Saab USA – Here I go again….

There’s a few articles doing the rounds today that brought me to think about the US market, how complex it is and Saab’s role in it. This needs to be put in context, though, as I’m writing this after having just come from a visit to Europe, where the new Saab 9-3 will have no less than 10 engine variants in several markets.

As far as gasoline engines go, there’s the 1.8i, the 1.8t, the 1.8t BioPower, the 2.0t, the 2.0t BioPower, the 2.0T and the 2.8 V6. Then there’s three diesel variants, an 8v 1.9 TiD, a 16v 1.9 TiD and the new 1.9 TTiD.

In the US, you can have the 2.0T and the 2.8 V6. And that’s it. Sure, the US wouldn’t want the 1.8i (who does, really?) and even the 1.8t is questionable. The 2.0t is a possible entry level powerplant, though, and we’ve been hearing promises about BioPower since Adam was a boy in short pants. As for diesel, well, let’s have a look, shall we?

My whole point in writing this is that the new TTiD is so good that I reckon it’d definitely find a market in the US. It produces 180hp but more importantly a whopping 400Nm of torque. The twin-turbo setup provides for great response and smooth acceleration and the twin exhaust out the back gives it an absolutely brilliant note when you hit the gas. It still sounds like a tractor at idle, but on the go it’s a brilliant machine. Furthermore, it uses just 5.9 litres of fuel per 100 kilometers (compared to 10.2 for the V6) and emits just 159grams of CO2 per kilometer (compared to 245 grams for the V6) – see note below.

We’ve been told that the rub on diesel is that it won’t meet increasingly stringent US emissions standards and it would be too costly to modify it to do so.

My first question is – what are those emissions standards we keep hearing about and how come Bentley can sell a Continental there that gets about half a mile to the gallon when Saab can’t sell a 40+ mpg diesel? I’m sure it isn’t because the Bentley emits pure Himalayan spring water from its tailpipe.

Navigating the EPA website almost gives me grounds to allow Saab a pass on this. For starters, when you look through their Air Pollution Scores for MY2007 Small Cars, you can see that the aforementioned Bentley GTC 12 cylinder vehicle is classified as a Subcompact car, along with the Chevy Cobalt, VW Beetle, Toyota Yaris and Honda Civic. How are you supposed to make sense of a department that does this?

Confusion about classifications aside, what exactly are those emissions standards? Well, the EPA site was of limited assistance, so I turned to the post-secondary student’s ever-present guide and mentor – Wikipedia. Looking up emissions standards there, I found the following:

Currently, vehicles sold in the United States must meet “Tier II” standards that went into effect in 2004. “Tier II” standards are currently being phased in—a process that should be complete by 2009. Within the Tier II ranking, there is a subranking ranging from BIN 1-10, with 1 being the cleanest (Zero Emission vehicle) and 10 being the dirtiest. The former Tier 1 standards that were effective from 1994 until 2003 were different between automobiles and light trucks (SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans), but Tier II standards are the same for both types.

A common measurement system for American standards is the somewhat confusing mixed-standard unit of grams per mile.

There are several ratings that can be given to vehicles. A certain percentage of the cars produced by major manufacturers must meet these different levels in order for the company to sell their products in affected regions.

OK, so if this is accurate, the problem may not lie solely in the emissions from the TTiD, for example. The problem may be exposed in this sentence: A certain percentage of the cars produced by major manufacturers must meet these different levels in order for the company to sell their products in affected regions.

I’m still trying to get my head around this stuff, so if anyone’s got the inside running and a clear explanation, then please let me know.

But what it looks like is that there isn’t one set minimum number that they have to meet, per se. Companies have an option of offering vehicles at differing emissions levels and overall they have to offer a certain amount at one level, and a certain amount at another, etc etc, and the total fleet available for sale must balance.

And somehow a car like the TTiD can’t fit into their plans? Have a look at those numbers again. It outpoints the V6, which is offered in the US, on both mileage and CO2 emissions output. There may be some other emissions info we’re missing here, such as NOx emissions, etc, but on the face of it the TTiD seems to best the V6 in both important categories and yet I’m sure Saab USA isn’t going to phase the V6 out.

GM does seem willing to invest in diesels as long as they’re big ones. Edmunds reports that GM are planning a 4.5 litre Duramax diesel for use in it’s Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra and Hummer FU vehicles. If you’re big you get the dollars. If you’re small you don’t and screw the potential upside…..

….at your own peril.

One of the things that I’ve consistently pushed in recent times is that with Saturn taking on more and more of Opel’s product for the US market, the economies of scale should be there for investment in whatever it takes for the 1.9 TiD engine to make financial sense. The addition of the TTiD setup and the extra performance it provides (and the appeal it would have in the US market) make this case even stronger.

The Car Connection report that 2010 is the most likely year that will see a real breakout for diesels in the US. Several manufacturers will be there well before that, however, and those who are established in the market first will definitely reap a reward.

Here’s an automotive dealership owner (11 different lots) as quoted in Autoblog Green today:

In May, sales of hybrid cars and trucks in the United States were up about 88 percent over the year-ago month, while overall sales were up 5.0 percent. Although hybrids accounted for only about 2.8 percent of the U.S. market in May, it is a good indication that consumers want cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars than the Detroit 3 are offering.

As the largest hybrid dealership in Maine, we sell foreign cars that get 45 to 60 mpg and pollute very little. They are more expensive than nonhybrids, but consumers are willing to pay for them.

The winds are changing and not in favour of super-huge barges, regardless of the great new diesel engine you’ve developed for it. Have a look which companies are growing worldwide and what they offer. I’m not suggeting that we all take the Japanese lead, but when the one thing you’re constantly trying to push is high-margin SUV’s to one particular market then maybe it’s time to shift your focus.

If there’s one argument in favour of GM handing Saab off to a more appropriate owner, it’s that the company philosophies seem to be at odds. I’m definitely not an advocate of that happening, by the way. I’d rather see Saab shape more of GM’s philosophy. You might think that’s a case of the tail wagging the dog, but Saab are already taking the lead on turbocharging, E85 and now XWD systems accross GM’s portfolio.

I just wish GM would give Saab a better chance of succeeding in the US market and really showing what it could do. Thankfully there’s evidence of that happening in Europe, but whether it’ll filter through to the US is the big question. And if it doesn’t, then who’s answerable – GM or SaabUSA?

Hopefully there might be some encouraging news come August, when SaabUSA will debut the new 9-3. Fingers crossed.


Note – the figures I quoted for emissions and mileage were for the 2008 model as provided by Saab. The EPA figures talk in grams per mile and use some numbers so low it’s hard to see how any modern Saab could possibly comply, so I’m a little confused on this and think that something’s being lost in translation.

I checked the Saab USA website to see if I could get some US-specific emissions data for the current 2007 model 9-3, but couldn’t find it published there.

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  1. I agree. The 9-3 needs more engine choices than just the 2.0T and the V6.

    What about a 2.0T BioPower?
    SaabUSA needs to ask GM corporate to let them sell the BioPower models AND the diesel. It doesn’t have to be the TTiD, but just the TiD for starters should be fine, to test the waters, with the TTiD coming later.

  2. Oh please don’t get me started on diesels. There should be more offerings in the US – and not just Saab.

    If people had the choice – why wouldn’t you take the diesel car that gets better mileage and gives off less emissions?

  3. Well, you may want to watch “Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)” to get a better idea of what goes on here in the good old USA – kind of an interesting look at the industry that is the gasoline engine. And you have to remember – up until a few years ago gasoline was under $2.00 a gallon and nobody really cared about all these alternative fuel vehicles. Now it is a pretty serious concern to all drivers.

    Honda is releasing a small displacement diesel in its 2008 (or 2009) Accord and cancelled the hybrid model due to poor sales. The Toyota Prius may be king now, but you can give me a diesel any day of the week over an over-designed gasoline electric vehicle.

  4. I think the 9-5 would be a better car for a diesel here. And preferably a diesel V6 with power equal to the current engine and better torque and fuel efficiency.

  5. Now you’ve done it — you’ve hit one of my hot buttons.

    First off, realize that there are relatively few truly ‘stringent’ ABSOLUTE standards for gasoline engine emissions. There are absolute standards, but the CAFE-style ‘corporate averages’ are generally the harder standards to meet. Thus, if you sell 50 zero emissions vehicles, you can sell 50 belchers and the average gets you by. Affected areas are a red herring in this case as far as I’m concerned since you may drive a car anywhere in the country, so why do we have certain areas (California, I’m talking about YOU) that have differing standards? Nonsensical.

    Second: The really big vehicles (Hummer, Excursion, et al) are governed as trucks, not cars. Therefore, they are subject to a different standard. They really shouldn’t be.

    Third: In considering standards for diesel cars, someone somewhere settled on ‘best available control technology’ (BACT — a time-honored EPA tradition) without concern for COST. That is, some tree-hugging government wonk got his Earth-saving way on this and it scared everyone away. There are only four or five diesel cars available in the US as a result.

    Fourth: The cars are classified by some combination of interior volume and cargo volume. By that measure, the Bentley likely qualifies as a subcompact, which, if memory serves, is one of the larger classifications anyway. Again, for those of you Saab fans, at least for a while, the 9-3 and 9-5 shared the same size classification from the US government, just another reason that the 9-5 doesn’t sell here.

    Why is it like this? Politicians.

    The liberals pounce on any move to losen the diesel regulations because they are ‘saving the planet’, and the conservatives are not going to regulate the SUVs out of existence — too unpopular. It all boils down to votes.

    Personally, I think the whole thing is screwed up.

  6. Oh, and for you holier-than-thou Euros ready to poke fun at the cretin Americans, I’ll remind you that using engine displacement to classify automobile size is equally as arbitrary. It works for emissions regulations better than interior volume, but it means almost nothing when it comes to safety regulations, taxation, etc.

    Really, you should have multiple measures for varying regulations.

  7. I think sulfur, which causes acid rain, and particulates, which causes asthma and lung cancer, are the main reasons that diesel is having a tough time passing emissions testing. (All that black smoke!)

    The technology exists to pass the requirements so if the benefits of driving a diesel powered vehicle are there, then the public should be able to support the premium required to produce the vehicle the same way the public supports the premium for a hybrid vehicle. It is up to the manufacturers to brainwash, I mean market, the technology.

    It will be a tough sell though because people don’t like the noise or the smell of diesel. I for one loath being near diesel powered vehicles. New ones aren’t as bad, but I can still smell them on the road.

  8. Hi All,

    My 2 cents worth. The only real future i see for diesel is use of Bio Diesel.

    Fossil based Diesel, while the new engines reduce emissions to bring them under regs, is still more toxic to humans than petrol even though it may be a little more friendly to the atmos.

    I’m not sure whether the new diesel engines can use Bio without wrecking them but this needs to happen before i would consider it viable.

    As for the electric car. Read into it a little further than the conspiracy theory and you’ll see there was no future for these particular cars with the tech they employed. They were just not practicle. Perhaps when battery tech improves enough…

  9. I’d like to point out that the point of the giant Silverados/Sierras is to work, and that’s why GM gives them giant diesels. They need them. Ignore the Hummer, we all know how idiotic Hummers are.

    As far as the SUV’s go, most of the larger SUV’s are being phased out in favor of CUV’s, since they sell better and are less obnoxious.

    Look, it doesn’t matter how great the TTiD is, it’s still a diesel, and Americans don’t like diesel cars. It’s just part of our mentality. Obviously we’re not the most rational people, or we’d all drive Saabs :p

  10. yet another example of inefficient government regulation being anti-competitive.

    the best products should win and the consumer should be given the final choice. nothing should stand in the way of that.

  11. I have a friend, he is a engineer of vehicle engines and owner of a well equipped garage (different diagnostic computeres, scopes, gas analyser, etc.) a real “hardcore” technical guy started his practice almost 40 years ago. He told me, that even if we don’t realize, pulling up the cars performance has always it’s price: the emission. And the main problem is not the amount of emitted CO2 but some other harmful gas components which are more difficult to measure. Especially, NOx.
    He also mentioned, that any performance related mods (like ECU upgrades) should increase the NOx emission significantly.
    Could it be the problem with Saabs relatively small volume but high power engines?

  12. Ivan: Yes. The hotter the combustion, the more NOx. However, that’s taken care of by the catalytic converter.

    Brian L has it right. Sulfur in the diesel fuel (which is absent in gasoline) and particulates are the issue.

    However, biodiesel has as much or more particulate emissions. They are more benign, but they are still there.

  13. Saab tried in the past to sell “lesser” engines in North America, but that strategy didn’t fly. I think that consumers here realize that the only difference between a 1.8t and a 2.0T is a few lines of computer code, and they feel ripped-off if they don’t get the performance that they pay for.
    Europe is different in that there can be major tax externalities involved when buying crippled engines. You will notice that the fuel consumption differences between the various 4 cyl. engines are minimal, and can probably be explained by the larger tires and extra equipment on the more powerful cars.

    Contrary to popular belief, US emissions standards are much more strict than European ones. The US standards are especially hard on Nox and particle emissions, which are major contributors to urban smog and respiratory problems. Diesel’s are especially bad for both of these pollutants, so it’s no surprise that manufacturers are struggling to make engines that are clean enough to sell here.

    EU standards are harder on CO2, which is directly related to fuel consumption. It’s a societal choice, but I for one would much rather breathe the air coming out of a US-spec car than a EU car.

  14. I personally love diesels. I had a 1979 M-B 300D (non-turbo) and thoroughly loved that car. Even with only about 90 hp for that big car, the torque made it accelerate like a freight train, and I was getting 30 mpg. If you remember back to the early 80’s. the US loved diesels as about 80% of all M-B’s sold were one. BMW, Peugeot, VW, Toyota, Audi, Ford (with the BMW TD), and GM were all into it. It was GM’s pathetic attempt that ruined the US on diesel. They were loud, slow and totally unreliable. Then the gas crisis was over and everyone but M-B and VW bowed out. Now we have Honda, Subaru, Hyundai, Nissan and others bringing diesel back to the States, so why not SAAB? Obviously, others see this as gap in the market needing to be filled. I would sign up for a new 9-3 SC XWD TTiD tomorrow if they were available.

  15. As of Jan 1, 2007, the US went to low-sulfer (or lowER-sulfer) diesel, which is (finally) of similar quality as Euro diesel. This makes any diesel engine produce less particulate, among other nasty little things. Hopefully this will help pave the way to put diesels back in the US consumer market by making it easier to meet emissions standards. However, because Saab is such a small brand, it’s never going to be Saab who brings back the diesel. Let’s not forget that the bean counters in Detroit aren’t even going to let them try.

    I’d much rather drive a diesel VW rabbit/etc AND get better gas mileage, than drive a Prius. I mean, come on mate, have a bit of class!

    If we cast our memory back, we’ll recall that the US was plagued by a rash of horrible, diesel engined cars (mostly from GM) in the late 70’s and early 80’s. There were huge problems with these cars and trucks. Some were owner maintenance related issues, some were just poor quality (this is the time when Toyota, Honda, etc. began to hammer Detroit in the quality department). This argument about the reasons for the demise of the diesel still happens in Detroit today. Whatever the root-cause, these vehicles soured the US car-buying public to diesels. They just haven’t been interested since (unless you want to buy an enormous pickup).

    When US consumers think diesel, they think of trucks (lorries) and trains, not sub-compact cars.

    Unfortunately, Saab’s not going to be the one to change this. Dam bean-counters.

  16. Bernhard has the point.

    Btw, what I can not understand about this Diesel-hype in Europa is that regarding Nm figures they do impress people but a patrol driven car is still faster from 0-60mpH. Despite less Nm.

    Only reccently I was sitting in a Mercedes E class Diesel taxi. The computer read 9.8l Diesel oel for 100km.
    One the way back I got a Prius hybrid taxi. Same time (airport to city and back) for the trip but only 5.2l patrol for 100km. For me this does show a huge technological gap, doesn´t it?

    And as A.T. Kearney and AVL Consulting company show, Diesel cars have not the future some people may see. Todays 50% market share in Europe may drop to around 25% in 2020 due to Tiers2Bin5 in the US by 2008 that sets the bench mark and EURO VI in 2014.

  17. Also, if the Autoblog posting “GM announces new 4.5L V8 Duramax diesel for half-ton trucks and HUMMER H2” Jun 15th 2007 3:49PM is anything to go by, GM announced a small block diesel for use in its trucks, and opened this up to passenger cars by saying it has “the flexibility to introduce this engine in a wide variety of vehicle applications should there be future market demand.” If they are getting this engine ready for the US market, how difficult would it be to get the TTiD ready as well?

  18. Swade – The EPA figures that look impossibly small are for Carbon Monoxide grams per mile I think, not Carbon Dioxide.

  19. My dealer friend mentioned to me that the BioPower models are set to run on ethanol only, that these models cannot run on gasoline AT ALL! That’s why they’ll never make any sort of impression in the US. Swade, any way you can concur?

  20. Dan, sounds like your dealer friend is quite misinformed. If that were the case then Saab USA would have to have their head read for introducing it as no-one would buy it.

    The beauty of BioPower is a) it’s flexfuel – the Trionic system reads the fuel mix and adjusts automatically, and b) through the use of turbocharging it delivers better performance (power, torque), which non-turbo flexfuel cars don’t get.

  21. “what are those emissions standards we keep hearing about and how come Bentley can sell a Continental there that gets about half a mile to the gallon when Saab can’t sell a 40+ mpg diesel?”

    Unlike in other countries the U.S. measures the gross emissions from the car, not “per mile” or “per kilometer”. The gasoline-powered Bentley Continental produces much less gross NOx (oxides of nitrogen) than a diesel automobile. In order for a diesel auto to be sold in the U.S. it has to have a gross NOx emission equal to that of a gasoline-powered car. The U.S. federal gov’t does not yet regulate carbon dioxide emissions, though the EPA recently lost an important legal case where they were trying to argue that CO2 isn’t really a “pollutant” per se so they don’t have jurisdiction to regulate it. The EPA does not want to be part of the solution, apparently. They are fighting mandates to regulate passenger vehicle CO2 emissions in court. So far they’ve lost, but they’re dragging their feet. There’s little chance they’ll stop doing so before the current Administration leaves office in January 2009.

    “when you look through their Air Pollution Scores for MY2007 Small Cars, you can see that the aforementioned Bentley GTC 12 cylinder vehicle is classified as a Subcompact car… How are you supposed to make sense of a department that does this?”

    You can’t. But that’s big gov’t bureaucracy. What can the “little guy” do about this? We didn’t vote the EPA administrators to office. I don’t even know who they are or how they get the job. I’m guessing they’re Presidential appointees. The domestic auto manufacturers have such a stranglehold on politicians through campaign donations and lobbying that the politicians figure “what’s good for GM is good for the country”. I’m guessing the gas-guzzling Bentley somehow found some obscure loophole left in legislation written by an auto industry lawyer and forced into a bill by the politician they bought. Sort of how the huge GMC Yukon SUV supposedly gets 33 mpg on ethanol for CAFE calculation purposes (it actually gets 17 combined mpg on gasoline and 10 mpg on E85)…

    The reason large vehicles are getting diesels are because the emissions standards applicable to passenger vehicles (cars) aren’t applicable to vehicles above a certain weight, like pickup trucks and large SUVs like the Hummer. This is because the federal gov’t doesn’t want to screw the little guy, like the owner of a construction contracting business. In fact, anyone can get a huge tax credit for buying a large gas-guzzling SUV! It was supposedly intended to exempt large “service vehicles”, but is largely abused. Small business owners can buy a Hummer and get a big tax credit for it.

    It makes no sense and is VERY frustrating, but there’s really nothing anyone can do, like most political issues. The corporations and politicians are so closely aligned that it’s the consumer who suffers. It’s all about who’s giving who the money. “You scratch my back by giving me campaign contributions so I get elected and I’ll be indebted to you when that new CAFE legislation comes up for vote. What’s good for GM is good for GM’s employees, who are my constituents. Increased CAFE standards or regulation of CO2 would increase the costs of auto manufacture and be a hardship for the auto manufacturers”…

    Swade, for SAAB-specific emissions info check out the U.S. EPA’s website at:

    It lists emissions details as well as fuel economy.

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