60th Anniversary press event – Part 3

Saab USA hosted a 60th Anniversary drive for the press last week in San Diego. Trollhattan Saab was there. I asked regular reader and commenter Mike M (aka 1985 Gripen) to head on down and enjoy the driving and the people.

Part 1 of this diary is Arriving in San Diego

Part 2 of the diary is The Dinner

This is part 3, and once again it’s a long one, but chock full of facts and insights that you just can’t get anywhere else but in the company that Mike enjoyed during the event.

There’s news on Saab’s E100 car showing at Geneva next month. Erik Carlsson’s thoughts on XWD. Saab staffers give their views on everything from Black Turbo (yes!) to Xenon headlamps.

Enjoy!

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Just the Facts

These facts are in no particular order. All these facts were relayed to me either by employees of SAAB USA or SAAB Sweden. I won’t tell who told me what information in case anything was not supposed to be released yet. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble for sharing information with me.

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Things learned from Jay Spenchian, President of SAAB USA’s presentation over breakfast:

General Motors has a lot of faith in the SAAB brand and has chosen to showcase SAAB at the Geneva Auto Show, despite there being new offerings from GM’s other European brands such as Opel.

It has been recognized internally that SAAB has lost some of its uniqueness in recent years and they intend to rectify this. If you don’t like the unique “SAAB” way to do things you can buy a BMW, which he also mentioned at the Saab Owners Conference last year.

The Born From Jets advertising campaign has quickly become the 6th-most recognized slogan in the automobile industry, just behind long-time slogans such as “Chevy – Like a Rock”. This is considered quite an achievement considering the short amount of time this campaign has been running.

SAAB worldwide sales are up 5%.

U.S. SAAB sales are down overall, but Mr. Spenchian believes this is due to the 9-2X model phase-out.

U.S. 9-3 model sales are up.

U.S. SAAB sales are up 7.6% for January (as compared to last January). This was the best January in four years and marks the sixth consecutive month of growth.

SAAB believes that they are losing buyers because of a lack of all-wheel drive. The 9-7X was cited as something that was to remedy this problem.

SAAB will soon introduce a “Prestige Version” 9-5 model as well as a “crossover vehicle”.

SAAB will also introduce a small car in concept form comparable to a BMW Mini within 3 years.

The United States remains SAAB’s biggest market.

Upcoming events for SAAB include the SAAB Festival in Sweden June 8 through the 10th and the SAAB Owner’s Convention in Troy, Michigan August 23rd through August 26th.

By the way, on a side note Mr. Spenchian asked me the night before during the reception if Swade will be able to make it to Sweden in June. I pointed out that he’s currently trying to raise funds to do just that. I mentioned that the site is now selling T-shirts and lightheartedly encouraged everyone to buy one to help raise funds to send Swade to Sweden. Everyone chuckled.

Someone else from SAAB pointed out that he saw the shirts for sale at TrollhattanSAAB just that morning. I explained to them that I personally intend to buy one to try and help the cause. I didn’t mention it to them, but I appreciate the choice of organic cotton as the base for the TrollhattanSAAB t-shirts and it fits right in with SAAB’s environmental sensitivity, especially in Australia, where seventeen trees will be planted for every SAAB sold in Australia, offsetting the carbon dioxide emissions of the car for a year! Not to mention that the shirts are “natural” color, using no bleach of dyes. Good choice, Swade!

SAAB is introducing the 60th Anniversary Edition models. The Anniversary Edition is available in all body styles of the 9-3 and 9-5.

SAAB USA is trying to get the word out that for the price of a well-equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord you can drive a SAAB. SAABs start at USD$27,000. They want everyone to know SAAB is the “closest thing to driving a jet” and SAAB is “the jet you can afford”.

Mr. Spenchian continued by pointing out some of SAAB’s core attributes:

– Safety – 9-3 is a “Double-Best Pick” of the IIHS, 9-5 considered the safest car by Folksam, etc.

– Fuel Economy – SAAB offers 7 models which get over 30 mpg (highway)

– Warranty – SAAB has 100K mile/5 year powertrain warranty

– No-charge scheduled maintenance for 3 years/36K miles

– All purchases of an Aero model include a free trip to Aero Academy in Georgia. Many people after attending Aero Academy marvel at what performance their new purchase is capable of and would have never known otherwise.

It was pointed-out more than once that SAABs start at USD$27K

SAAB will be showcasing a new concept car at the upcoming Geneva Auto Show. The “SAAB 9-5 BioPower100” is designed to run on pure ethanol (E100). It will generate over 300 bhp. When I explained that I understood the reason E85 contains 15% gasoline because it is required to start the engine in cold temperatures and asked whether an E100 car would have a problem in a country like Sweden, I was told that the BioPower100 would have two separate fuel tanks. One would hold gasoline and the other would hold E100. The car would initially use the gasoline when starting, then the ECU would automatically switch over to E100 when the temperature of the engine reaches an acceptable level.

Regarding the Anniversary Edition SAAB models the wheels from the 2008 9-3 model “refresh” have been pulled forward and are standard on the Anniversary Edition 9-3. The 9-3 Anniversary Edition offers buyers the Aero “look” with the “entry level” model 2.0-liter engine at an affordable price. In fact, the Anniversary Edition 9-3 is even cheaper to lease than a base model.

Lastly, Mr. Spenchian showed us the “På Taket” award. This award is presented to those within SAAB who have persevered over great odds. It is a die-cast model of Erik Carlsson’s rally car, mounted upside down on a plaque. The particular one we were shown was presented to Jan-Willem Vester for a past achievement with the company and had been autographed by Erik “On the Roof” Carlsson himself. This was how Mr. Spenchian began his introduction of Mr. Carlsson for those who were not previously familiar with the man, his exploits, and his triumphs.

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Mr. Spenchian explained that it’s an urban myth that Erik Carlsson spent more of his rally career with his car riding on its roof than its wheels. He then showed a slide on the projector of a classic advertisement for Pommac. The advertisement shows Erik Carlsson sitting across a dirt road from his inverted rally car firmly embedded in the trees in the background. He is shown sitting in the foreground on the opposite side of the road with his helmet in his lap, his head resting in his hand, elbow propped on the helmet with a bottle of Pommac in the other hand, looking resigned to the fact he’s out of the race and possibly waiting for others to arrive.

Erik claimed that this photo shoot was in Sweden in January and that they had to spray paint the whole forest green for the photo shoot because of the snow. Of course, he was only joking. He also pointed out that it’s not a beer in his hand, it’s a soft drink (I guess he wants to keep anyone from thinking alcohol caused the alleged “crash”). I looked it up on the internet just now and learned that indeed Pommac was a soft drink in Sweden which has since gone out of production.

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After the presentation while driving with a SAAB employee for a short time we began discussing the merits of the 9-3 SportCombi I was driving. It really was a world of difference over my C900T or even my wife’s 2001 9-3 5-door. He pointed out that you don’t even realize you’re driving a wagon unless you look in the rear view mirror and this is completely true. The car felt very rigid and I was able to take corners surprisingly fast without feeling like the car was the least bit about to lose traction. I explained that unfortunately my personal opinion of the exterior styling of the post-2003 9-3 models (except for the Combi) is that it is a bit too tame and bland for my taste. The SAABs of yore were distinctively styled. The SAAB employee agreed with me wholeheartedly and promised that the upcoming model refresh will address this.

As we continued talking I pointed out that when SAAB gets all-wheel drive in the 9-3 as well (subtly trying to get some info on the rumored AWD option inclusion in the 2008 9-3 refresh) it should help increase sales and he agreed. He said that SAAB is getting killed by the competition who offer all-wheel drive in areas with inclement winter weather like the Northeastern U.S. I mentioned that it’s unfortunate as I have often read that all-wheel drive is sometimes more dangerous than front-wheel drive as it gives a false sense of security and just because people have all-wheel drive in their car they drive more recklessly than they normally would if they didn’t have it. He agreed and Erik Carlsson chimed in that this is completely true.

Erik prefers FWD to AWD and told me of a colleague of his who used to rally race for SAAB and was quite successful. When the rally rules changed and SAAB pulled-out of the sport the driver went to AUDI, and began racing AWD cars. Erik says that the driver found himself off the course more often with the “four wheel drive” AUDIs than he did with the front-wheel drive SAABs. It took quite some time to learn the limits of the all-wheel drive system.

I explained to the SAAB employee that I understand that there is a balance to be found between what SAAB wants to offer and what they have to offer, as in the case of AWD. The employee agreed and pointed out that SAAB pretty much has learned they need to offer AWD to stay competitive in the marketplace, no matter how they feel about it. He pointed out it’s like the 4-cylinder versus 6-cylinder engine. People just demand their new car has 6-cylinders. He told me that if you put someone in a SAAB 9-5 and don’t tell them that it’s got a 4-cylinder engine they’d never know the difference. But it’s hard to sell the 9-5 with its 4-cylinder engine. Perception is sometimes just as important, or more important than reality.

I cited the example of the xenon headlights now present in SAABs. I had read years ago that SAAB was reluctant to offer xenon headlights because it was perceived as a safety hazard. Not to the driver of the SAAB necessarily, but to others on the road. The lights can be dazzling to oncoming traffic. However, with all SAAB’s competitors offering xenon headlights it became sort of a mandatory option in cars of the SAAB’s class. They were forced to offer them as well or lose sales to the competition. Again, a case of perception being more important than reality.

He explained to me also that SAAB’s standard halogen headlights at the time were the best in the industry. The xenons were only a very marginal improvement over the quality of the halogens with quite a price difference. SAAB didn’t believe that the price premium of the xenon lights over the halogen ones was worth the price difference. Well, again the market won on that one as well and SAAB also has xenon lights now.

Later I was speaking with another SAAB employee while I was driving him in the 1970 SAAB 99 from the Heritage Collection. He believes that the 99 is the “quintessential SAAB” with its wraparound windscreen and other classic “SAABy” features. I brought up the “Black Turbo” project and told him that the specs on that alleged car which have been rumored would have me interested in purchasing one, but I am one of the few people who doesn’t care to own a black-colored car.

In Southern California it can be pretty dusty and with a dark-colored car you have to wash it every few days to keep it looking clean because it shows dirt so easily. He explained to me that the “Black Turbo” is the name of the project and that the car will be available in colors other than black. Black will be sort of the “launch” color (like a default color), much like Ice Blue is the launch color of the 60th Anniversary Editions and Electric Blue Metallic was the launch color of the SAAB Convertible 20 Years Edition, but they are also available in other colors if the launch color isn’t to your liking. They wish to offer some kind of flexibility, not wanting to lose sales simply because a perspective buyer doesn’t like the color.

While driving with Erik Carlsson as my “navigator” in a manual 9-5 60th Anniversary Edition Sedan at the end of the day on the way back to the hotel I commented that he’s mentioned several times to me during the day that he prefers the automatic transmission and he prefers the 9-5 to the 9-3. I asked him if the 9-5 is his favorite SAAB ever, or if there was one of the models from the past that he likes best. He was silent with a strange look on his face as if he was trying to formulate something in his head but couldn’t figure out how. I interjected, “or is there something that hasn’t been released yet that you’ve had the opportunity to drive that you can’t talk about yet?” He said that indeed there is something that he has driven he can’t speak about. I followed-up by asking him if they allow him to drive projects under development at SAAB Sweden before they’re released and he told me he has indeed had this opportunity.

SAAB should be proud of him because he didn’t divulge any more information than that and I wasn’t comfortable trying to pry more info out of him. He’s not a fan of SUVs (I gleaned this from a prior discussion), and he doesn’t like “four wheel drive”. I don’t think he was referring to the upcoming 9-4X. Needless to say, I got the impression that his favorite SAAB model of all time hasn’t come out of Trollhattan just yet…

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On the subject of ethanol I relayed my concern about the difficulties of ethanol transport. I had read from many sources that ethanol cannot be transported through pipelines because it adsorbs water and corrodes the pipelines. As it stands now ethanol has to be transported either by fossil-fuel-burning diesel trucks or diesel trains to its destination, which is adding CO2 to the atmosphere. One of the benefits of ethanol use, of course, is to reduce the net amount of CO2 being emitted to the atmosphere. So the transportation of ethanol to the end-user in a clean, efficient way will be an issue which needs to be addressed.

When I aired my concern to the SAAB employee he told me that it is not necessarily true that ethanol will have to be transported via truck or train. He said that ethanol can be transported through dedicated pipelines but can’t be sent through pipelines that had previously had water in them. However, this would seem to imply to me that at least in the case of the United States he believes it feasible to run new dedicated ethanol pipelines across the country to move the ethanol from where it’s primarily produced (in the midwestern states) to where it’s primarily consumed (on the coasts). He also told me he hopes that more producers will pop-up locally.

I mentioned it to him that there is indeed at least one ethanol plant in Madera, California already producing, yet we still have the same single E85 pump open to the public in the state we’ve had for years. No new pumps have been installed. He expressed a hope that ethanol will become more widespread in its supply. When I mentioned that biobutanol does not have the alleged water adsorption problem inherent to ethanol, the gentleman I was speaking with admitted he is not familiar with butanol.

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I’ll leave you with a picture of Erik Carlsson, former SAAB USA President Bob Sinclair, one of the other guests of the event and I eating pie outside of the famous Julian Pie Company in Julian, California.

— Mike

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13 Comments

  1. Thank you for supplying that picture of the Pommac ad from your own collection, Swade. A picture is worth a thousand words. In fact, you could have simply deleted my lame description of the ad when you included the picture! 😉

    I plan to type-up yet another rambling description of the second day of the event tomorrow. Thanks for publishing my story!

  2. Great piece of writing again 1985Gripen!

    Fortunately, Pommac is still around. 2004, the Danish brewery Carlsberg (who own Pommac these days) wanted to stop production. There were lots of protest from all over the country, attention in the media, petitions on the web to save Pommac… So they changed the decision and we can still buy Pommac today. 🙂

    http://www.pommac.se/

  3. Thank you for the clarification regarding Pommac, ctm. I misread the wikipedia listing:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pommac

    I read the part about the announcement of the planned production ceasation but I didn’t continue to read the part about strong public demand and outcry keeping production running. Apologies for the mistake and thank you for the clarification.

    Maybe if Swade makes it to Sweden this summer he can enjoy a bottle, hopefully with his own car right-side up!

  4. 1985 Gripen,

    How is everything now in the meantime? How were you feeling when you got onto the airfield with the others? I understood that everyone in the first wave was overwhelmed with happiness!

  5. Amazing!
    Chauffeuring Erik «on the roof» himself must have been an absolute high in an already breathtaking experience. Swade must be applauded for appointing Gripen, who has done a great job, even though he admits, quite humorously, he was not a natural candidate for the task. If you sense any envy in my message, your are damn right !

  6. 1985 Gripen *was* a natural candidate. Can’t remember names and doesn’t pound ’em back drinking-wise. He probably got entrusted with far more info than the regular journos! 😉

    Great Job!

    “…indeed there is something that he has driven he can’t speak about.” Oh man, the future’s gonna be bright!

  7. Great job reporting from the event. Your blogs have been very informative and fun to read. It’s great that you were able to get so much time chatting with people like Erik Carlsson about Saab and its future. Thanks!

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