossover, which better look a lot better than goofy Subaru Tribeca on which it is based.

The 9-3 SportCombi, however, demonstrates some promise. Structurally it’s a fairly straightforward wagon, but its design shows some flair, particularly with the swept up rear side windows. And equipped with GM’s powerful new 2.8-litre V-6, the SportCombi is claimed to be the fastest Saab yet. This combination of performance and eye-catching styling recalls the spirit of the mid-1980s 900 Turbo sedan, a highly distinctive Saab that still encapsulates the appeal of the brand in my mind. I remember movies from that time often featured Saab 900s. These days, Saabs don’t seem to be on movie producers’ wish lists.

The latest news from Europe is that Saab’s likable boss Peter Augustsson has resigned over GM’s decision not to build the next generation Epsilon architecture models in Sweden. Saab’s Trollhaettan plant will live on to 2010 building Cadillac’s BLS, its entry-level European market sedan, but the writing is on the wall; Saab’s days as an autonomous unit within GM are over and done with.

Given Saab’s slide over the past decade, the plant decision is not surprising and GM can hardly be blamed for not wishing to continue subsidizing a loss making enterprise. What’s sad about this story is that Saab’s quirky spirit could not have been melded successfully into a larger enterprise years ago, before the buying public lost so much interest in the brand.

I’m told the Saab design department is ready to pull out the stops now in an effort to revive the brand’s visual appeal. Such a move could not come a moment too soon. While I have no objection to future Saab models using appropriate GM family powertrains and architectures nor do I care where they are built, I do want their designs to move me. In other words, if Saab is to be saved, it’s about time for some judicious risk taking.

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  1. …good article. it makes good points,

    – the 9-5 needs a face-lift;

    – the 9-2x is a “non-event”;

    – saab should be more distinctive; and

    – volvo is doing it the right way.

  2. Agreed. I’ve a post coming up about the worrying trend within the news surrounding Saab in the last month or so. It’s sad to see the regression taking place. This model is in many ways a sole ray of light for the next 3-5 years, which I think will either make or break Saab as a contuining entity within the GM stable.

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