On Competition

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……..

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  1. I am lining in Europe (NLD) and driving a SAAB for 13 years now. My current one is a 9-3 estate.
    If you want to survive in this segment in Europe you can only go for the competition with Audi, Bmw and Mercedes. In the market foor saloon cars of this size,you see that Ford, Opel, VW, Peugeot and Renault are continuously losing sales, while Audi BMW and Mercedes are growing.
    So you need to get your customer from that level.

    There is only one way to get there: by delivering quality, quality and quality (well SAAB is on the right track here). And then your image has to be right.

    I want to react on your comment that you can’t see what anyone sees in a Mercedes. Well, take an ols SAAB and an old Mercedes with 300.000 km’s, drive both and notice the differences.
    Not that the SAAB is terrible, but the Benz is better. Current E-Class is an expected mechanical life of 700.000 km’s (If the electronics last that long).
    Why would you think all taxi drivers take an E-Class?

  2. Swade I agree with all the above. My wife has just bought a 3 series here in the UK and comparing both back to back and to be honest the BMW is a better car in many ways, particularly interior quality and the 2.0 diesel engine vs the 1.9 in my car. I still prefer my SAAB but many buyers will go BMW – not through ignorance but because it is a great car. SAAB need to produce a product that retains all that is great about the brand and draw in customers who would never have considered the car before.

  3. Two years ago we bought an E320 4matic wagon for my wife. We had several conversations about this leading up to the purchase. I did point out that a 9-5 Aero SportCombi did nearly everything the E320 did, albeit faster, roomier, and $15,000 cheaper.

    Several things drove my wife’s decision on the E320.

    (1) AWD. Her previous car was a Honda CR-V, and she wanted AWD. I made the “FWD+snow tires > AWD+all-seasons” argument, and it made no difference. She didn’t want to deal with an extra set of tires, and really wanted the “security” (as she put it) of AWD.

    (2) the third-row kiddie seat. The E320 wagon has the third-row fold up kiddoe seat, that the 9-5 does not have. She wanted to be able to drive around the three of us, her sister and brother-in-law, and their 2 kids at the same time.

    (3) Brand prestige. She wanted a Mercedes. But if the 9-5 had the same features as the E320 (AWD and 3rd-row seat) I think she would have had a much harder justifying the extra expense of the Mercedes brand. But because she was getting features in the Benz that she wasn’t getting in the Saab, she could rationalize the extra $15,000.

    So I get to drive her E320 wagon off-and-on, in comparison to my daily driver, a 2000 9-5 Aero sedan.

    The E320 is very nice, it handles well, the interior materials are of very high quality (which they damn well should be, for what it cost), and it’s a very attractive car.

    But I prefer my 9-5. The cabin on the E320 is cramped for the size the car, both the door and the center console intrude on the passenger space. The 9-5 Aero feels much more spacious. And while the E320 is quieter, the Aero is faster and much more fun to drive.

    It will take some doing, but competing with Mercedes is possible for Saab. Mercedes and BMW are vulnerable because of their relatively high prices.

    But to get to that point, Saab has to be completely competitive on features. Had there been a 9-5 wagon with AWD (and to a lesser extent a 3rd row kiddie seat), I don’t think my wife would have been willing to pay an extra 10-15 thousand just for the brand name.

  4. Someone finally agrees with me and asks for the third row seat in wagon form. That would have been helpful when we were searching for a minivan.

    BTW, Swade, do BMWs handle better? I’ve never driven one.

  5. Spot on, Swade!!! Spot on!! I get that feeling too. Like I said in an earlier post: Saab is where BMW and Audi were in the late 80’s and early 90’s… I think we’ll see some amazing stuff from Saab in the next 5 – 10 years, as GM realizes the powerhouse that is Saab.

  6. Richo, as you’re someone that has an eye for a great piece, I’ll take that as a compliment.

    Andy, indeed they do. It’s been a while since I drove a BMW, but their 50/50 weight distribution certainly helps keep the car feeling solid. The last one I drove was absolutely gutless at low revs though. The opposite to the effortlessness of driving the Saab. Lively above 4,000 but quite sleepy below.

  7. It’s good that this topic gets revisited every now and then. Swade, I expect that you already knew the answer to the ‘competition’ question given you have the ‘Saab Brand’ book. For those you haven’t seen or read it (which is likely most) it is basically a beautifully printed and stylishly bound mission statement largely for Saab marketing/sales/design staff.

    It very clearly spells out what Saab should stand for, it’s market and it’s heritage. It does not explicitly list its competition but it bluntly hints at them. It has a page that lists the target markets of MB, BMW and Saab. It presents MB owners as establishment, old-money types and shows a middle-aged woman with her portrait in the background. BMW is presented as a showy performance-oriented brand depicted by a younger man in an expensive powerboat looking sharp and flashy. Saab is presented as a brand for individuals who are well off but don’t like to show off and is depicted with a woman in a remote and dry lakebed with an easel and painting equipment and her Saab convertible in the background. As far as I see the book does not at all refer to Volvo. The only hint of Volvo is in the section about safety. Here it has a thinly veiled stab at Volvo by explaining that (I paraphrase) ,‘Saab does not believe that safety should be it’s most important virtue but that it is to be expected within it’s prestige market segment’. Another way of putting it is that prestige cars must be unquestioningly safe but Saab will not build its image around it like the other Swedish manufacturer.

    Clearly though Volvo must be considered a very important competitor particularly in Saab’s country of origin. Outside of Sweden the same must also hold true, as they are Ford and GM’s European answers to the German three.

    In the past I don’t think Saab actually spelt out its market in such a way but certainly the ‘Saab Brand’ book is necessary if only to provide something more than a Wikipedia entry for GM employees who have no clue what this Saab thingy is.

    Swade, do you have any clue how the average Saabist can get hold of a copy?

  8. Turbin, I don’t know how Joe Saab can get one, unfortunately. They may pop up on Ebay from time to time, but other than that, no.

    And yeah, that book was on my minnd when I posed the question, but sometimes you just have to ask it to the people that matter and record a response, just for the record.

  9. At the risk of upsetting the applecart here’s my 2c….

    BMW & MB have customers that Saab may well covet but there really isn’t that much in common. They are not competitors.

    With all due respect, MB are car for wealthly old people who just want a Benz. They can buy more features for half the money from a dozen competitors but thats not the point. There are LOTS of different models and MB spend a lot of money making their customers feel special – even if only by association. Saab/GM is not in this game.

    BMW, by comparison, offer similar things but….they are mostly great to drive. Sure, its a formula (RWD/50/50 weight dist. straight 6s & V8s etc….)and this may be anathema to some of you but BMW make some pretty good cars. I own one and believ me, its a lot of fun as well as being practical, safe etc. Lke MB, there is a huge range and they are also pretty good at making themselves appealing.

    So, are they competitors to Saab? Only occasionally to be honest. Saab in most countries have a two model range. BMW & MBs ranges both start for less than the cheapest SAAB and finsh at many, many times more the price of the most expensive. There is some crossover in the middle but really, its a strained argument on any other level. A 93 Aero is still only about 1/2 an M3 $$. A 95 aero is nowhere near an AMG E class $$.

    So really, I can’t see how these are logically Saabs competitors. They are what Saab aspire to be as a ccompany perhaps. Ditto for Lexus & Audi.

    Saabs competitors are the cars in the same range that with similar features but without German heritage . Who? = Honda/Acura. Infinity, VW, Volvo. People buying these cars clearly have:
    1) money
    2) an interest in cars beyond just a tool of transport
    3) Aspirations – whether they are social or driving or safety or other.

    I cannot see how Saab can compete in the luxury market – its punching way above its weight. In the mid-market segment Saab has a lot to offer and the more its marketed this way, the more will be sold.

    Aspirations are one thing, reality is where sales are made.

  10. Let me take a view at the business of car-makers with customers who privately want to buy a car. In Germany Saab is playing in a class which requires people having the money to decide for the so called premium level. Here prestige is one of the main factors. In this case Saab has only a little prospect. This field is occupied by the german brands Audi( an alliance of the famous german makes Audi, Horch, Wanderer, DKW also a previous motor-bike-producer, NSU also a previous motor-bike-producer ), BMW ( today also making motor-bikes) and of course Mercedes. All these car-makers have a well known long lasting history based on glamour, quality and many successes in sport events. The big three have the important images wanted by german customers. Lexus is fighting to penetrate the german premium field since a lot of years. Until now the success is of a low degree. But I personally think they have a good future in Germany because this brand offers cars of good quality and specially a modern engineering. Generally the image of Toyota is more and more growing in Germany.
    Saab can only offer a small range of cars and is playing the part of the outsider. Additionally the brand has the stronger Swedish competitor Volvo.

  11. As one of the small minority of U.S. buyers, I can easily say I bought a different car that gave me more for $15,000 less than I would have had to pay for something 1) as fast 2) as roomy and 3) in a line that had matured and improved in build quality. My 07 9-5 Aero is light years ahead of my beloved 900 SE. But I would use Swade’s own observations against him here. There’s not enough new designs and engineering to compete seriously in the luxury class. Saab can’t compete in Colorado because it doesn’t offer AWD and is perceived (wrongfully) that it is not powerful enough. And though I hate gadgets, most buyers like em. Audi absolutely rules around here, followed by BMW and then MB. Sprinkle in the Infinitis (can’t understand why), Lexus (boring) and we’re seeing Maximas because of their redesigns. Saab/GM is too hidebound in its manufacturing process to match the redesign cycles of its competitors. Just not enough dough, and smart dough invested during the last decade, though it builds on great technology and above all, what Saab drivers exhibit: ATTITUDE.

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