Some hope renewed

My attitude towards GM’s ownership of Saab has traversed some peaks and valleys over the last two years since I started this blog. I’ve always tried to retain what I hope is a positive attitude towards GM’s ownership over all.

I know I’ve called GM on a lot of things that I don’t like, but over all I think I’ve managed to maintain a consistent opinion about the fact that GM are the best option for Saab right now (with a sentimental thought for Porsche as a viable alternative if Saab had to be sold).

Swapping a couple of emails this morning with my main Swedish media tracker, ctm, I was once again led to the conclusion that Saab do have a future with their current corporate parent.

Recently, I spent a lot of ‘ink’ criticising GM for their pursuit of Cadillac in Europe, and I still maintain that stance. Despite this, however, there’s a fair bit happening for Saab if you take a step back and see the forest beyond the BLS trees.

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First of all, we’ve got the 9-3 refresh coming up later this year. And it’s not just a little bit of panelwork and some new buttons. This is significant business, with a new drivetrain and the possibility of a real top shelf performance car as a halo for the brand. The addition of AWD and BioPower to the 9-3 range will be significant. AWD for the US market and BioPower for a European market that’s getting tougher and tougher on emissions.

Add to that the possibility of a higher spec twin turbo diesel and you’ve got a substantial revamp of the brand’s primary model line.

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Coming in the future will be the 9-4x, the new 9-5 and the compact, entry level 9-1.

The 9-4x is going to service a significant market and whilst some people won’t like the idea of a Mexican-built Saab, it’ll be very important for the brand to get this vehicle into the US at a price that can contribute solidly to the bottom line. The US is going to be the biggest market for this vehicle by far so they’ve got to get it adequately equipped and priced to succeed there.

The next 9-5 was described to me by someone that knows as ‘even cooler than the Aero-X’. Because it’s going to be way, way overdue by the time it gets here, it’ll need to be cooler that the Aero-X. The competition isn’t going backwards. Another person that’s well plugged in remarked to me that it takes time to design and build a real 5-series and A6 competitor. All I can say is ‘Hallelujah’ as they’re aiming at the right end of the competitive scale.

The 9-1, too, will be welcomed like a prodigal son when it finally arrives, especially in Europe. This could be the first Saab that I buy brand new. I certainly hope so.

—–

Take a step back and that makes for a pretty exciting couple of years coming up.

Saab have just set a sales record and with an expanding and improving model line on the way, things are indeed looking rosier.

Back in February 2006 when the Aero-X was first released there were love songs and dedications about how GM has a 5-year plan for Saab and how it was not going to be sold off.

I’ve never believed that they would sell it off, though there were a few dark days where I might have secretly hoped for it. There were also days when GM seemed to only pay lip service to Saab without laying out any plans that delivered on the promise. Sure, the Aero-X is great, but dealers are crying out for products they can sell, right?

The thing I’m learning to accept more and more is that this blogging game is a very short term business, where the car game is a very long term business. And that fact is more difficult to embrace than you might think.

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It’s not only the cars that are promising.

The recent State of the Union speech in the US has given a new impetus for E85 development. Multiple sources have placed Saab’s engineers at the centre of this as they have the turbocharging expertise to make the most out of the fuel.

GM are involved in a project called MERA, which is an initiative to foster and develop innovation in the auto industry. It’s funded in partership between the auto companies and the state and involves co-operative research between companies and universities. The project has been slated to conclude in 2008.

The great thing about this is that GM have seen so much promise in the program that they’ve kicked in more funds than the initial agreement called for and they’re now petitioning to have the program extended beyond the 2008 curtain call.

This is Alan Taub, head of GM Research as quoted recently in TTELA.se with contextual comments from ctm:

– “We need to expand our research and development in Sweden even more.” He is talking about adding a new area of research: electronics.

– “GM is already benefiting a lot from this research.” He states that the need for research in the auto industry is so big that not even GM can handle it on their own.

– “We are facing extreme technical challenges the next ten years. That’s why it takes cooperation between companies, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago.” This is exactly what he likes with the way this programme is conducted: that the whole auto industry, the universities and the government work together. And that is why they really want a decision from the government to continue the project.

Automotive research is an ongoing task and Saab are right there in the middle of it.

—–

And after all that, let’s not forget that a Saab design team led by Anthony Lo and featuring an external design by Alex Daniel recently swept just about every car design award that was available with the Aero-X. And the design cues from that car will trickle down to the Saabs that you and I drive into the future.

—–

As I said at the opening: I’ve rained down plenty of bile on GM over the last two years. Most of it has been quite heartfelt and some of it has been used more to make a point. I don’t think I’ve been wrong and I don’t feel that this post is contradictory.

It’s just that it’s right to give credit where credit’s due. Saab’s future has a lot of good things going for it and if GM do the right thing and maximise it’s potential then I think there’s going to be a bunch more happy Saab drivers in years to come.

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23 Comments

  1. Well put.

    The BLS experiement aside, I believe that Cadillac sales in Europe will increase steadily over the next couple of years. I think that Cadillac sales in Europe will exceed Saab sales in the US sometime in the next five years. I’ve not heard any numbers from GM, but this has to be their line of thinking or they wouldn’t have put so much emphasis around this campaign otherwise.

    The Cadillac line-up is quite good. Drive one and see.

    Actually, I would really get excited about a Saab-version built on the XLR or STS-V platforms.

    http://www.cadillac.com/cadillacjsp/vseries/index.jsp

    0-60 in less than 5 seconds. Woo. Woo.

  2. It’s difficult for me to think of Cadillac as being a sporty automobile, but the CTS-V seems to be very successful on the race track. I would love to see some of that rub off on Saab.

  3. I’ve read in leftlane blog last night and found out that many many people think that Saab is becoming the trash box of GM…. In term of marketing GM might be the good choice but for the image and maintaining heritage of Saab, maybe this is too hard job for GM… i think GM couldn’t even make itself looks good in Saab users eyes… just my opinion

  4. While I wouldn’t neccesarily want to own one, I would sure like to test drive a Cadillac CTS-V. I kind of like its styling as well…

  5. I don´t like the Cadillac BLS.. It´s soo ugly.. I build it every day.. And I am not happy about to build it.. It´s so many Saab 9-3 parts in the car.. It´s about 85% Saab and 15% Cadillac in the BLS..
    Sending a link. Sorry boys for that is on Swedish..
    http://www.nyteknik.se/art/48639

    The title say´s “uphill slope for the Swedish Cadillac”. We have build about 3500 BLS in the factory. And 1230 of them are sold to costumers..

    Sorry for the English. I´m not so god to write in Egnlish.

    //Johan

  6. i have a cts with the 3.6l engine which is what the 2.8 came out of. the interior though is not luxurious, its quite functional. the handling is amazing. saab could actually build on this platform as awd is offered. the stsv is on the same platform as the cts just stretched though not much roomier as my mom has an sts. i hope the new cts will be a hit as they are now getting 300hp out of the 3.6l. think if saab would turbo that. my god that would be awesome.

    i hope cadillac will succeed in europe but that will take a hit on saabs sales maybe. they actually need to show that they can actually compete with the euros as i know the ctsv could take the m5 when it came out. since the new m5 came out not so sure.

  7. Cadillac will never be a succes in Europe, and certainly will not outsell Saab. (remember that Saab sells +/- 80.000 vehicles a year in Europe, and Cadillac just 6.000!). Europeans just don’t like the suspension, lack of interior quality and the bad image that most American cars have. Especially the last two factors are very important: Cadillac is only known for their 1950s cars in the EU, and are considered to be gass-guggling, overdone and just ‘too American’…

  8. Jacob:

    Re-read my comment: Cadillac in EUROPE will outsell Saab in THE US.

    As far as your notions of poor fit and finish, etc. you’re proving to be something of a car snob — Cadillacs aren’t like they were even 5 years ago. You can laugh all you like, but Cadillac is coming, and they’re going to shock some people with their success, particularly in Eastern Europe.

    Open your eyes. The US car makers are making darn good cars. No bling, all substance.

    Again, 0-100 kmh in less than 5 seconds. Not even many Benz models do that.

  9. I have bought two new SAABs.
    I would not entertain Cadillac.
    As much as they try Cadillac must overcome thier image of being bad taste on wheels and in western europe thats a tall order

  10. I don’t think the problem with Cadillac (or Lexus) is that they are bad cars today. The problem is something else… And this “something else” is why we don’t all drive fuel efficient Toyota’s with 1.3 litre engine that just do the job of transport the best way planet Earth could think of.

    I don’t know anybody who would want a Lexus. Why? It has no soul. It hasn’t got “it”. It’s an artificial thing created for a purpose. Designed to be a success all over the world. One size fits all, but leave lots of buyers without impression. Compare it to an Alfa or a BMW. They are so filled with emotions.

    Cadillac… Well, said it before. Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler… Say the names and everyone think of either big beautiful “American” cars from the forties and fifties – or tasteless pimp-mobiles from the seventies and eighties with chrome, purple leather and fake wood. The essence of (bad) American taste.

    You have money, You want something to show off your wealth on the driveway outside your house. A Lexus? Something that nobody can distinguish from a Hyundai? Don’t think so… A Cadillac? Just say the words and people talk about V8 that waste fuel and suspension that feels like a rocking chair on the road. Doesn’t matter that they are different now. Buying a premium car is about buying into a lifestyle, to share a way of thinking, to be a part of something. It’s the same reason why people with money wear a Breitling or a Cartier watch, and not a Seiko.

    Cadillac in the Middle east? Sure. In Eastern Europe? Yes, sometimes even if MB:s and BMW:s are the cars to drive there.

    In western Europe? No.

  11. Saab and GM may be in a more promising situation than we think. A recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that: ‘… a conservative estimate of the energy extractable from the hot rocks less than 10 kilometres beneath American soil suggests that this almost completely untapped energy resource could support US energy consumption, at its current clip, for more than two millennia to come.’
    Go read:
    http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg19325883.000-hot-clean-power-under-our-feet-.html
    Then come back…
    I think we could all agree that that’s a lot of energy. Given Saab’s development of the electric/ethanol powered 9-3 and it’s contribution to GM’s Volt the future for Saab through the production of electrically powered cars could confirm it’s usefulness within GM. I dont know about your area but it’s easier to find an electricity socket around here than a E85 pump.

  12. @eggsngrits:

    Yes, I’ve seen several Cadillac’s, sat in them and the interior build quality was just too poor for a car that costs €50k in the Netherlands (a base CTS). For that money, you can also buy a BMW 5-Series or an Audi A6 here (they cost even less, actually). And I just cannot see Cadillac’s sales grow above 10-15k a year in the coming years, so they won’t outsell even Saab in the US (they moved about 40k cars last year). Cadillac is just too extravagant and ‘bling bling’ to atract the average business executive who prefers accepted class above the ‘American style’.

  13. Personal tastes aside, I’d be hard pressed to see Cadillac moving 35,000 to 40,000 units in Europe in the near future. Recently, some industry boffins that I quoted in one of my anti-Caddy rants had revised their estimates to around 8,000 by 2010.

    I just wish they’d put the money into a new 9-5 and maybe a Sonett.

  14. I don’t mind Cadillac trying to sell cars in Europe.

    I do mind them trying to sell the exact same type of car in Europe as Saab is selling.

    Proper allocation of resources for development is easy **if** you define each brands market segment, and have the self-discipline to maintain those boundaries.

  15. Swade,

    I think your perspective is dead-on.

    To be honest, there will always be different opinions on Big Boss. Some will forever despise GM, and nothing short of sacrificing the CEO’s firstborn will change their minds.

    While GM should pour more money into Saab, I can sort of understand why they’re not- after all, the words “Ford” and “bankruptcy” are getting hooked up here in the U.S. like meat on a barbecue, and GM is dealing with the same kind of issues.

    Once they pull out of the nose-dive, I would expect them to put more money into Saab than they are now. The problem is right now they’re flying tankers (literally), when instead they should fly Saabs!

  16. Well, I’m in agreement that the BLS thing was a poor idea — if you’re going to make a Saab, make a Saab.

    Jacob: a base CTS costs 50,000 euros in the Netherlands? That’s US$65,000!! The CTS goes for about US$35,000 in the US! No wonder they aren’t selling in Europe like I thought they should. How protectionist is the EU??? That’s a HUGE tariff! Socialism doesn’t win, don’t you Euros know that?

    This may change my mind about Cadillac’s chances of success. I had no idea that they would be that expensive there.

    Perhaps we should start taxing the crap out of all of those German cars all over the roads here.

  17. @eggsngrits: Yes, a CTS costs about €50.000, and a Saab 9-5 starts here in the Netherlands at around €40.000 (not as well equipped as the CTS, but still a rather large gap, especially if you keep in mind that the average car bought here today costs €25.000 (VW Golf/Opel Astra/Peugeot 307 etc.).

    And it is not because of protectionism that the CTS is so expensive. A base Saab 9-3 2.0T (US$26,900) costs in the Netherlands about €45.000 when simmilarily equipped. A base 9-3 (1.8i, no leather, 15″ alloys) costs €29.690 over here. So it’s just that cars are expensive, not just the Americans.

  18. Jacob: Something just doesn’t make sense — why would ALL cars be that expensive? I’ll bet that the EU cars (Germans, for instance) are lower than the non-EU brands (Saab, Caddy) comparitively.

  19. Sounds like some of you folks in Europe should consider an AMERICAN delivery!

    It would almost seem better to buy a Saab from a U.S. dealer and ship it back to Europe…or set up a “European” delivery with no intention of ever sending it to the states.

  20. Eggsngrits, Saab is indeed an EU brand – Saab Automobile AB is incorporated in Sweden, a country that has been a member of the European Union since 1995.

    Cars are generally expensive in the EU, esp. in north-western Europe. For example, in Dermark the government slaps a 110% tax on ANY car you buy because automobiles are considered environmentally-damaging luxury goods.

    Attitudes towards cars and auto-transportation in general differ greatly between Europe and North America. People over here take it almost for granted they should be able to have a driver’s license, but I tell you, half the people on the roads here would never pass a test in Germany with their current driving skills and habits.

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