On Thursday, March 15, Mike M had a chat for an hour with Jan-Willem Vester – Manager, Saab Automobile USA Corporate Communications. You may remember Mike’s incredible coverage of the 60th Anniversary event in February 2007.
I’ve also had a lot communication with Jan-Willem over the last two years, but due to time zone problems a conversation like this is a little more difficult.
Following are bullet points from the conversation. I’d like to thank Jan-Willem for taking the time to chat with Mike and for allowing me to publish the salient points of the discussion here. It’s been gut-wrenchingly difficult as I’ve written this, but I hope Jan-Willem will agree that I haven’t editorialised anything in the process.
I’ll address that later 😉
Thanks also to Mike for taking the time to write everything down so that I could sort through it and present it all here. Another Herculean effort.
– Saab were quite happy with the reactions to the BioPower100 concept in Geneva. They were able to sell the concept quite well with the message of 150hp per litre getting out there with good effect. It’s not that they’d be optimising a car for that output, but it shows the potential for getting more from less, one of Saab’s traditional strengths.
– Saab are keen on advancing BioPower because of the inevitability of governments getting car companies to clean up their act. The BioPower100 is not intended as a production vehicle, but like most concepts, it serves to exaggerate the capabilities of the company, thereby showing that the standard stuff like E85 is well within the car’s capability.
– The BioPower100 concept will be coming to the New York Auto Show and Saab hope to use it as a further springboard for the E85 conversation. This will not only emphasise Saab’s environmental credentials, but their turbocharging credentials as well. It’s the turbocharging that allows Saab to deliver extra performance as well by taking advantage of the higher octane rating of the fuel. Non-turbo E85 cars don’t enjoy this benefit to anywhere near this extent.
– SaabUSA are encouraged by all the new E85 pumps going up around the country, however they recognise that there’s key markets out there that don’t yet have adequate access. If you’re going to ask people to buy an E85 car then you have to have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be able to use it in this manner. Even though the car will run on regular gas, if you’re asking any sort of premium for the product then the customer should be able to get access to the fuel they’re choosing to use.
– E85 will be coming to the US, but there’s still some testing to be done to ensure compliance with US regulations. SaabUSA are hoping that availability of fuel will be greater when this compliance testing is complete.
– Jan-Willem’s been with Saab for some time now, but started his career as an automotive journalist. His first moves into the car company side of the business were with Opel in Europe and then he came to the US in the mid-late 90’s – starting his US career…..with Cadillac.
– The car business is a long-term business and a lot of what we’re seeing now with Cadillac – i.e. it’s promotion as a global brand – was in the pipeline way back then. GM hold 15% of the world market but nowhere near 15% of the luxury market, which they consider to be quite important given its high profitability.
– They see Lexus, BMW and Audi as examples of companies that are doing the luxury thing quite well and they want a bigger piece of that market.
Now, let me ask you: do you think that SAAB is in a position to be, let’s say the brand for General Motors worldwide that can do that?
– GM see themselves as being blessed with two other luxury brands in Cadillac and Hummer that they need to exploit further around the world. They consider that with all three premium brands working to attract different premium buyers, they’re offering a greater variety within the luxury segment.
– Saab is quite distinctly European and won’t appeal to all people. They won’t play in the big luxury SUV segment, for example, and it’d be against the brand’s nature to do so.
– The commitment to Cadillac is no threat to the ongoing future of Saab. GM has recently demonstrated its commitment to Saab with concepts like the Aero-X, which spells out the design language that Saab will adopt in future vehices. But for Saab to be successful, GM must be successful as a whole company.
– GM had a chance to cut Saab loose years ago when they were losing millions. They had a chance more recently with all the pressure from Kirk Kerkorian and Jerry York but didn’t do so because GM have a genuine belief in Saab from the top down.
– So again, GM want to expand their luxury offerings around the world and a big part of this plan is the evolution of Cadillac as a global luxury player. Still very American in character, but developed for a world market, much like Mercedes is the epitome of German cars, Porsche the epitome of the sports car, but both are sold globally.
– Cadillac have started simply by being there in Europe and whilst dealer and customer interest is still in it’s infancy, things are moving along. Developments like the recently announced diesel that will debut in the 2009 CTS. A similar development has also just happened with the inclusion of the BLS wagon – a wagon variant is very important for Europe. the BLS isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it’s an inexpensive solution to an immediate problem, much like the 9-7x and 9-2x were for Saab.
– Cadillac has been with General Motors since 1918 and it’s unthinkable that GM would be successful long-term without Cadillac being successful long-term. Same with Chevrolet, which is why they’re expanding their presence in Europe and Asia. As GM are more successful and profitable they will have more to invest in Saab and their willingness to do so has become clear.
– Saab is regarded as pure ‘plus’ business for GM. If their customers were to leave, would they purchase another GM product? Not likely.
– Saab are appreciative of the fan base that’s been established in both the club environment with events like the SOC in the United States as well as the various web forums etc. “You can’t buy passion like that” and “I haven’t seen any Lexus blogs” were notable moments.
– Don’t jump to conclusions about the spyphotos that have been shown so far of the MY08 Saab 9-3 SportCombi and Convertible. These cars are out there for testing in poor weather conditions, they’re not show ponies. They’re masked and are not being shown for what they will be. These pics in these conditions don’t show the subtleties in the redesign and they definitely don’t show the car in the best light.
– “just to give you a little hint – there’s so much going on in lighting technology at the moment”
– Talking about styling – Mike mentioned his preference for the older 9-5 rather than the re-design and eventually joked that he’d like them to just start making 99s and 900s again. JWV talked about the 900 and how it was received upon its first release, saying that it certainly didn’t start off in a manner that it’s cult car status nowadays would have you believe. The point being: styling evolves and it’s best to keep that in mind with the current cars as much as with cult cars like the 900.
– Re diesels: it’s mentioned that the 9-5 will get a variant of the new diesel announced during the Geneva show. As far as the US market is concerned – never say never.
– On a personal note, JWV’s recently traded the family SUV for an 04 9-5 SportCombi, joking that he took note of the data that Mike gathered on the load-bearing capacity of the Saab SportCombis vs that of your price-competitive SUVs. He’s now enjoying around 10mpg more than what he was before, explaining to his daughter that it’s like getting 80 free miles per tank.
Thos of you that haven’t already seen it may also like to take a peek at an email interview I did last year with Saab USA Head Honcho, Jay Spenchian. It also covers many of these topics and a few others as well and given that some time has passed since it was done (Sept 06), it’s an interesting read in retrospect.