“Badge” vs “Re” engineering

It seems to have become a constant theme on Saab forums recently: the ongoing controversy between badge-engineering and what I’ll call re-engineering. It’s been a prominent feature in comments too, so I thought it deserved a post of its own for discussion.

I’ve been reading all the comments people left on the “Teel GM About It” campaign and there’s a couple of consistent things that shine through.

1. The 9-2x, and to a lesser extent the 9-7x, were mistakes.

2. Saab customers want their cars to be focused on Saab’s core values – let’s call them individuality, safety, squeezing more from less and by extension, intelligent design.

The issue of badge-engineering really is focused more on the 9-2x. If a 900, 9-3 or 9-5 Aero is the quintessential Saab expression, then it would seem that the 9-2x is quickly being regarded as pretty much the opposite. Conceptually speaking, the car is everything a lot of Saabists could want. The problem is that it was done in a manner that’s pretty much seen as contemptable by many enthusiasts.

Would I like an entry level Saab with load-carrying utility, a turbocharged 2.0 litre engine and AWD? Hell yeah! But the problem is, I don’t want it to be another car with some new sheetmetal and a few badges. And therein lies the problem – underneath the more attractive nosejob on the 9-2x lies a completely different vehicle from any other Saab, one created for quick sales rather than the strategic development of a model line.

Is it a good car? By all accounts – absolutely.

Has it helped Saab’s brand image? Well, that’s another question altogether.

History doesn’t lie. These cars were sitting around on dealer’s lots gathering dust until the employee pricing scheme that GM brought in mid-year dropped the prices through the floor and helped move a lot of stock. All the people that bought one got a great car at a great price, but what of the damage to Saab’s reputation in the meantime?

The fact is that on GM-based forums and other general automotive forums, Saab was pretty much bagged for having to rely on a vehicle like the 9-2x in the first place. A lot of the criticism, like commentary about the 9-2x itself, was unfounded and unwarranted, but you know what they say – throw enough mud and some of it’s bound to stick. This appears to be the case here, too. I read a comment on the Born from Jets ad campaign over at Autoblog the other day where some deluded soul sniggered, saying

I bet Subaru had something to do with this. This was probaly the last idea saab copied from Subaru.

Now, the guy obviously knows nothing of Saab’s heritage or what the letters in the SAAB acronym actually stand for, but like I said – throw enough mud and some of it’s going to stick. All the criticism surrounding the development and poor sales reputation of the 9-2x has meant tractorloads of mud being slung Saab’s way. It takes years to build up a good reputation but it can take just minutes to destroy it and install a bad one in it’s place.

All the recent talk of Saab’s new models brings this issue to light once again. There’s the proposed Sonett based on the Kappa platform that currently underpins the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. There’s the proposed new 9-2 based on the same platform as the Opel Astra. The next generation 9-3 and 9-5 will both be built on the Epsilon 2 platform, like the Caddilac BLS and Opel Vectra. There’s the proposed 9-4x on the platform that underpins the Saturn Vue, or maybe the Opel Antara concept. And of course there’s the 9-7x based on the Trailblazer/Envoy etc foundations.

Debate may rage about the 9-7x. I think it’s been substantially differentiated from it’s siblings to warrant it’s place in the Saab lineup. For those that have heavy towing requirements and a genuine need for this type of vehicle, the 9-7x is their opportunity to stay with the brand and get what is reportedly a great package for the price. If you want to read more about the 9-7x and it’s development then click on this link: ALL the info on the 9-7x. There’s 9-7x buyers (only a few, but they’re there) at SaabCentral that are reporting great experiences with this vehicle and their reasons for buying it over rival vehicle, including the German ones.

Leaving the 9-7x aside for a moment…..there’s several things that seem to happen whenever a new Saab is mentioned. The first thing is a mention of the platform that the car is to be built on. The second thing is a list of other cars that are already built on that platform. Often these are accompanied by a third occurence – photos of said other vehicles. Where this third occurence actually occurs, people will often leave their opinions on these other vehicles – some will be good and some will be bad. Finally, In smaller numbers, people will say how crap GM are for doing this.

We’ve got into a habit of having to compare one thing with another straight away in order to form our opinion of what the car might be like when it’s built in say, 2 years time – after countless hours of engineering and design work have gone into the vehicle.

I’m not throwing stones here: I’m guilty as charged. But I think it’s a good time to remind ourselves that there are engineers and designers working on these cars. Some of them are even located in Sweden still! I guess I’m trying to promote the idea of taking a breath, and trusting that the 9-2x experiment will not be repeated again with any of the proposed new models mentioned above.

GM should have learned from the 9-2x experience that blatant badge-engineering can do more harm than good and therefore ensure that what comes forth from Saab in the future is as Saab-designed as possible. The 8,500 initial orders for 9-3 SportCombis should be evidence enough that a Saab-designed product will always be in higher demand than a Saab-badged product with no actual Saab DNA.

Thanks to 1985 Gripen for the valued comments that planted the seed for this post

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  1. Nice to see that I actually evoked thinking in someone. Usually I only invoke rage. šŸ˜‰

    I think there might actually be THREE categories. There would be “badge engineering”, where minor cosmetic differences are the main change (9-2X), then there’s “re-engineering” as you coin it, where they take an existing car and modify and upgrade it (9-7X), then there’s “platform sharing” where they’re given a platform and/or engine to build on and let loose (like the 9-3).

    Out of the three I’d prefer to see the “platform sharing” one.

  2. Good point, 1985G. Virtually all automakers practice some form of platform-sharing nowadays. They’d be foolish not to, really.

    I don’t mind a heavy-handed re-engineering if done like the FORD PAG approach that says as long as it involves components and parts that the customer can’t see nor touch (or something to that effect).

  3. I agree with SaabKen, I don’t see any problem at all with platform sharing — in fact, given GM’s current problems and structure platform sharing is probably the only way they can quickly get back to profitability.

    But, it has to be done right, and so far, GM has not been able to do that.

  4. Hoping that GM will learn from it’s badge engineering mistakes gives GM too much credit. The Cavalier/Sunbird/Firenza/Skyhawk/Cimarron debacle happened in 1982, and they’re still trying the same thing today.

  5. GM has learned from that debacle. The Delta platform which the Ion and Cobalt ride on replaces those products of yesteryear. W-Body’s are the closest thing to the J-Body fiasco of years ago. Notice how most GM there are clear differences between most GM products, save for maybe the W-Body cars? It has gotten much better.

    The guy running this new ad campaign for Saab managed to make Cadillac cool again. It can happen, it will just take time and patience.

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