Saab Design Interview

The Canadian paper, Globe and Mail, features an interview today with Simon Padian, Saab’s head of design.

Nice to see him immediately toeing the corporate line:

Did you know that the first Saab vehicle was designed by aircraft engineers who had never built a car?

Look, I know it’s a good thing that they’re promoting the company’s heritage, but I start to get cynical very quickly when I see big conglomerates peddling quaintness, especially when they’re pretty much the anti-quaint type at their core.

It’s an interesting although brief read and unfortunately it says nothing of future models, focussing instead on the 9-3 Sportcombi. You can click here to read the original, or you can read it below as I’ve reproduced it for the archives.

Vaughan: I’m no designer, but when I see a Saab it seems like I’m looking at the Scandinavian school of minimalism on wheels. I’m sure you don’t take your design cues from an Ikea bookshelf, but what does inspire you when you design a Saab?

Padian: The biggest inspiration for Saab design is our unique heritage and identity.

Did you know that the first Saab vehicle was designed by aircraft engineers who had never built a car? The result was a vehicle that shared many design characteristics of an airplane, including the overall shape of a wing and a “cockpit” that envelops the driver.

Saab has continued to evolve the design language from our aircraft experience, including integrating elements such as wraparound windscreens, joystick air vents, and cockpit-inspired interiors, as well as the intuitive way information is submitted to the driver, night panels, and heated and vented seats that help keep drivers comfortable and focused on the road.

Add to this a Scandinavian design philosophy that emphasizes simplicity and purity in form, colour and function, and you’ve got a Saab.

Vaughan: Saab is one of the smallest auto makers in the world (126,000 cars sold last year), and thus by definition is a niche car. So who are you designing for? Is Saab still for university professors from Vermont?

Padian: Actually, Saabs have proven to be particularly popular with journalists!

What’s interesting is that we’ve found that Saab drivers all around the world share a strikingly similar make-up: creative, active, confident, and often entrepreneurial.

These “modern individualists” are the same people designing Saabs, so in essence you can say we’re designing vehicles for ourselves — which makes our jobs very enjoyable.

As for the profs from Vermont, given the personality traits I just described and the climate and recreational activities found in the northeastern United States, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still drive Saabs, but they aren’t the only ones.

Vaughan: The unkind have said that the Saab 9-3 SportCombi is a facelift of a model (the Saab 9-3) that was dead in the water. Why do you think that the SportCombi can revitalize the line?

Padian: While the SportCombi may share the spirit of its sister cars — the 9-3 sedan and convertible — it has its own very unique and distinct personality as a result of a clear, sporty design that gives it its strong visual identity.

In some regards, the SportCombi is the perfect complement for the typical Saab customer, because it combines function, performance and versatility for those with an active lifestyle.

One element that stands out in particular, and one I’m particularly proud of, is that the vehicle looks like it is in motion even when it’s standing still. This look is created by a seamless body with no separation between passenger and cargo segment that incorporates long, clean and harmonious lines and angles.

The addition of the integrated spoiler prolongs these lines further, visually lowering and widening the car, giving it a sporty, dynamic stance. The spoiler not only looks great, but in keeping with Saab’s overarching requirement of functionality, it also serves an aerodynamic purpose.

The purity of the Saab brand and heritage is clearly communicated in this design and we’re confident both long-term and new Saab buyer will love it.

Vaughan: Saab is part of the mighty, or at least mammoth, General Motors. You have to build Saabs on GM platforms, so how much freedom does that allow Saab to be Saab?

Padian: Partnerships and collaborations don’t have to mean the loss of a brand’s character. In fact, sharing resources with the world’s largest automotive manufacturer adds tremendous strength to our capabilities, and with the advantage of such a strong brand character, identity, and design legacy, it’s not difficult to identify which elements need to be unique and distinctly distinguished to make a Saab a Saab.

Vaughan: Every Saab has to pass the moose test. We have moose. Tell me about the test and how you designed the SportCombi to pass it.

Padian: I don’t know about Canadian moose, but Swedish moose have very discerning tastes when it comes to cars. In fact, they are such automotive enthusiasts that they often like to take a close look at very inopportune times, resulting in more reported vehicle-moose collisions than vehicle-vehicle collisions in Sweden.

So Saab developed the moose test to help us design vehicles that could withstand the crash-equivalent of hitting a moose head-on at high speed. I’m betting your readers can relate.

The obsession with safety is deeply embedded in Saab DNA. Recently, the Saab 9-3 sport sedan received a “Double Best Pick” designation from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), becoming the first passenger car to achieve this distinction.

The SportCombi shares many of the same design and materials, meaning it’ll keep you safe whether you live near a moose crossing or not.

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