The latest news, published at Just-Auto.com, says that the Opel factory in Russelsheim will begin producing it’s first Saabs in 2008. Whilst Autoblog are claiming that it’s possibly the final development that’ll send Saab diehards over the edge, those of you that have been following Saab’s fortunes over the last few years shouldn’t be surprised at all.
Around 18 months ago, General Motors made several factories bid for the right to produce Saab’s next generation 9-3 and 9-5 motor vehicles.
The Trollhattan plant was in the running, as was the Russelsheim plant. There’s a number of theories as to why the Russelsheim plant won the new job. Firstly, it’s much bigger and with a much bigger workforce. One theory is that GM wanted to avoid the consequences (i.e. worker/union backlash) of not awarding the production there. Another theory states that when GM benchmarked the two facilities, Russelsheim had shown a superior efficiency gain in recent times – which some have attributed to the fact that Trollhattan had made it’s efficiency gains years prior when GM tightened the purse strings. They had little more to clean up in comparison.
Of course, it may just be that Russelsheim was better equipped to handle the expected higher volumes of Epsilon II traffic.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Saabs are going to be produced in Germany. I don’t like it any more than you do, but the wheels are in motion and in the absence of a targetted earthquake that causes no casualties but levels the Russelsheim plant there’s little we can do but lump it.
But that little we can do is, I believe, meaningful.
That little we can do is try to ensure that GM understand the importance of Trollhattan to Saab. I’ve never been there, but in 60 days or so I will be there, and I want to try and come to understand exactly what the city means to the company and vice versa. What its Swedish heritage means to Saab.
GM didn’t just buy a brand when it bought Saab, back in 2000. It bought a company with a very distinct heritage, an identifiable automotive soul and an educated (and opinionated) customer base. It bought a company that designed and built cars based on a deliberate notion of form following function. A company that punched well above it’s weight in terms of both innovation and execution. A company that’s contributing a hell of a lot of technology and know-how to GM’s current alternative fuel strategy.
GM need to understand that Saab belong in Sweden. And if one GM employee replies to me that they’ll be retaining a “brand centre” there then I’ll out that person for the spinmeister they are.
I can’t believe that GM wouldn’t have a handle on the damage that the 9-2x and 9-7x have done to Saab’s brand image in the United States. Both were fine vehicles, finished to differing standards of Saab-ness, but both have launched a tirade of ridicule in the automotive press that’ll take considerable time AND adherance to heritage to overcome. The 9-2x and 9-7x have brought some new customers to Saab showrooms and for that we should all be thankful. But the damage they did is also measurable.
If GM dismiss public forums and blogs as measures of public opinion then they do so at their own peril. Go to any recent post about Saab at Autoblog and you’ll see a stream of comments snarking about Saaburus and Trollblazers. Some of these people were never likely candidates to own a Saab anyway, but many people that read them quite possibly are.
The point of all this?
Yes, you can manufacture Saabs successfully in places other than Sweden. Saab themselves did it for years. Of the six Saabs I’ve owned over the years, three of them were manufactured outside Sweden. Saab’s iconic convertible is made in Austria and has been for a number of years. It can be done.
But the base has to be in Sweden. It’s a Swedish brand and this heritage, this point of difference is one of Saab’s strong points. How many successful motor vehicle companies no longer have a manufacturing presence in their home country?
Just-Auto’s business blog writer, David Leggett, makes a few good points:
BMW can make cars in the US because they are still blessed with BMW values and most BMWs are made in Germany. It has the brand strength to get away with that, but BMW knows that it’s a balancing act. Only a minority of cars will ever be made outside of Germany.
Chevrolet, on the other hand, is doing well for GM as a global value brand. Chevrolet customers – outside North America – look at the sticker price on what used to be a Daewoo and aren’t overly concerned about where the cars are made.
Chevrolets, in this sense, are a commodity product.
But a Saab isn’t and there’s just a danger that GM is sending the baby out with the bathwater in deciding to make most Saabs in Germany. The accountants may have good reasons for what has been decided, but if I were a manager at GM Europe, I’d be moving heaven and earth to reshuffle the deck so that Trollhattan will be making more Saabs than Russelsheim.
I wonder what Saab’s dealers make of it all and whether GM has listened to them?
In the next few years, GM will have to decide where Saab’s new, smaller vehicle will be made. The 9-3 and 9-5 are being moved to Germany and the upcoming 9-4x is strongly tipped to be produced in Mexico. The place of manufacture for the “9-1” will quite possibly determine whether or not GM can truthfully call Saab a Swedish brand anymore. There’s encouraging news on this front just this morning, with Jan-Ake Jonsson saying that it’s likely it will be built in Trollhattan, alongside a new generation Astra (thanks cj). I’d feel more certain about this if it were coming from Carl-Peter Forster as a definite decision, though.
Heaven help Saab if they get it wrong.