Which car is going to be the most important new release for Saab in the next 2-3 years – The next-generation 9-5 or the 9-4x SUV?
I haven’t written anything about the 9-4x for some time, and for various reasons. Firstly, there’s been very little in terms of news about the vehicle. The last we heard of it was a brief sketch at the Saab Owner’s Convention, which I covered back in September. Second, it’s not on my mind to write about too often as it’s a segment of the market that I don’t think about too much in the normal course of things. Once we see the vehicle in the metal I’m sure that’ll change.
I’m prompted to think about it this morning though, after reading an article about Volvo published in The Car Connection. It’s a really interesting read about how strong the Volvo brand image is and yet how under-fed it is in terms of advertising – Something that’s considered to be a contributor to Volvo’s declining sales in the US, in the order of around 6% this year.
Despite the lack of 2006 growth, TCC describe Volvo as the stronghold of Ford’s Premier Auto Group and a brand with a very resolute image. Words such as ‘trust’ and ‘safety’ are close associates to ‘Volvo’. The only problem being that ‘safety’ isn’t as high on the list of discrete qualities sought by your average-Joe buyer. It may be something you want if you’re asked about it specifically (i.e. “Do you want your car to be safe?”) but it’s not necessarily going to be on your top 5 list of distinct attributes (i.e. “What qualities do you want in your next car?”).
Another thing that Volvo has received some bouquets for in the US is it’s big-butt SUV – the XC90, which is reported as being well received by the US automotive press. And this is where my thoughts about the 9-4x kick in.
Saab started life as a Swedish company that made aeroplanes and decided to go into cars when the war finished. Their first cars were well designed for Swedish families and combined aerodynamic design, strength, safety and winter practicality all in the one vehicle. As their versatility was proven over a number of years, both in the sales yard and on the track, they were embraced by other markets, too. As the years went on, Saab innovated further and became known for turbocharging, safety, practicality and somewhat eccentric design.
By its sheer size and economic power, the US became Saab’s highest volume market and at one point in the 1980’s they enjoyed 60 straight months of sales growth there. Still, despite being the dominant market, we’re still talking of numbers in the realm of around 30,000 at best because in spite of all Saab’s acclaim for making turbochargers and convertibles more practical and enjoyable – they were still a minnow in the automotive world.
I’m not quite sure what drew GM to Saab in 1990 and even more, what led them to pull the trigger on a full buyout 10 years later. Whatever the appeal was though, Saab are now owned by an American company, as well as being subject to a fair bit of influence from the American market.
And therein lies the rub.
Previously, Saab were a Swedish company that sold Swedish designed and built cars to Americans who discovered they felt a connection with them. They were economical, would perform surprisingly well when asked, were great in winter or summer conditions.
Now Saab are an American-owned company and still coming to grips with their place in the world. Their corporate philosophy is increasingly subject to the influence of the star executives and the beancounters in Detroit and the company’s now living in a time where the advertising is scrutinised almost as much as the product itself. Saab grew up in a time where it’s home market just needed a car. It’s now maturing at a time where it’s main market speaks with a funny accent, is cashed up and very demanding about the type of new vehicle it wants.
Witness: the 9-4x.
In automotive utopia, Saab wouldn’t necessarily need a 9-4x (or the 9-7x that’s filled the gap in the meantime). They might have addressed this section of the market if they were still a Swedish company, however one can’t help but feel they would have explored the smaller crossover segment with vehicles more like the 9x or 9-3x concepts. In an automotive utopia, Saab would design the best Saab cars they could, not the ones they were restricted to by the beancounters.
Saab don’t live in an automotive utopia however. They need to make some money and to do that they need to feed the richest market the vehicle that it wants – a rather biggish SUV.
That XC90 that Volvo’s used to gain some more cred in the US market sells like out-of-date milk in Sweden. In November 2006 the Swedish market took 2,654 more-size-friendly V70s and only 167 XC90s. This just seems to highlight the difference between the two markets, their tastes and needs. The problem is that one has the capacity to dictate terms to the other. Like Denis Leary said – “We got the bombs, OK?”. Substitute ‘bombs’ for ‘cash’ and you get what I mean.
I really hope that the next Saab 9-5 and the upcoming 9-4x are both designed with all four wheels well and truly planted in the Saab ethos. Somehow I get the feeling though, that the 9-5 will be the car that the Saab-nuts will want to have, whereas the 9-4x will be the SUV that Saab USA wants to sell.
If it achieves the ultimate aim of assuring Saab’s future and capacity to design real Saab cars, then go for it, GM. Knock yourselves out. Just remember that all these people that love the badge grew up with Swedish cars. They connected with a philosophy more than a name and there’s not enough marketers or CGI artists in all the world to overcome the problems caused by a product that fails to meet it’s market.