Rants Echo

I’ll probably be dismissed as an obscure, clueless blogger, but what the hell….

I’ve had a recent rant over the proposed interior of the 2007 9-3. I won’t rehash the whole thing, but in summary I don’t think it’s particularly true to Saab’s heritage and I think GM are losing the beancounter-imposed battle to retain Saab’s brand authenticity.

1985 Gripen, in comments, has a decent rant over Saab’s model range and it’s consequent lack of interest:

GM has tried to position SAAB to compete with brands it has no chance against, IMHO.

I really think that GM needs to stop trying to take sales away from BMW and concentrate on “finding their own road”. They’ve diluted SAAB to try to be a cheaper BMW clone to compete (killing the hatchback, for example) and all people see SAAB as is a weiro’s wannabe Bimmer.

I’m hardcore SAABisti as they come and I wouldn’t even buy the current versions of the 9-3 and 9-5. If they can’t even make a car that I can desire, where do they think they’re going to get their new customers?

Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily concur in terms of the 9-3, particularly a 2006 Aero, I can certainly see where Gripen’s coming from. It’s that love for the brand that’s been formed by distinctiveness and is now being crushed by a still-small yet increasing homogeneity. A love that will wither and one day allow the eye to wander unless there’s some return to that special something that gave it life.

Call that overly flowery if you like, but it’s the essence of truth. Cars have an emotional connection for many and it’s quite likely that if you’re spending your time on the internet reading about them then that statement’s as true as ever about your good self. It has degrees but It’s undeniable.

Another truth about cars is that the more eccentric they are, the more people either love or hate them. Saab built up most of it’s loyal following with the somewhat eccentric 900 turbo. It did what a bunch of other manufacturers chose not to. It made a beautiful (to some), turbocharged, sporting and yet practical hatchback with strange colored interiors and front wheel drive. It attracted new buyers and set Saab up for a future it may not have had otherwise.

Saab gave people what they wanted before they even knew they wanted it. They pioneered and proved to people that “X” (substitute “X” for turbo, heated seats, central ignition, diagonally split brakes, or any other innovation) was a useful addition to a well-built, exceptionally comfortable automobile, and in the C900’s case – one that was a lot larger than it looked.

The post-1993 range of Saabs, fine as they are, have lost a little of that mojo. I own one myself, a 1999 9-3 Viggen. It’s easy to drive, incredibly comfortable and goes like stink……but……and I hesitate to say this……my old 1979 99turbo had more character – by far. And if I were to lose the Viggen to fire or theft or someone’s stupidity I’d be thinking long and hard about my replacement vehicle.

Long and hard.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Viggen and I do solemnly believe that Saab’s newer stuff is way better in terms of everyday driving and fun-in-the-twisties than the press give them credit for. But there’s something missing, and in light of Saab’s worrying 2006 sales trend in the US, it’s got to be said that the next round of new Saab models might be do-or-die.

The all-new 9-4x is due for around 2008, as well as a new 9-3 and 9-5 at around the same time. Hopefully both the 9-3 and 9-5 will have AWD, which will allow the shackles to be removed in terms of power and performance. A few years after these we can expect the smaller 9-1. As Saab design these models, I hope that they’re being very mindful of the history and heritage of the marque – the things that have drawn their enthusiastic audience over the years.

Automotive columnist and general car guru, Peter DeLorenzo, recently celebrated AutoExtremist’s 7th birthday with a celebratory rant (recommended reading). Most of it is about the site itself and how happy he is with it after 7 years, but he also gets a swing in at those manufacturers that are forgetting their customers in deference to balancing the numbers in a spreadsheet. Yep, every business needs dollars, but the best way to get the dollars is through authenticity:

The companies that will continue to thrive in this business, however, are the ones that have resolved this ongoing battle in the True Believers’ favor long ago. A car company cannot survive in the most competitive automotive market in history on financial acumen alone. A fundamental passion for the product must exist that transcends all other concerns and focuses the organization on one single goal – to build the very best vehicles possible in whichever segment they choose to compete in – with no “ifs,” “ands,” “buts” or any other extraneous excuses or qualifiers.

Saab’s one of those companies that developed a legion of True Believers with a line of products that people could get passionate about. I’ve labelled those True Believers as fossils in previous articles here for their rejection of all-things-GM and implored them to get on board with the new Saab. In fairness, I’ve also got to continue to call for the new Saab to actually make vehicles that are true to the brand rather than just producing slick marketing campaigns that say it’s so.

2008 is going to be one heck of a big year.

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27 Comments

  1. I just got back from my monthly Minnesota Saab club meeting, and it’s 1 a.m. my time.

    Your post deserves a longer response, and perhaps I work on that tomorrow. But IMHO the 9-3ss and the current 9-5 are the best Saabs ever made.

    Your ’79 99 turbo was a landmark car, when it was made. However, by today’s standards, the NVH levels (Noise, Vibration, and Harshness for reference) are utterly unacceptable.

    No one can make a car like the 99 turbo anymore, because they’re all so refined. In many ways, too refined.

    It’s not so much that Saab has lost its character as the fact that the car-buying public has dramatically narrowed the range of what it will accept from manufacturers. I’m not talking about hatchbacks or sedan here, I’m talking about a narrow range of permissible ergonomics, and NVH experiences. Trying to hit these benchmarks produces very similar cars.

    For goodness’ sake, the average car buyer doesn’t understand the difference between torque and horsepower, and thus has no clue that a base Saab 9-3 with 221 ft-lbs of torque at 2500 rpm is an absolute dream compared to a high-strung Honda Accord V6, with 211 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. (Or compare a 9-5 with 258 ft-lbs at 1900 rpm to a Nissan Maxima with 255 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm).

    The one car company that’s deliberately trying to make cars with “character” these days is Chrysler, and what they’re discovering is that the life cycle of a car with “character” lasts about 12 months until the novelty wears off. Witness the Dodge Magnum wagon introduced a couple of years ago. It was the hottest thing going for nearly a year. Now, not so much.

    I don’t think that it’s the beancounters who are driving the changes you dislike so much. It’s the market which demands these changes.

    Also please remember that you’re a focus group of one.

    The modern car market is absolutely brutal. Trying to make a car that can succeed in that market, while also appealing to old-school Saabisti like me and you, is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

  2. Unfortunately for Saab, if I had to replace my 2000 9-3 with a new vehicle, it’d be an Audi A3 5-door or Mazda3 5-door (or a pristine 2002 9-3 5-door). I do think Saab makes good cars, but their aesthetics and function no longer wow me.

  3. One problem I see is that people all over the world (and proably people at GM) think of Saab as a premium brand. They also love Saab because it was different.

    I still maintain that to understand Saab, you have to understand where it come from and how it grow up. That what was made Saab “Saab” – not a dream to be premium. True, Saab was the choice (compared to Volvo) that was for people who wanted to stand out from the crowd and loved to drive. But Saab was not only something with bhp that was fun to drive. Generellay, Saab was cheaper to buy then Volvo. It was safer (front-wheel drive) in many aspects, it was more technology, it was practical yet stylish (hatchback). It was not premium, and never did they compete against BMW or Mercedes (Audi was crap back then). It was made out of a beliefe of how something should be done, not out of research of the market.

    That was why Saab became Saab, and that’ s why you guys all over loved them. So the big question is: are there people enough today who love Saab that much and want Saab do go their own way, or do Saab have to be more main-stream to attract more customers and (in the process) lose some of the old faithful? Maybe it’s just necessary today, and you can’t go your own way like Saab when you are making family cars and not sports car? I don’t know. I just hope that they at least try to nurse the core value of Saab as we in Sweden knew them back then: born from props (not jets!), design, technology, saftey, safe to drive.

    Only dead fishes float with the stream…

  4. I’m not a Saab fan, but I used to quite like them. Back before they were owned by GM. Now, if I had the money, I wouldn’t even think of Saab. Not because I don’t like them, but because they are invisible. If It wasn’t for sites like this one reminding me of their cool heritage, I’d have though Saab had slipped off the map.

    And I’m a car enthusiast. Imagine what it’s like for the average punter.

    I completely agree with you, and the precedents for rediscovering the essence of a marque is there. Alfa has re-established themselves over the last few years. 15 years ago Mercedes Benz were building the most horrible cardigan cars around (remember the 180E?) and they have reinvented themselves to be come (shock) cool. And VW and Audi have shown that you can be plugged into a global platform and still build characterful cars.

    Saab could turn themselves around. But I don’t think GM knows what to do with them, or indeed what Saab really is.

  5. If Saab shouldn’t compete with BMW in the premium bracket, who should it compete with?

    In a world where 260-hp Honda Accords sell for $30k, I’m not so sure the “above VW, but below BMW” bracket is a safe place to be.

  6. Greg,

    Pretty impressive for 1 in the morning.

    I understand all of what you’re saying. What I’m hoping for is something new that will capture the spirit that my old 99t did, enhanced even further by the 900.

    There’s got to be scope for that within a designer’s brief.

    Do you feel that Saab’s identity is as well defined now as was back in, say, 1990? I know I don’t. I’m just hoping that they can do that again.

    You’re right. The current cars are the most technologically advanced and best riding and performing cars they’ve had. No doubt. But I think there’s been a cost involved in doing that.

    I just want them to get their mojo back. Maybe that’s not possible in this mass market, internet age.

  7. I’m pretty certain that Opel regards Saab as the dirty farmer cousin and would like nothing better for them to just go away… Sport image is what sells today and to the yonger crowds today and Saab isn’t sporty enough, or rather Saabs brand image isn’t sporty enough.

  8. Shopping for a new station wagon last winter, the choice for my wife and me came down to Saab vs. BMW. The BMW was too expensive and I liked the feel of the Saab slightly better.

    Silly to think Saab should just design cars for “Saab enthusiasts” and not compete against BMW, Audi, etc… That’s a recipe for shrinking the brand into extinction. I like Saab, but they will have to prove their worth vs. other brands everytime before I layout the price of a new car.

  9. I think your post is spot on – when the true believers begin to believe that any “SAAB-ness” to the vehicles is really just a facade to the GM underneath, the game is lost. They may continue on as a brand, but at this point something big will have to happen to convince me that they can turn this thing around. I will have a hard decision to make when my 2004 needs replacing as the realities of depreciation and beancounting hit home for SAAB.

  10. You said it yourself. You liked the feel of Saab slightly better. That’s because the Saab you have was not designed in Germany and made as a competitor in the premium segment, trying to do the exact same thing as BMW. It was designed in Trollhättan as a Swedish car. And it was not designed for the enthusiasts, the enthusiast loved it because it was still something like how a true “Saab” should be.

  11. As a new potential Saab buyer, my perspectives are going to be a little different than a previous Saab owner. What appealed to me in wanting to go to the dealership was the Born of Jets ad campaign (marketing that worked). I drove a Z4, SLK, and Saab 93 Aero (in that order, tops down) in my tests (currently I own a Celica GTS).

    What impresses me about the Saab 93.

    1 – The power on demand at running speeds. I don’t care about off-the-line nearly as much as passing power, and the ’06 Saab 93 has plenty of it!

    2 – The seats. Sitting in a Saab is like having a tempurpedic matress layer in the seat compared to other autos. You sink into the seat, and stay there. I don’t think this is advertised enough. The seats beat the M series seats (which seemed similar to my Celica GTS as far as comfort goes).

    3 – FWD vs RWD. I like the gas pedal and mother nature likes to show me her mood swings. I would rather have a FWD vehicle that can handle whatever nature throws at me than a RWD that can make a black donut on the highway.

    4 – Back seats closer together than the front seats instead of right behind them. The tapered feel is more Born of Jets than the standard cabin design.

    5 – Maintenance program (similar to BMW’s minus the wearable items). This feature is currently the topic of a BMW ad for their SUV’s. Saab/GM should stress this more as well. Don’t pay for my gas to hook me, pay for all the maintenance.

    6 – The green lit dash. It is different and easier on the eyes than the reds/oranges (harsh) and whites (too much contrast) I’ve been driving. Blue would also work.

    7 – The griffon head. I like that creature. Much more appealing than a checkerboard.

    As far as the cockpit goes, the controls would take some getting use to. I immediately discounted them as something I could play with while driving. I think GM/Saab is trying to change that with their new design. I know that after I learn what is where I would do it without even looking. But the initial feel is “complex” and just like jet cockpits, I think the intent is to make it simpler yet retain functionality. I just hope they do not forget to put quality high tech parts in.

    Because of how late I got into looking at the 93’s, I may have to get an 07 with the newer dash. So maybe I’ll get some experiences to share.

  12. I don’t agree with you here.

    I just had the interesting experience of driving a 99 (a loaner from my mechanic while my 9-5 was in the shop). It was interesting, but not something I would want to spend much time in (kind of like getting an old VW Beetle as a loaner for your Passat). While there were connections between it and my car, it fell so far behind in ride quality, fit, finish, power and space that driving it made me thankful that Saab had come so far from its roots.

    I bought my 9-5 because it was a good deal more refined than an average American car, unique, but not impossible to understand or enjoy without having driven Saabs for 20 years, and because it had lots of torque and a turbocharged engine.

    If I hadn’t purchased a Saab, I probably would have purchased a VW. I’m not even aspiring to be in the BMW demographic.

  13. ajgray,

    You’d make a good Saab sales person!

    Your comment about the seats in the 9-3, is a fact that is unfortunately hidden from the non Saab world.

    When GM came out with its “BFJ” campaign, I was very skeptical that it would accomplish its mission. But, you are living proof that it has worked as planned-at least once!

    GM’s ongoing challenge is to get more people like you to try those seats. Then maybe the sales numbers we’ve been discussing will look brighter.

    As the faithfull know, to appreciate a Saab, you have to drive it!

  14. Thanks for the support, Swade. I understand not everyone agrees on everything, but I was a little nervous writing that stuff about SAAB. However, SOMEONE has to point out the obvious, IMHO.

    I particularly like your line, “Saab gave people what they wanted before they even knew they wanted it.”

    I truely think that GM/SAAB think that they’re giving the customer what they want (with the exception of AWD). They saw slow sales for their traditional cars and looked to manufacturers of popular cars such as BMW and AUDI. “What do those guys do that we don’t? Well, they don’t have hatchbacks for starters. They don’t have their info center in a weird location…”

    In an effort to increase sales they’ve tried to emulate others and this strategy has been a big flop. So they can’t sell cars by being unique and they can’t sell cars by being a clone. What to do? I believe they need to go back to doing things THEIR way. I know it didn’t work before, but couple the BFJ campaign and lower manufacturing costs through (limited) parts and platform sharing and perhaps they can find a way to increase their margins.

  15. Sorry, another point I forgot in my last comment:

    You (Swade) mention that the totally revamped 9-3 and 9-5 are due around the same time as the 9-4X (2008), but I’ve read that they’ve (the 9-3 and 9-5) been pushed off to around 2010 due to problems that need to be ironed-out regarding the specifications of the platform they’re slated to be built on (the AWD-capable Epsilon II).

  16. I think SAAB should research building a road-going version of Per Eklund’s 650-bhp rally monster. The engine, if put in a real 9-3 body, would have more than enough power, even if were only capable of 300-bhp equipped with environmental restrictions. While it might be challenging to get a Haldex all-wheel drive system installed in the existing chassis, I still think it’s worth exploring, particularly if they could sell it as a stripped, track-ready machine that wouldn’t leech off Aero sales (i.e., cheap, fast). It could be called the SAAB 9-3 P.E. !

    Another thing: G.M. has got to get SAAB cars into video games. SAAB’s absence from GT4 was a real disappointment for me. Seriously–a Volvo 240 Wagon (naturally aspirated, even!) is in the game, but nothing from SAAB? Ridiculous.

    Although SAAB has always been a niche car in the U.S., having a car in the lineup that can compete with the likes of an M3 or RS4 AND having a presence in video games like GT4 might help the brand’s image stateside.

    But I think that there’s a dearth of creativity at G.M. and an unwillingness to help SAAB. Having said that, does anyone have Jay Spenchian’s phone number? I’d like to throw these ideas (as off-the-wall as they might be) at somebody in the G.M. upper echelon.

  17. Saab and GMs problem in the U.S. is that they make great vehicles and then only sell them to a European market. I just returned from France and I can’t tell you how many 93 and 95 sedan and wagons that I saw with turbo diesel engines. The british motor press raved over the 2005 tid motor saying it was even better than the 2004 motor in power and economy. I own a 2000 93 and needed a commuting car this fall. I have access to a lot of low cost biodiesel, so I bought a Jetta TDI and love the milage, as for options, it has less than my old 1994 93 did.

    So SAAB and GM where is my TID SAAB or should I just stick with VW?

  18. Gripen, that’s news to me regarding the 9-3 and 9-5. Somewhat shocking news, actually. Do you have a URL for that?

    That would be so bad for Saab it doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Matt Hill, no Saab diesels for the US market in the near future. Perhaps TuuSar is right and the US will get a next-gen diesel, but I have no idea when they might be coming along. Anybody know? I’ve just emailed GM Powertrain so we’ll see if they have any answers.

    Ajgray – magnificent. Thanks for the newer perspective.

  19. Funny you mention the rebirth of Alfa Romeo. As an Alfa fan (and former owner) I was terribly disheartened first, by the departure from the US market and, second, by the Fiat acquisition.

    It seemed for years it was just languishing under Fiat. Then, though they still haven’t returned to the US, Alfa began to get its mojo back.

    I am willing to give GM time to combine the right platforms with the right designs to give Saab its mojo. The lead times in the auto biz are soooo long that we just need to be realistic about what and when are possible.

  20. All I have to say is that 2010 is WAY too late for a 9-3 and 9-5 replacement. You may as well just pull the plug on the company now as there is no way in hell you are gonna be shifting anywhere near 200000 cars a year with the current line-up and in particular that 9-5! Thoise drawings we saw a few weeks back (17May?) of future Saabs was very interesting and would put the mojo back in the lineup. The 9-5 in particular needs replacing sooner rather than later. GM could have well left the 9-3 alone and not dumbed-it-down with the new interior. Rather than mess with the interior they maybe could have concentrated more on gettig the quality to 100pc. The 9-5 as it it now is a total lost cause and US sales figures show this. What Saab needs to do is make the 9-5 a bigger car than it is now more Audi A6 size than an “A4-1/2” that it truly is. I am no fan of Audi as I dont like the styling direction they are taking but their cars are probably the best built cars in the world and this is something Saab could well do to emulate.

  21. About all that talk that SAAB died shortly after GM’s overtaking; I don’t agree at all.
    I/my family has had a couple of SAAB:s over the years, both from the pre- and the post-GM time. And for me, SAAB:s have always been SAAB:s, no matter who owns the company. My last SAAB, a 9-3 SS Vector, was absolutely astonishing in almost every way. And, when I compare it with older SAAB:s, I can’t think of any feature that I missed in the 9-3. You STILL recognize that it’s a SAAB on the parking lot, it STILL has great road abilities, and is STILL feels, even smells, so much better than any random German.

    Yes, people, a SAAB is still a SAAB.

  22. jehrler,

    I’m one of the the few, the proud, and an owner of a 2006 9-5. Deffinitely a minority.

    I’m not sure why. I think the car has been impoved in numerous ways. Some may disagree with the styling revisions, and that is certainly their perogative. But Saab has done wonders with the chassis-strength, sound insulation, suspension, and steering.

    If you have an opportunity, please test drive one.

    Again, the interior re-design is a matter of taste. But, the improved ergonomics are difficult to deny.

    Still, there is room for further improvement and Saab/GM surely knows this. My wish list includes all wheel drive, automatic adaptive suspension, and sequential bi-turbo power.

  23. mikef,

    I actually saw my first 2006 95 last week and, to be honest, I loved the styling.

    Who knows, when (and if) our 203K mile wagon gives up the ghost we may join you in a 2006 95.

    Personally, I think the 95 platform is a damn fine one to build upon.

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