Some 9-5 thoughts

A few more things about the 9-5 have been crossing my mind for the last few days. So it’s time for a letter to GM.

It all started with the numbers below. These are European sales in October 2006 sorted by manufacturer. At the bottom you can see GM sales.

EurosalesOct06.jpg

I’m not sure if I’m reading that correctly, but it looks to me like out of nearly 112,000 sales during October, only 290 vehicles weren’t named Opel, Vauxhall, Saab or Chevrolet.

Can you see where I’m heading here?

I don’t know how much money GM must be pouring into the expansion of Cadillac, but by even the most generous of measures – the sort implemented by nine-legged Martian goats for which even the word ‘business’ is a foreign concept – it’s not working. They’re even planning to bring them here to Australia eventually, too. Hummers are coming first and you can bet, with the hints we’ve already had and the introduction of a V-series in the Holden Commodore range, that Caddy’s coming.

How much does it cost to launch a brand in a new country/continent? Advertising in print? TV? On the web? Showroom marketing? Press junkets? Offices? Dealer space? And all that’s the cheap stuff! How much does it cost to develop new models for that brand, even if those ‘new’ models are based on an existing car?

Whatever those costs add up to, GM’s pouring the money in because someone with a name to make for themselves, probably on a six figure salary thy’d like to grow, decided Cadillac had plenty of potential appeal in all these other world markets. Bullocks!

You’ll have to pardon the language, but some wise old patriarch once had a saying about scenarios like the one facing GM with Cadillac in Europe. He called it “pushing shit uphill with a toothpick”.

Cadillac belongs in the US. If it has any other potential market, I’d hazard a guess and say without a touch of irony that it’s the Middle East, where they seem to have enough money and oil, and the same taste for straight roads and big cars.

All that money they’re pouring into the expansion of Cadillac, and we have to be talking about a 10-figure sum at the very least, could be going into a brand that already has a worldwide distribution chain and at least some goodwill left. A brand that has some ‘green’ credentials in a time where environmental consciousness is a strength. A brand that has heritage, style and individuality right through it’s DNA.

Saab.

And what’s more, it’s a brand that’s developing what could be the most important model in its history – right now.

The next Saab 9-5 will have to build on the good reputation of it’s predecessor and at the same time give Saab a genuine toehold into the premium marketplace. Right now the Saab 9-5 is a great value midsize sedan but it’s sorely lacking identity and is grossly undersold in most markets as a result.

A few months ago I wrote about the demise of the 9-5 and stated that it’s currently being propped up by the environmental policies of several governments in key markets. Whilst I was, admittedly, a little harsh on the car and it’s relevance to the current market, there’s little I’ve heard since that’s changed my mind as to its current sales driver. As a matter of fact, I heard from one dealer, in one of these E85-friendly countries, who almost can’t keep up with demand for the 9-5.

This is great and I’m very happy about it for him and for Saab. If they’re able to build cars that take advantage of government tax structures then more power to ’em.

One of the problems I have, though, is the fact that these increased 9-5 sales are quite possibly coming at the expense of the 9-3, which is way too similar in size and configuration.

Take a look at a few things:

9-3tech.jpg

9-5tech.jpg

The 9-5 is around 200mm longer overall, but the vast majority of that difference is fore and aft of the wheels. The cabin dimensions (i.e. the bit where the customer sits) are quite similar. There’s more rear legroom in the 9-5, but more front headroom in the 9-3.

The point being – these are supposed to be separate and distinct classes of car with markets that compliment one another, not cannibalise. This is where the next 9-5 has to provide a point of difference.

It’s a similar story with drivetrains and power outputs. I know that we’re talking about two quite different engines here, but your average Joe Punter may well be more disposed to just looking at capacities and hp numbers and again, they’re remarkably similar. This is quite likely due to the historical growth n both models and the inherent limitation of having too much power to the front wheels.

The development of a new 9-5 needs to be a real statement by Saab. An even bigger statement than the Aero-X. This is a car that they’re actually going to bring to market, after all. It has to tell the market in no uncertain terms where Saab are heading in a very tangible way. It has to be distinctly different from the 9-3 and a genuine competitor and alternative to the best in class.

It has to have styling that makes you want to look at it. An interior that makes you want to sit in it and a drivetrain that makes you want to come back and drive it again and again and again. It doesn’t have to outsell a BMW 5 or an Audi A6, but it has to offer a genuine alternative to them at a price that doesn’t leave current 9-5 buyers stranded.

All this, of course, puts a lot of pressure on the next 9-3 too. One could be forgiven for feeling that it almost needs to be stripped down a little to help define the progression, the gap between the two.

The bottom line is that Saab need to define their future models a little better so that they can maximise their appeal. GM have a whole lot of money invested into Saab over a long period of time and if they want to capitalise on their investment, then they should put the money they’re currently throwing into Cadillac to some good use and build on a brand that Europeans already recognise and have some respect for.

It comes down to this question: If you’re going to invest a large sum of money based on European acceptance and tastes, who would you feel safer with: A European brand with a proven history for innovation and progress, or an American brand with a reputation for consumption and excess?

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5 Comments

  1. Here, HERE! The 9-5 and 9-3 are seen as cars in the exact same class here in the US, so the differentiation goes double for us. If you believe the nomenclature, the Saab 9-3 should match with the BMW 3-series, the 9-5 the 5-series. I don’t have those dimensions handy, but 9-5 isn’t nearly as big as the BMW 535/540 or whatever number they’re on today. It also isn’t as expensive, which is a good thing.

    As far as Cadillac goes, I’m still holding out that the ‘real’ Caddies will far outpace the BLS which is an ill-conceived bit of badge engineering, on par with the 9-2x. They are quite good cars, and I think (know?) that they appeal to a completely different market than does Saab. Therefore, they should be able to co-exist nicely together.

    Now, if we could just wrestle one of those Cadillac Northstar V-8 engines into the upcoming 9-5….

  2. Further to my last comment, my calculations really are dodgy. The 9-3 Sport Saloon length is 4635mm afterall.

    Time for a bloody new calculator. Who would have thought the 9-3SS is only 20.1 cm shorter than the 9-5?

    Reminds me of the old 9000 (early model) which despite being larger on the inside than the classic 900, was externally 4cm shorter and 4cm wider than the classic 900.

    The classic 900 has been likened to ‘an inverse TARDIS’. Large on the outside and small on the inside. 😉

  3. Having driven both cars, it is amazing how different they are.

    The 9-5 feels bigger than it looks, and is very spacious on the inside. It drives and handles like a large, serious car (no irony intended, I mean that in a good way).

    The 9-3 is noticeably smaller on the inside, and drives with an agility that makes it seem smaller than it is. While the 9-5 handles quite well, you feel the mass of the car more than the 9-3, which feels as light as a feather and capable of turning on a dime.

    The 9-5 is quieter than the 9-3, which could use more sound deadening material in the doors (IMHO).

    Despite the external similarities, they are very different cars.

  4. Cadillac and Saab can co-exist with each other as long as they are marketed correctly. Cadillac is going to only overlap with Saab in the 9-3/9-5 range with the BLS and CTS. The next BLS will look more like a CTS and less like a 9-3 and this will solve many problems with the car.

  5. DuSpinnst, welcome to TS. I’ve always read your comments with interest at SC. You sound like someone with a reasonable clip of inside knowledge and insight there and your location is noted.

    The problem I have with Cadillac in Europe is that at this point, Saab only have a 9-3/9-5 range there. So they’re overlapping with everything Saab does right now. I know that range will expand, but it’s a slow process.

    If they continue to overlap with the 9-5 when it gets bigger then that only represents more potential to undercut their premium Euro player. Caddy’s shown little sign of life so far and surely this money would get a better return invested in new Saabs.

    Unfortunately for me it’s not going to happen, but I do wish they’d get Caddy out of Saab’s backyard and give it some real investment and a chance to grow.

    Thanks for your input and you’re welcome any time.

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