Then why can’t they sell Saabs?

GM’s marketing head-honcho, Mark LaNeve, has blessed us with a delightful piece on the Fastlane blog regarding news about some improved sales data; but all he does is beg the question – given a true quality product to sell, why aren’t people buying??

(Warning, Mark, some toughlove ahead.)

The fact that he offers positive news about sales data amidst who-knows-how-many months of declining sales figures merely underlines his job title, Vice President, GM North America Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing.  May as well be the VP of Sales, Perception, Ignorance and Neverland (i.e. S.P.I.N) as far as a Saabophile like yours truly is concerned.

I’ve written recently about the fact that I do indeed consider Saab’s future to be brighter.  Let me summarise as to why:

  • The imminent arrival of the 9-3 Sport Combi.  This car is creating a huge buzz already.
  • The imminent arrival of the 9-7x.  First sightings and drives have been positive.
  • The success of Saab, particularly diesel models, in the UK and Europe.  (Note GM, this blogger WILL be watching for diesel variants in the US come 2007 when low-sulfur diesel fuels are the norm over there.  You have been warned.)
  • The introduction of the 9-5 Biopower in Sweden.  More powerful then a regular gasoline model and it runs on a renewable fuel source.  How this is not a recipe for success is known only to Big Oil.
  • The 2.8l V6 turbo is to be introduced into the 9-3 Sport Sedan range.
  • The promise of AWD in next few years
  • The hint that the next 9-2x will be more of an individual Saab vehicle in the future.

Now, when I say the future is looking brighter, let me say that I consider the present (apart from US sales figures) to be fantastic.  And this really does beg the question: Why aren’t these vehicles selling in North America? 

Some of the answers are obvious, some of them less so.  Model by model on the current limited range, let’s take a look:

The 9-2x

This is undoubtedly the weakest link in the current lineup.  Touted as an important first step into the AWD market, it’s a car that’s loved by all who have them, tolerated by Saab people that don’t, and a source of questions starting with the phrase "What the …." for everyone else.

Pro’s:  from all accounts this is a great car.  As one reviewer put it, the best WRX your money can buy is now at your Saab dealer.  Punchy motor, great handling, comfy (even if smallish) interior and plenty of character.  I am yet to read a negative review about this car, but I’ve heard plenty of negative perception.

Con’s:  The negative perception that attaches itself to such an obvious piece of badge engineering.  As great as this car might be, Saab has always been an individual manufacturer and this was always going to be a hard sell without more distinctiveness than just sheet metal.  It really suffered from carrying over the Suuby interior.

How to sell:  Step one: assuming this model line is to continue (which I’m skeptical about), get someone working on a Saab interior. 

Step 2: The ads that I saw for the 9-2x look OK to me.  From afar, the incentives that have been offered appear to be a two-edged sword.  Yeah, people use them as an incentive to buy, but there’s the negative perception associated with having to offer huge incentives (up to $7,000 is the latest I’ve heard – amazing).  It might be naive of me, but wouldn’t a reduction in the sticker price that would bring it in line to around 60% of the incentive offer be a better long term solution?  Make it a drive away, no more to pay figure.

The 9-3 Sport Sedan

In my opinion, these cars should be out of supply in the dealer’s yards.  They should be creating a wind vortex as they run out of the showrooms with smiling owners at the wheel, the salesmen lying exhausted at having to service so many people in one given day.

This car is superb.  Again, I haven’t read a bad review.  I posted a review yesterday where the reviewer was genuinely concerned that the next custodians of the vehicle wouldn’t… it….like he had.  And that was a Vector – imagine if he’d had the Aero.

Pro’s: there isn’t enough room to write them all. 

Con’s: there are some cons with the 9-3??

Why isn’t it selling?  That’s a question that better minds than mine will have to be left to answer.  Maybe it’s underinvestment in advertising.  Maybe it’s underinvestment in supporting infrastructure – a dealer access problem.  I’ve heard complaints here and there that Saab dealers can be few and far between in some areas.  I’ve also heard that once a customer gets to drive a Saab, they usually buy it.  But they’ve got to get into it first.  Given that the US is the land of convenience, this is obviously not going to play into Saab’s favour.

The 9-3 Convertible

Again, like the 9-3, this is just a superb vehicle.  I’ve posted a reviewer’s impression on the 9-3 convertible just this morning and like all the others, they love the car.  And what’s not to love.  It’s the true 4-seasons 4-seater. 

I took one for a few days just after it had been released and I can honestly say it was the car to restore my faith in the GM era.  It’s that good. 

Pro’s: see 9-3 SS, above.

Con’s: see 9-3 SS, above.

It would be fair to say that the 9-3 Convertible is Saab’s current halo model and  whilst I don’t know the exact sales figures for this car, they’d be impressive in terms of the proportion of total US Saab sales they occupy.  Any proportionate increase in Saab advertising would have flow-on effects on convertible sales but perhaps the strategy should be to increase convertible advertising and receive the trickle-down from there. 

Any cringe you felt whilst reading that last paragraph is due to the fact that Saab needs a musclier halo model.  Give us a new Viggen, please!!

Blksml The 9-5

The 9-5 is probably Saab’s current cult-car.  Again, they’re loved by all who own them, but this is a crowd that seems to be getting smaller each year.  It’s been hampered by a lack of real model development since it’s introduction.  A few minor face-lifts have been all that’s happened, where competitors have introduced at least one or maybe several new models, leaving the 9-5 behind.

I don’t know about the US, but here they have had some reliability problems.  And if it’s your top model, that’s the last thing you need.  And maybe that’s the problem with the 9-5.  It’s a car that doesn’t quite uphold it’s marquee status within the range.  It certainly receives little marketing support as far as I can see. 

If one were feeling particularly cruel, one could refer to the 9-5 as the Fredo Corleone of the Saab ‘family’.  Worthy in some way or other, but dependent on it’s little brother for survival.

The one development that did occur in the 9-5 range was the addition of the Aerowagon.  Maybe it was a pricing issue, but I don’t see a heck of a lot of these around either (and I live in a Saab town).

I’ve never driven one, but these babies are supposed to go like the clappers (as they say here downunder) and have all the top shelf accommodations. 

Saab is GM’s global premium brand.  It has a range of excellent cars with some really exciting additions and developments coming in the next few years.  The question for Mark LaNeve and Jay Spenchian is how do you get people in to showrooms to drive them, because once they do that, they’ll be a long, long way down the road to buying one.

Mark, thanks for the short bit of good news about how months of continued declining sales are actually positive for GM.  Now, as one of your commenters suggested, please stop wasting time and start figuring out how to better market the great cars in the range to the people that reside outside your office building (i.e. the real world).

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  1. G’day Scott, and thanks for your input. The ‘weakest link’ attribution for the 9-2x isn’t anything to do with 9-5 sales. Separate issues.

    As stated, I think the weakest link title is because of the transperancy with which the car is a rebadge. As good as it is, many will not get a taste of the quality of the vehicle because of the apprehensiveness that surrounds it in many circles. I think it’s deserving of selling way more than it has been.

    The 9-5 issue is a problem because of the marquee status of the vehicle. It’s not so incredibly technologically advanced and therefore expensive that the low sales numbers can be excused. It’s affordable in it’s class, but for some reason (lack of updates and enhancement, i’m guessing) it’s not selling, and that’s the sad problem.

    If you’re contending that the 9-5 is actually Saab’s weakest link, then that’s another issue altogether. This may well be the case, but I guess it’s a case of “tie goes to the Swede” in my mind. As fine a car as the 9-2x might be, I got to take a good look at a beautiful 9-5 Hirsch back at Easter and if you lined it and a 9-2x up in a showroom, I don’t think there’d be many debates between Saab folks about which car is more desireable.

    Perhaps instead of a particular model being the weakest link, it’s the marketing of models that’s the weakest link. Can you shed some light on how 9-5’s are marketed in the US and why 9-5’s don’t sell? Are they marketed in the US at all, because I haven’t seen an ad here for a 9-5 since the Aero Sport Wagon came out.

  2. Swade,

    I think the lack of serious updates is the biggest problem facing the 9-5. Compare the 9-5 with its Lexus, Infiniti or Audi counterparts and you will see a world of difference. I also think this explains, in part, some of the problems Mercedes has been having.

  3. As I posted on SaabCentral some days ago (abridged):

    I’ll say that Saab is seen here in the US as the quirky car that stands apart from the others — a little strange and a little expensive. Are most Americans willing to pay a premium for understated, classic styling, solid performance and trustworthy engineering? The answer: a resounding NO. What do most Americans pay extra for? The bling. As in, “Hey, I’m driving here!! Notice me!!” Why do you think that Cadillac dealers can’t keep Escalades in stock? Why are cheap (for them) Benz models and Range Rovers leaving the showrooms in record numbers? Why is there a market for a Porsche SUV, period? And, my favorite example: why in the name of sanity do people actually buy Hummers? The only, and I repeat, only rational conclusion is this: Americans buy premium cars for maximum show. Ostentatious consumption. Whatever you want to call it. That’s it.

    Of course, Saabs are good/great cars, but they’re anything but showy. That’s my analysis.

  4. Mike, welcome. Yep I read your analysis at SC but thanks for adding it here too.

    From afar, we (non-US people) sometimes try to think that the bling-counsciousness is more of a TV thing than reality. It really is rather silly. Having visited for a short time last year though, I could see that a few things that I previously thought were too far-fetched to be true could actually be the case. Therefore the notion that people might actually want to drive a Hummer because it’s big and says ‘Look at me’ no longer comes as a total surprise.

    I’m not surprised they don’t dominate the market. But I am surprised that sales numbers are slipping from what were less than stellar in the first place.

  5. Just as we make mention of North American sales and the changes that could raise revenues from the doldrums, Saab announces a plan to turbocharge the 2.8l V-6 and bolt it into the 9-3 Combi and 9-3SS. A bit of bling that any American should appreciate.

    Now, if we could just make the styling exotic enough to turn heads… perhaps a ricey two-level rear spoiler and 20″ polished chrome wheels? Optional brightwork with ‘6-cylindrig turbo’ emblazoned on every bit of sheetmetal a la Mercedes-Benz and their ‘KOMPRESSOR’ badging? Folding roof for the Combi as on the BMW 3-series wagons? Rear seat video module? Heads-up dashboard display? 20-speaker sound system? I can’t wait!

  6. Saab spinners??

    And congratulations EnG for narrowly beating out SaabKen for the 200th comment on this site. I’d send you a prize in the mail, but then you could probably buy some lame box of paperclips yourself, and cheaper than I could send them, so just rest easy knowing the landmark contribution you made.

  7. Ken, you’d be the first person from that part of the world that actually WANTED vegemite (in my experience anyway).

    Hint: if offered, ask for Tim Tams. Mmmmmmmm

  8. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of vegemite, but since as very young child I liked Bovril (on rice, hey I’m Chinese), by the time I tried vegemite it was more of lateral move. Interestingly Bovril was changed recently to be based on a yeast extract instead of the original beef extract due to fears of mad cow disease !

  9. While the new cars may be nice, are they Saabs?

    Why would anyone pay a 10-20% premium for a rebadged Suby, or Chev?

    It didn’t work for BMC, British Leyland or Oldsmobile, and it won’t work for Saab.

    The only way it can work is if they ‘de-content’ Subarus and Chevs to provide a real point of difference between the marques. As both companies have a stronger market position in GM than Saab, that seems an unlikely event.


  10. Hmmmm Dan,

    I tend to disagree on some points here. First, while the sticker price of the 9-2x is more, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that most 9-2x owners have indeed paid less for their Aero than what they would have for a WRX. Incentives. As I’ve written above, I think the strategy is flawed, but if I were over there and in the market for one, I’d be very tempted.

    Second, I think the 9-7x is differentiated enough for what it’s meant to be. All the in-person reports seem to be saying that the ride etc is a lot better than it’s Chevy cousin. Importantly, It has received some significant treatment on the inside, a process which the 9-2x sorely lacks in my opinion.

    Are they truly Saabs? Maybe/maybe not. But remember, my favourite model started life with a triumph motor and if I’m correct, you’re favourite older model had a ford engine in it.

    I’m not likely to ever be in the market for one of these (not only for obvious geographical reasons), but I think they’re a worthwhile exercise if just because there’s people out there with 9-2x’s that wouldn’t have considered a Saab before.

  11. 200th. What an honor. My mother will be so proud.

    Aren’t we forgetting that ‘true Saabs’ include quite a number of Triumph engines, Borg-Warner transmissions, a platform shared with Fiat and Lancia and so many Mitsubishi turbochargers that even Trollhatten has lost count? Saab’s legacy was built upon the ingenious application of technologies developed by both Saab and others.

    For that fact, I like that Saab has access to the ‘World’s Largest Parts Bin’. Now, whether or not those pieces are used with good judgement remains to be seen. I think that the 9-3 V-6 turbo is a great start.

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