Build it and they will come

Saab sales fell in February according to Sweden’s English-language news, The Local.  In keeping with Saab tradition, sales fell by….wait for it…..9-3 percent (so funny).

Saab Automobile’s car sales were down 9.3 per cent in February while there’s been an overall 4.1 per cent downturn in European car sales.

With sales particularly poor in Germany, and the Netherlands, Saab’s Swedish competitor Volvo actually managed to increase 0.7 per cent for the same period.

"Some of our markets are struggling," admitted Saab Automobile’s press chief Christer Nilsson. "Things aren’t going so well in Sweden or the Netherlands."

Two markets where Saab is faring better are Britain and Spain.

"Our diesel Saab 9-3 is selling particularly well in the UK," says Nilsson.

Although after the first two months of the year Saab Automobile is 3.6 per cent in the red, the General Motors Group made a profit of 2.9 percent in February. This is largely due to the increased sales of Opel/Vauxhalls (3.9 per cent). Saab and Chevrolet pulled the figure down.

Whilst things look gloomy for Saab, Volvo continues to perform well: sales for January and February increased by 6.2 per cent.

So why could this be good news?  Well, for starters, nobody expected much different given Saab’s recent press.  The fact that this stayed within single digits is probably a blessing in disguise.  Second, it’s gives a great base for a sales improvement later in the year.  There’s the 9-7x to come out in North America and then the 9-3 Sport Combi.  One pitches to a new untapped market and one is looking to inspire the faithful.

The other good news in this story is that Volvo continues to revive itself by adapting to the market and actually winning new customers.  Australian V8 supercar driving legend Dick Johnson once referred to overtaking a Volvo at Bathurst as being like trying to pass a block of flats (i.e. an apartment building for you US readers).  Those days are well and truly gone with Volvo maintaining their reputation for European innovation and even gaining a reputation for style.  The seemingly impossible can be done.

GM could learn a few lessons here.  Saab had a great reputation for innovation and providing something others couldn’t – practical uniqueness.  The low-rev uptake of the turbo.  The huge boot space within a sporty looking hatch.  The great passenger space within a midsize vehicle.  Ergonomics (which most people back then probably thought was some sort of dodgy 1970’s fiscal policy).

Hope springs eternal.

Success beyond it’s scale in the 1980’s was undone by a lack of investment in the 1990’s and we now have the debacle we face today.  An innovative company that was punching above it’s weight being swallowed by THE quintessential corporate heavyweight that has little room for a real sense of individual identity.

Bob Lutz’s recent blog entry about the Cadillac BLS made for a some interesting reading.  In citing how great a car he thought the BLS could be, he compared it to others in class such as the Audi A3, BMW or..(my pause inserted)..the Saab 9-3. Almost as if it was an afterthought.

The 9-3 is a fantastic car.  The Sport Combi is going to be another fantastic vehicle and may prove to be the shining light of the fleet when it arrives later this year (2006 here in Oz). 

What Saab really needs in order to raise the bar is a hero car.  A Mustang.  A Viper.  An M series.  A car that will grab punters by their collars and shout ‘Buy me you dumbass!!’ as they’re wandering around the lot.  It should be proven in Saab’s tradition – with turbo, a hatch and a bunch of decals as it whips around the tracks of the World Rally Chamionship.  Some say this costs too much but you’ve got to spend money to make money and GM has some depth to its pockets.  Look at Suuby, Toyota, Peugeot and others.  All good in the rally field and all with heaps of cred.

Bob, I know you’ve got it in you.  Ed Welburn – you too.  The dollars are there.  The market is there.  (Go read the bulletin boards, they’re your customers and they’re SCREAMING for this).  The only thing that isn’t there yet is the car.  Buried somewhere in your drawer is a picture of a 9-3x.  Go get it out, dust it off and figure out a way to inspire people again.

A great article just a few days ago called for GM to contemplate some judicious risk taking with Saab.  It’s a great idea.  I remember another story where someone said "build it, and they will come".

Bob.  Ed.  Build the 9-3x.  And they will come.

And yes, I’m still available to come and make this rallying and revival dream a reality.  Call me.  Email me.  Whatever.

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