So Saab’s competition, officially speaking, is Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo.
Comments to this statement have varied with some agreeing and some disagreeing, which was exactly as I expected. The main theme I identified as I read through them was the debate between Saab now and Saab in the future.
To recap, in the people’s eyes in the US at least, Saab seems to have more in common with Acura, VW, some Mazdas and Infiniti. Mats chimed in with the European opinion, which was more along the lines that Saab are more likely to be viewed in a more premium light, or should be at least. Or maybe it was that they need to be, because Europeans aren’t likely to take Cadillac seriously for some time.
My take? Well, personally, I think Saab are right in looking towards ‘The Germans +1′ and of course, I’ll explain why.
First, it’s aspiration.
Who’s the best in the premium European sector? Even at so-called “entry-level premium’ we’re still talking premium, and to take the European identity away is to virtually strip half of Saab’s identity. The best at European premium are Audi, BMW and Mercedes Benz. I wouldn’t necessarily class Volvo in that group but I’m guessing that they compete with Volvo more on Swedish and safety grounds.
If Saab don’t plan on identifying themselves with the best then they’re aiming to build something second-rate. If they design something with beancounters closer to the forefront of their minds rather than drivers, then they’re aiming to fail. Can you imagine a designer saying “We’re going to build the second-best car we can!”
Saab did make some decisions in the last 10 years that cost them money, and they’ve been hamstrung by GM as a result until they get their house in order. But Saab have always punched above their weight and made much from very little, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring.
I’m not so naive as to think that GM will allow Saab open slather with a clean slate and no boundaries. But I do think that Saab’s engineers, gaining more and more respect in GM-world, will be able to do something special with the new 9-5, the 9-4x and the entry-level 9-1, which I think may be a new revolution for Saab. My basis for having this sort of faith in the future: who would have thought they’d be able to XWD the 9-3 without it being a brand new model?
Second, it’s reality.
Saab have something genuine to offer customers that are currently shopping A4s, entry level 3-series and C-class Mercs. These cars are purchased primarily for their brand cachet and status. For someone that doesn’t need the attention or gratuity that these brands might bring, Saab has something genuine to offer.
And that’s a big point. It’s not necessarily whether they can navigate the cones the fastest or whether they have hides from the ass of a doe. It’s whether the car, as a total package, can offer something of value to prospective purchasers of these other marques.
A quick story:
My former Manager’s wife purchased a used C-class Merc around 18 months ago. For the money they spent he could have picked up a 9-5 that would have been a little newer, much better appointed, 10 times quicker, at least as safe and more comfortable as well. When he drove my Viggen he got an insight into the performance he could have been getting and like many others he was very surprised. Not just the speed, but the driveability you have with such a wide torque curve.
When I mentioned looking at a Saab to his wife she almost slapped me (ok, not really, but metaphorically speaking) at the thought of having anything else but her Merc. The fact that it goes slower than a wet week and handles like a fully laden sponge was quite secondary to the way she saw herself in the car.
Now, this was concerned with recently used vehicles, but it’s a very similar situation with new vehicles. My retired Manager had no idea whatsoever as to what the Saab was capable of. And if I hadn’t told him he would have went away believing there was something bigger than a 4-cylinder engine in the Viggen, too.
No, we don’t yet have the interior finish of Audi. And no, we don’t yet have the handling of BMW. And no, we don’t yet have whatever it is that Mercs have (their appeal is beyond my understanding). But that’s not to say that Saabs are in any way badly appointed or less exciting to drive.
They have some of the best seats in the business. They have a level of equipment that would involve a lot of ink on the German Dealers’ option lists. The performance models especially have a monstrous torque curve that makes driving breathless in a way that most ‘German buyers’ do not yet understand and primarily through lack of experience.
In short, they have definitely not yet reached their full audience. I bet there’s a bunch of BMW and Audi shoppers in the US right now that haven’t heard of Saab, or if they have, haven’t given them a moment’s consideration because the demigods at Car and Driver have directed them so.
In Europe it’s a slightly different story, with Saab much better understood in some key markets (Sweden, UK and Spain), and playing against national pride in others (Germany). As they keep advancing with concepts like the Aero-X and developments like BioPower, they are building more and more momentum, and this will all pay off eventually.
Saab doesn’t need to sell boatloads of cars in order to prosper. Let the egomaniacs, tryhards and genuine enthusiasts that need them go and purchase whatever marque it is that they need to purchase. What Saab need to position themselves for is the person that wants the best and practically intelligent cars that the Europeans have to offer, presented in a smart, honest package. They need to build quality and present it as such. Like everything else in the car industry, it’s not about the marketing, it’s about the product. The product will sell if it’s good.
Saab have a very good product already, but that’s not quite cutting it in a market where it’s the great products that truly succeed. But they still have a very viable combination of sportiness, practicality, safety and class to offer now, and everything that I see in my crystall ball seems to point to it getting better in the future.
I reckon that if they can get to that magical 200,000 a year mark in the next 5 or 6 years then we’ll see a steady stream of development, and development in the Saab tradition – innovative, effective and intelligent development.
The end result, both now and into the future, needs to be that Saab can hold their head up high amongst any company in that class. Owners should be able to smile that smile knowing that they’ve got something. Something that not everyone understands. Something that can give all the performance they need and yet cradle them in comfort and protect their loved ones like a mother bear.
Funny though, I may be biased but I felt exactly that way when I drove the V6 Aero last year, and the 9-5 BioPower last month, and the 9-3 Diesel last month, and my Viggen this morning……..