Warning: long post ahead.
I’ve got a problem with Robert Farago and The Truth About Cars. Farago’s a great writer. One whose work has entertained me in 5 minute lots for the last year or so. His staple is the GM Deathwatch series, which sort of makes sense – and sort of doesn’t. Why hitch your wagon to an entity that you believe is going to die? You make your name and then what?
And what if you’re wrong and end up looking like an idiot?
Having participated myself in this web publishing thing for a year or so now, I also question the wisdom of biting the entire arm the feeds you. It’s one thing to write ‘fearlessly’ about everything you see that’s wrong with a particular company (or companies), but when you rely on those companies to provide you with cars to write about then you shouldn’t be too surprised when they stop returning your calls or sending you their cars. Farago himself had to post a plea on TTAC for cars to test – precisely for this reason.
At the moment, Farago sells. He writes well and everyone loves to hear some commentary on the seeming death of a giant. It’s like slowing down to rubberneck at an accident. There’s nothing pleasant about it but you’re compelled to do it anyway.
But what does he do if and when GM prospers again? Does he recant everything he’s written (59 episodes of Deathwatch so far) and shut up shop? Does he move to Germany, sit and bask in the machinery he really loves?
Time will tell.
In the meantime, Farago’s recently been concerning himself with Saab. As it’s a GM brand now, he’s consistently black about the future. I didn’t expect anything else. I don’t agree with him but what frustrates me about the whole ordeal is the populist crap that’s included to season the column. The sniggering anti-GM crowd love it but dig a little deeper and the comedy is revealed as being just theatre and little else.
GM’s Car Czar was busy unveiling Saab’s Aero-X, a Corvette-based concept car….
Wrong – it’s not Corvette based at all. Don’t let your own photo with the prominent wheel arches fool you, Robert. It’s a concept based on a completely independant platform that won’t see production. But hitching it to another GM car suits Farago’s unquenchable thirst for GM badge-engineering stories.
….a brand that’s lost GM several billion dollars over 17 years.
Overstatement. Commonly believed to be wrong. There’s been no amount stated for Saab’s losses, but everyone else in the industry reports a figure of about 1 billion over GM’s total interest in the company. Farago’s overstating for effect, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
….Lutz’ alternative to York’s Saabicide is badge engineering. Or, more specifically, MORE badge engineering. Yes, now that The General has sold off its share in Subaru, the plan to transform Japanese Scoobies into Swedish Saabs has been ditched in favor of turning German Opels into Swedish Saabs (with an Ohio SUV thrown in for good measure).
It’s all well and good to live in an idealized world where funds are free-flowing and accountability is seemingly non-existant. History will tell us that Saab lived in this world for a long time right before Investor AB decided to divest itself of the carmaker. The need to badge-engineer was a business necessity in order to expand the range in a cost-effective manner. Whilst it wasn’t done as well as it could have been IMHO (i.e. 9-2x), I can see the business case for it given the circumstances.
It’s a case of head vs heart. As Jimmy Johnson said in The Cinderella man (last night on DVD) "My heart is for my family. My brains and my balls are for business, and this is business". Investor AB’s decision to sell it’s decidedly Swedish car company was ‘business’. GM’s decision to more actively manage Saab is ‘business’. It’s a matter of how well you pull it off. In the case of the 9-2x, not that well. In the case of the 9-7x, better.
Saab are now working on a new entry-level car – from the ground up. They’re also working on at least one new SUV – from the ground up. Yes, they’ll share underpinnings with other vehicles – but that’s ‘business’. The market will judge whether they’re Saab enough, and if they aren’t they won’t sell.
I’ll get to the oft-quoted and much-wrong thing about Opel in a second.
Saab’s ignition key slot will remain in between the front seats, but the decisions about its major components will now be taken somewhere a long way away from Sweden.
What’s he referring to here? Powertrain? Is the Swedish-specced, Mexican-cast, Australian-assembled twin-scroll turbo 2.8l V6 engine not a decent powerplant? It certainly was when I drove it last month and it had the key hallmark of a Saab powerplant – huge torque over a wide band.
Other components perhaps? Well, if you’re worrying that much about where your window switches are manufactured then perhaps your priorities need reassessment. What counts is design, which will be shared between Sweden and Germany.
Anyway, as the Saab faithful will tell you, it’s too late to worry about the brand’s identity
Don’t presume to speak for the Saab faithful, Farago, unless you’ve spent more than 5 minutes among them. Who carries the brand’s identity other than the faithful? If GM as a corporate parent don’t remain faithful to the brand’s identity then the market will tell them that that’s happening, the 9-2x being a case in point. The 9-3 SportCombi being another, but on the positive side. The 9-5 Biopower’s success in Sweden yet another.
There will always be those that think Saab died in 1993 when the last of the 900’s rolled off the line. Let them be. I don’t agree with them at all. But that’s me.
the Opel Vectra-based Saabs drive remarkably like… Opel Vectras.
Bullshit on two levels in one sentence!! First, it’s really, really popular to claim that the 9-3 Sport Sedan is based on an Opel Vectra. Journo’s, particularly slack ones in the US, do this all the time. Everyone else is saying it and it’s GM, so people will believe it without question, right?
Fact is, the Epsilon platform that underpins both cars was first used in the MY03 Saab 9-3, in concurrence with the MY03 Vectra. The fact that the Opel sells more because of price leads most to think that GM just gave it to Saab afterwards and said "do something based on this". Does the Opel have the Re-Axs rear suspension setup? No. Does it handle similar to a 9-3SS? Hell, no!
As a matter of fact, the 9-3SS and the amount of changing to Epsilon (and electrical issues as well) is precisely, according to my research, why GM stepped in and had to take budgetary control of the company. Saab modified Epsilon so much that the 9-3 in it’s current form can’t be built anywhere else but in Sweden.
It’s a populist stance that’s very common (Farago’s little helper, Johnny Lieberman also misstates it in his kack-handed review of the 9-3 Aero) – and very wrong. But again, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
The rest of the article is classic case of mis-quotation for effect. Farago seems to take some joy in tapdancing on Saab’s perceived grave because it suits his anti-GM purpose. He also seems to hint at a twinge of sadness about the loss of a previously independant thinking automaker. Yet he makes no overtures whatsoever as to what could be done to take Saab back to those ‘900 days’.
In my opinion, Saab certainly isn’t as independant and innovative as it once was. It can’t be. Why? Is it because of GM’s corporate ownership stifling the creativity of the Saab engineers etc? Well, partly.
But the prime reason Saab cannot currently be the Saab we fans want it to be is down to this: Profitability. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s the most basic fact there is in business. You gotta pay the bills and carry your weight. True innovation comes from lots and lots of Research and Development. And the type of R&D we’d expect from Saab is only possible with either bottomless pockets or decent profits.
Is Saab everything I’d like it to be at the moment? No.
Is GM the ideal corporate parent for Saab? No (my opinion), but it’s the one we’ve got and I think there’s hope. And those of you that would rather see Saab in Kia’s or Hyundai’s hands, or a Chinese company’s hands – please take a gutcheck. If that happens then you can kiss the Saab ethos and culture a very quick goodbye. I know I will, and this site will become just an archive.
Is Saab doomed? Hell no! Despite the recent overtures that there’s nothing left of Saab as an independant company to sell – don’t believe it. If GM can’t produce results in the next few years they will sell it. Where there’s product, premises, patents and goodwill at stake then there’s always something to negotiate.
I know this whole post has sounded like a GM apologetics study. Not so. I’m just not one of those that subscribes to the belief that GM’s ownership of Saab has been the death of the company. My Viggen has plenty of GM bits in it and it’s the most sensational car I’ve ever owned. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The 2006 9-3 Aero I drove last month was a superb vehicle and 100% in the Saab tradition as I’ve experienced it.
Don’t believe everything you read by the likes of Farago, regardless of how well it’s written. Check the context and check the facts.