Should the M3 be more like a Saab?

Yeah, I’m getting worked up today.

One of the incredibly frustrating things about being a Saab fan is knowing that they’ve got the foundations there for brilliant automobiles but knowing at the same time that the potential they have is only going to be realised with some serious commitment and development work.

Saab have been making turbocharged vehicles for years. They did it at the small end where you could get the power of a six cylinder engine combined with the economy of a four. This gave their smaller-than-average cars extreme character and likeability and further developed the cult following that Saabs have enjoyed for some time.

The problem? The company never got big enough that their corporate parent would seriosuly invest in developing their potential. That doesn’t just go for GM, either. Investor AB relied purely on organic growth as well. It really is quite amazing that Saab are still around.

Fast forward to 2006 and BMW finally reacquires the turbo bug that Saab have been mastering for years. As a result, BMW’s twin turbo 335i is universally acclaimed for it’s broad torque delivery and over all performance.

Skip ahead another year to right now, and we have the new M3. CAR Magazine got to have a drive in Spain recently and have been pushing it HARD in their electronic literature. But just a week after the initial afterglow has faded, questions are starting to emerge….

This from The Truth About Cars.

On paper, it’s just not that impressive. It costs $60 large (when all’s said and done), tips the scales at 3600 lbs. and summons those braggadocios 420 horses by stretching to a Honda-like 8300 rpm. Where’s the torque?

…..the twin-turbo straight six-powered 335i lurking in the background looks like the real deal killer. The 335i’s got less horsepower than the new M3, but it’s far more usable at the same exact fighting weight. The 335i will also save you some $15k

And they’re not the only ones.

CAR Magazine themselves were left feelig a little flat about the whole thing, though you got the impression they dare not so say so in such plain terms.

Funny, ain’t it? It’s taken the hotly anticipated performance king of every journos favourite marque to make them appreciate just how much of an advantage can be provided by a well set-up turbocharger.

Expect 335i sales to soar as a result.

And expect some Saab executives to be scratching their heads as they try and figure out how to convince their current parent company to invest in them.

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15 Comments

  1. saab should have been emphasizing how they are the masters of turbocharging and all the other innovations that other brands are just now starting to use. instead of trying to prove tell us that the cars are jets on the ground, they should have been educating the consumer.

  2. Mo, Swade made a good point in a previous posting. GM isn’t really alotting Saab a whole lot of money on advertising, so it doesn’t help when they want, and need, a new advertising campaign. Let’s hope it changes soon, huh?

  3. IMHO the more the 335i steals sales from the M3, the less likely BMW will continue its experiment in turbocharging — one can’t have the base model steal sales from the high margin performance model, after all.

    It’ll be interesting to see how BMW deals with this situation.

  4. I think that SAAB USA feel the “Born From Jets” campaign is an unmitigated success.

    In February, then head of SAAB USA Jay Spenchian told a group of journalists that the BFJ campaign is extremely successful and is a very recognizable slogan. I forget the exact number, but in a recent poll respondents had placed it something like sixth in recognizable automotive slogans, some of which have been around for decades, like “Chevy: Like a Rock”.

    From anecdotal evidence I’ve read on the internet it’s not as well received. Everyone admits jets are cool, but most cynical people ask what SAABs have to do with jets anymore.

    Though BFJ has been successful in defining the SAAB brand, I don’t know that it sells cars. However, the flip side of that is that I don’t think by pointing out that SAAB were the first company to use turbochargers on a wide-scale would make anyone buy a SAAB over a Bimmer. The likely rebuttal: “so?” Just because you innovated something doesn’t mean you’re the best in the world at it anymore (though I think SAAB is, in the case of turbocharging).

    If it were me, how would I market SAAB? The perfect driver’s car. Fun and comfortable on the roads within legal speed limits. Will it beat a Bimmer on the track? Probably not. Would it be more comfortable and enjoyable in traffic on the freeway? Most definitely. Would it have better acceleration at the most common speeds you drive every day (between 40 mph and 70 mph)? Sure.

    SAAB=safe, smart, and practical but also FUN.

  5. Greg: what you write brings to mind the case of the Porsche Cayman S. From what I read when Porsche was first testing the Cayman, which is meant as a model to slot between the Boxster and 911 price-wise they found that the Cayman meets and sometimes exceeds the performance of the much more expensive 911. Obviously this is not good. So their solution was to de-tune the Cayman.

    Presumably one could buy a Cayman, chip it, add some performance mods, and outperform a base level (whatever that means) 911 from a performance standpoint on the cheap!

    Could BMW purposely de-tune the 335i? Probably, but I’m sure the tuning community would quickly figure out how to remedy that.

  6. Another, very local, version of this story is Ford Performance Vehicles here in Oz. They have a 290kW V8 model called the GT. It is an iconic nameplate with 40 years of history and has always been a V8. FORD/FPV released a turbo I6 that comes in 240/270kW versions. Although capable of much more, the I6 versions have been hamstrung so as not to overshadow the V8 equivalents. Regardless they still outperform the V8s anyway and are more highly regarded as performance machines while the V8s are more the tourer. Both models manage to be popular anyway but the I6T is more popular with the aftermarket as it is easily boosted. I imagine BMW is trying to walk the fine line with a bet both ways.

  7. Well, I doubt that BMW could detune the 335i now, given that the HP and torque figures are already public.

    My guess is that 335i prices will go up so they’re getting the same margin as the M3.

    And the next revision of the 335i will not be turbocharged (but the M3 might be).

  8. Wow, I just looked at the feedback on the Truth About Cars article. I’ve never seen so much negative feedback about a BMW, especially an M3. Good to see that BMW isn’t invincible after all:-)

  9. Ted Y, nobody is invincible. The moment you start being arrogant is the moment you start sliding deep, down, under. Just ask the General. 😉

  10. Damn, I go on holiday for a week and when I get back back someone has rearranged the furniture…

    With the M3, BMW are struggling with Saabs biggest problem – weight of expectation. They also made an error in deciding they had to make a car with a V8, because Audi had a V8. Once you let the competiton set the goal posts you have lost the game. The 335i should have been the basis new M3.

    First lesson for Saab, dont make an M3. BMW have been doing it for years and still they made a mess of it. Stick to making Saabs. We appreciate them even if no-one else does.

  11. I recently picked up a 335i in Munich (Euro delivery is the only way to go for BMW, SAAB, whatever) and it is a fabulous engine. BMW is committed (for now) to keeping the engine at 3.0L I6, but somehow they needed to compete with Nissans/Infinitis that will soon offer the G37 with 330HP. IMO the horsepower wars are stupid given fuel costs but whatever.

    The problem of course is that the competition is pushing BMW to put their mainstream sedan right in the neighborhood of the performance version (thus the bigger engine) and unless the M3 offers super car performance (and pricing) it’s too costly to justify the extra expenditure over a 335i, particularly again when you consider fuel pricing. Eventually the 135i may end up being what the M3 used to be – a stripped down small sports car with large power/weight ratio. I also can’t wait to see what SAAB does with the “black turbo” and new 9-5 now that XWD removes some of their very own power constraints.

  12. Not to mention e30 M3s were 4 cylinders while the 326is had a straight 6. Not M definitely outperformed the 325, although the 6 had better curved and more potential. If you’re going to make a top and an even higher than top model then you don’t want the lower model to be constantly beating the highest model with slight midifications, not to mention having more potential to beat the highest if both are modified.
    We know it works for the highest model to have less cylinders (although today people want cylinders/displacement) and the 6 is turbocharged vs the 8 is na, so the 6 already has the upper hand on mods(where the old na-4 vs na-6 bimmers were even). But I guess people think more cylinders = better. Shit, Saab has a V6 turbo below the I-4 turbo Aero!

  13. Jon’s post above urges SAAB not to play BMW’s silly horsepower wars game and to stick with what they know.

    Then the very next comment down from jc_atl can’t wait to see what the Black Turbo can do now that they have XWD and no power constraints.

    Two differing views, but I believe SAAB is finally giving-in after years of doing it their own way. SAAB is a corporation whose sole purpose is to make money (I’m not stating this as a “knock”, I’m stating it as fact). The product they’ve offered for years has not been profitable. They were stubborn and decided to “make their own road” for years, insisting that FWD is all anyone should really ever need, refusing until now to offer AWD.

    I think what we’ve seen with SAAB in recent years is a decision to do things differently than they have in the past. They learned from market research in the U.S. (their biggest market) that coupes (two-doors) don’t sell. They learned that “hatchback” is seen as a bad thing (cheap) in the U.S. So they decided to offer only sedans and wagons (in their car lineup). After years of holding-out in making an SUV they were finally forced to make one and guess what? It’s extremely profitable.

    After years of refusing to play the horsepower game they finally adopted a V6 engine and AWD so that their performance model will likely output around 310 bhp.

    Why am I pointing out all the things we’ve already discussed? I want to show that SAAB has finally given-in and are now building the cars they think will sell, not the cars they think SHOULD sell.

    I love the “old” SAAB, but I don’t see that the company can go on forever drowning in red ink. They need to start making the cars people want to buy, not just the cars I want to buy. I’m the first to admit I’m in the minority as to what I expect from a SAAB.

    SAAB has to make money or it’s doomed. I think they’re on the right path to becoming very profitable in the near future (within the next five years or so). Long live SAAB!

  14. Gripen, I like the V6 and the awd and I want a progressive company. I don’t mind the 9-7 and I think the 9-3 is not right for a hatchback. That is whay I said that one of Saabs biggest drawbacks is weight of expectation and fans get critical when they dont get what they want.
    However targeting certain models like the M3 is not the way to do it – what I am saying is that I would never say “a Saab cannot have a V8”, however I would question what a V8 does for Saab.

    I am not against performance but look at the heavily promoted Caparo T1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caparo_T1

    Look at how the car concentrates on power to weight. This is not the whole answer but I think Saab need to really look at their avaition heritage and look at how to build smarter cars.

    I dont see you as in a minority Gripen and my views are probably quite close to yours but as far as environment performance and marketing are concerned weight is the elephant in the room that no-one can see.

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