"GM are sharing as never before". That’s part of the the philosophy that’s brought the Cadillac BLS with a diesel donk to Europe. But what if all this sharing leads to a big dose of the blah’s. The distinctiveness of an automotive brand is something that shouldn’t be trifled with willy-nilly. The news that Saabs are going to be replaced by Caddilacs on Trollhattan’s assembly line might be good news to a Swedish worker with a mortgage, but in the long run, where does this take the Saab brand?
First up, the news.
While my wife and I were sleeping, GM held concurrent press conferences in Germany and Sweden. Here’s the release direct from GM Media:
Russelsheim Chosen for Next Generation, Common Architecture Cars Beginning in 2008
General Motors (GM) announced today the decision to build selected Opel and Saab models based on a common architecture at its Russelsheim plant in Germany, beginning in 2008. Objective, in-depth analysis was conducted over the past several months to determine which of the current two assembly plants (Trollhattan, Sweden and Russelsheim, Germany) presented the best overall business case for GM’s future production needs in Europe.
"Both plants presented compelling business cases but, in the end, the scale for this particular allocation tipped in favor of Russelsheim, said Fritz Henderson, chairman of General Motors Europe.
At the same time, GM confirmed its commitment to the Saab brand and the Trollhattan production facility. A major initiative is expected for the expansion of the Saab model line-up. In addition, GM will build the all-new Cadillac BLS, which made its world premiere as a show car at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show, in Trollhattan beginning 2006. Furthermore, the company today committed to build selected Saab vehicles in Trollhattan through 2010.
"We are committed to the Saab brand and a competitive operation in Sweden, said Carl-Peter Forster, president of General Motors Europe. The 9-3 and 9-5 will continue to be core products for the Saab brand, and will be renewed, but we will add a premium cross-over vehicle in the near future to complement this lineup. Furthermore, we will make every attempt to allocate additional future products to this facility.
The decision to build Opel and Saab models in Russelsheim was based upon extensive analysis of numerous factors including capacity requirements, investment, labor costs, plant efficiency and flexibility, working-hour models, logistics and currency issues, to name but a few. The study revealed that the best business case for this product allocation is the Russelsheim plant, which will be able to substantially improve its productivity.
"Both facilities put their best foot forward. The business case over time for the Russelsheim facility was approximately 200 million more cost effective than that of the Trollhattan facility, said Henderson.
The capabilities demonstrated at GM’s Trollhattan plant and its available capacity made it a natural choice for production of the Cadillac BLS. The Cadillac BLS rounds out the American luxury brands range with a high-performance, front-wheel drive vehicle tailored to European needs. It is one of around 45 new models and variants that GM will introduce in Europe over the coming five years.
Now, the opinion.
Sure, this is a sad day for traditional Saab enthusiasts. The assurance here is that there will be some Swedish-made Saabs until 2010. From there, it’s anybody’s guess. I’m a traditionalist myself, but the reality is that my 99 Turbo, even though it’s Saab through and through, was actually made in Finland. Many others are happy owners of Finnish Saabs and a select few may even own Saabs that were made in Belgium.
The sentimental in all of us would like Saab to stay in Sweden. Design, testing, research, development, manufacture. The fact is, however, that Saab is owned by a publically listed company that has to make a profit in order to stay around. And as it was, Saab wasn’t profitable.
What we have to hope is preserved, and even maybe pressure GM to maintain, is the Saab philosophy. This philosophy was developed when a bunch of airplane manufacturers decided they wanted to make cars. They didn’t know much about designing or building cars, but they were great engineers. They took a new and fresh approach to car design and over the next 30 or 40 years introduced a whole slew of innovations to the automotive world.
Saab’s entire reputation was built around innovation, deceptive amounts of power from a small engine, safety and respect for the environment. Try as they might, they never got to be a real mass-market producer.
Fast-forward to today, and there’s the real possibility that GM may turn Saab into either a resounding success that echoes Saab’s past, or, that they may turn Saab into a great crass-market producer of vehicles that are pretty much like all the others.
GM has signalled the beginning of the end to the true tradition of a Swedish designed and manufactured vehicle. The 9-3 and 9-5 will continue to be manufactured there for several years until a new generation of vehicle is ready. The 9-3 will likely be the first to leave for Russelsheim, leaving a refreshed 9-5 as the sole Swedish-made Saab.
GM have promised an AWD crossover vehicle, likely the 9-6x rumoured to be based on Suuby’s upcoming Tribeca platform. The true hero vehicle for Saab to consider would be a form of 9-3x concept vehicle (I’ve had my say about that and about a comeback to rallying here). How much this next Saaburu will resemble this concept is yet to be seen. It should, however, be much more of a Saab vehicle than the 9-2x (not that that would be hard!).
GM have tossed out a couple of bones this week. The retention of the Trollhattan plant is a good thing and the fact that Saabs will continue to be made there for a few years at least is, likewise, a good thing. These were the sweeteners for the bitter pill to come in today’s announcement: that Saabs will not always be Swedish.
It’s inevitable, but major change – the kind that strikes to the very core of an entity – is in the wind for Saab. I just hope that there’s still something Saabish about them that I can admire and appreciate in 30 years time, like I do now about my Finnish-made 99 Turbo.