Saab and the element of surprise

It’s waaaaay to late in the evening to be trying this, but when inspiration comes…..

Think back to the first time you really became conscious of Saab as a brand of motor car. Not the first time you saw one, or the first time you heard of one, but the first time you actually became aware of the capabilities of a car with a Saab badge.

What’s the one thing you can remember? What was your reaction?

For me, it was surprise. When I got into my mate’s 1986 model 9000 Turbo for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly comfortable the seats were. I was impressed by the leather. I was amazed at the “gee whiz functionality” of the climate control system (thanks Debra Kelly-Ennis for the expression) and at 200 km/h on the way into Philip Island it’s fair to say that I was blown away by the speed.

That was the one drive that brought Saab into focus for me. Maybe you had a similar experience? Something where a Saab you encountered, maybe for the first time, proved that it was way more than what you expected it to be.

The Detroit News published an article today on the continuing role of Saab within the GM portfolio. It says that the brand is safe for now and that Jay Spenchian and his crew have the green light to grow the brand – the target is sales of 80,000 in the United States by 2010.

A barrier that it identifies, a question that it asks, is what does the Saab brand stand for? What’s their mission? If I had my Saab brand book here I could spout it off verbatim from the original text that dealers are trained on. But that book is currently sitting in my office.

I can share with you what their mission should be, in my mind anyway….

It should be to continue to build cars that do things in ways the others haven’t thought of. Build them so that when people drive them, they think to themselves “Hell, why doesn’t my car do that?”. Like turbocharging. Saab broke the ice on turbocharging way back in the 1970’s, made it a standard. With oil prices surging and common recognition for greater efficiency, guess what’s becoming more and more common amongst more and more carmakers?

That’s right. Turbocharging.

The intuitive heating system that I first enountered in the 900. The way the entire cabin was made for driver comfort and ease of use. The practicality of a hatch that could swallow a herd of wildebeest.

The more I learned about this car company, the more I wanted to learn. Is that my nature, or the nature of the cars themselves?

And more importantly, does the current batch of cars and those on the drawing board inspire the same level of curiosity and fascination?

It’s my fervent belief that Saab can sell as many cars as they can make provided they adhere to the same levels of innovation, functionality, inspiration and beautiful design as they did in the past. If they can build cars that continue to surprise every time a new person gets into them, then all they’ll have to do is get bums on seats and the problems will be solved. That may sound too simplistic, but it isn’t.

Saab has a magic number somewhere. That number is the figure needed to ensure ongoing viability and adequate research and development for future models and innovations. A Saab is an acquired taste and GM and Saab both know this so they’re not trying to move millions of cars. What they need to do is reach the magic number that will ensure that the right cars can be made both now and into the future.

A Saab buyer is a curious animal. They have a certain level of discretion. They don’t mind being a little showy every now and then, but the centre of attention belongs to others and they’re welcome to it. They appreciate the differences. These potential buyers aren’t everywhere you look, but there’s well and truly enough of them that don’t currently drive Saabs to make that magic number a worthwhile and attainable goal.

So, what do Saab have to do?

Make cars that inspire and surprise. Prove, and then engage those new technologies: The plug-in hybrid that I’m hearing was killed at the last minute before the Stockholm show by men at the very top levels of GM. The SVC engine. The full-line of Biopower engines that I’ve heard (just tonight) is rumoured for announcement later this year (November).

Just like turbocharging, Saab should lead the way in emerging automotive engineering – the difference is that this time there should be some noise about it as well as continued improvement and innovation to build on the leadership they establish.

At the same time, they need to inspire the marketplace. Get bums on seats. Get people into the cars and surprise them. These cars are (and should be) built for owners, not for journalists. The importance of the press shouldn’t be ignored, but efforts should be made to stir interest through non-traditional means. Driving events, motorsport – whatever. The full potential has to be harnessed to get people’s interest peaked.

For goodness sake, do another Talladega run this year. Feature a full range of gasoline, diesel and Biopower vehicles and make some noise about it.

Finally, all those cynical journos that will stick the knife into Saab at a moment’s notice should be made to show respect. The Aero-X commands respect. Future Saab models must be similarly inspiring in their styling, driving characteristics and of course, functionality.

Saab has a fantastic future if it’s handled correctly. One gets the feeling that it’s now or never for GM and Saab. The pieces are in place – all they have to do is think strong and play the game wisely. Do that right and they’ll continue to surprise everyone, maybe even themselves.

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3 Comments

  1. When Lutz is all POd that “Saab Fd-up the Epsilon soo bad it cant be built elsewhere” one can only smile. As in half-empty, half-full. Imagine all the Eps have-nots moving up as opposed to mired in mediocre. The 97 is another example of tweaking to the best. If GMotors can get more of this “attitude” spread thruout, more bums will get in the seats.
    And get those TurboDs and PHEVs rollin.

  2. I don’t know how much you can write on this comments section but I’m not out to write 300 pages of where Saab is today as a premium brand, to where it should be and what GM need to do to sell their product in the market segment they wish to place Saab.

    I started to take a serious interest in Saab early 2003 when I 1st drove the new 9-3 Aero SportSedan. This car had the performance and handling of any German car I had ever driven until that time. But as FWD it suited my style of driving which is if you push it to hard you can take your foot off the gas or let the ESP do the work. I’m not a good driver but a Saab makes me feel like one.
    I had the opportunity of driving an SL500 in 2004 and quite frankly it was boring. Yes of coarse it was fast the sound was great the steering was razor sharp…. It was perfect. And that is where German manufacturers are starting to make mistakes. In the pursuit of perfection I find cars are losing character and sole.

    At the beginning of 2005 I was give an amazing opportunity to visit Sweden. A fully loaded Ice Experience, where I had the pleasure of the rally legend Per Eklund drive me around an ice circuit telling me about his new 9-3 4×4 Aero hopefully being able to produce over 500hp. I guess this is what tipped the scales for me and where I became passionate about Saab.

    As a kid I hated the look of Saabs and when I first started to work for Saab it was difficult so be enthusiastic about a sale. It’s hard to sell something that to you looks the same as it did 10 Years ago. But then came along the new 9-3 not built from a 12 year old Opel Cavalier design but from a new global GM platform. A platform that only uses 60% of GM’s epsilon architecture, and is 125% stiffer than the old 9-3 it replaced. The interior was an equal match for Audi and BMW back in 2002 too. A lot of people however have said that a 40% change in a supposedly ‘one chassis fits all’ concept will never be repeated. But there are reasons why Saab did this in the first place and why it need not ever be repeated in the future.

    Saab was given a budget to produce a new 9-3 and they did just that. If your boss told you “here’s a 100% pay rise, and don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from”. You would spend the lot too wouldn’t you? So this is why we have a Saab that can only be built in Sweden. At the beginning of the millennium GM were sing Saab’s praises, auto magazines were told that GM wanted to push Saab into the exclusive premium sector where Ford had Jaguar. GM and Saab were so committed to building the brand they hired Michael Mauer because if the amazing work he had done on the SLK and the innovative designs for SMART. However I don’t think anyone anticipated that GM was heading for big financial problems of their own. The cancellation of the 9x, 9-3x the delay on the 9-3 SportCombi and no new 9-5 should really have been expected. But at the time, and I think I can speak for all Saab enthusiasts here, we just thought GM was just diluting the Brand for various reasons, maybe to make a place for Cadillac? With GM trying to find ways to save money the last thing they wanted to hear was that the G6 convertible couldn’t use Saab’s 9-3 Convertible platform without resetting all the machinery at their Orion plant. Why the G6 isn’t built in Graz along side the 9-3 is beyond me. It would certainly be a far better drive that the G6 coupe and the greater production of the 9-3 chassis’ would easily compensate for shipping to the US and create more profit for the Saab. If BMW can build X5s and Z4s in the US and ship them around the world I’m sure the G6 can be built in Europe and shipped to the US, but that’s a different topic.

    So what do we have today?
    We have a 9-3 that should have a face life this year but it will happen in 2007 instead. The 9-3 is starting to look dated and the interior does not match Audi’s A4 anymore. The Leather looks cheap and the console has too much plastic. The ergonomics are still great but the quality is lacking for a premium brand. I do not like what GB are doing at the moment with regard to sales but to be honest they are sell Saab in a market where it belongs today, outside the Premium 5 sector and in with Renault and Volkswagen. Saab GB is actually competing with Vauxhall for sales.
    The 9-5 is old but it’s still a fantastic drive and even with it being older in architecture it deservedly is a better car that the 9-3. The 1.9TiD is so much quieter, faster and economical that the outgoing 2.2TID, but sadly no match for the other P4 Brands.

    What is GM doing?
    First off they will save over 9Bn dollars this year in wage cuts and productions cost. Not to mention the selling off of interests in Fuji heavy Industries, Suzuki, Isuzu and GMAC, Plus savings on share holder dividends. Opel and Saturn are finally being joined at the hip and will effectively be the same car too.

    What role will Saab play?
    Saab has a very important role to play. Everything we like about Saab’s engines is why GM bought them. I’ve had people at Saab tell me that they are to play a big part in GM’s global engineering programs for turbo charging, probably including direct injection and hybrid technologies.

    Judgement day
    Everything after this point is just purely speculation but 2008 seems to be the year. Peter Augustsson mentioned at the beginning of 2004 that production of the next generation 9-3 would move to Rüsselsheim. We also know that the 9-5 will be share that same platform. Trohattän will still keep producing cars beyond this date but only as far as 2010? If Saab cannot make a profit by the end of 2007 then I do believe that GM will put Saab on the market and this is why everything is being held back. If Saab can turn things around in 18 months then I think the world needs to brace itself for a serious Swedish invasion.
    The next generation 9-3 and 9-5 should arrive in 2008 the 9-2 and 9-7 in 2009 and finally the Sonnet in 2010. But will Saab be allowed to diversify the platform to the extent of the current 9-3. Well will they have to? Saab engineering has moved to Rüsselsheim Saab are working with Opel on Epsilon II. Why should Saab not be allowed to have any input into their next generation vehicle line up? If Saab didn’t have the better version of the epsilon platform then do you think GM would use it for the BLS? No they would have had it built in Rüsselsheim where apparently production is cheaper. So with Saab involved in the platform and powertrain they won’t have to make a 40% change to the architecture ever again.

    The future of Saab!
    Everything that auto magazines write about is possible but maybe not in the order they say it will be. A 9-2x replacement in 2007 is not going to happen. An Aero-X roadster isn’t going to happen either. Plus to my knowledge no manufacturer has ever launched a convertible then the conventional hardtop version after.
    The real question is can you build multiple models and Brands from the same platform? Well if Volkswagen can do it then so can GM. If you take the golf architecture for example, you have the Audi TT and A3. Volkswagen Golf, Jetta, Beetle, Touran, and Golf Plus. Seat Toledo, Altea, Leon and Cordoba, and finally Skoda Octavia. 12 different vehicles, from 4 distinctly separate brands, all with their own individual driving characteristics.
    Can Saab be different from and Opel or Pontiac?
    I think with the right implementation GM could produce a full range of models just like the VAG Group, with every model meeting the needs of each individual brand’s ideology.

  3. WooDz,

    That’s one heck of an analysis and I think you’re spot on. The big mistake that many of the journos make is they look for cheap points in their stories, esp with GM products. The first thing you hear is “this car shares the XXX platform with XXXX and you can really tell….”

    It’s often a load of rubbish that makes them sound intelligent to some and ignorant to others that know a little better.

    The key, as you mention, is getting the engineering right. Get that all sorted and models can be distinct and develop character as they’re improved over generations.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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