Autoweek 9-3 Review – Part II

The main thrust of the Autoweek 9-3 review was, naturally, about the car. You can read my thoughts on that here.

But there was another part to this review. A discussion of the iconoclastic nature of Saabs and the people who buy them.

I’ll confess that whilst my vocabulary is quite reasonable, the word iconoclast was one I haven’t had to use in my 37-odd years. So if you’re wondering about it, it means one who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition. An iconoclastic person is one that rebels, is non-conformist. A dissenter or a radical.

Does the shoe fit?

Saab definitely fit this description in their early days. Front wheel drive alone was enough to have you classed as a dissenter, let alone two-stroke engines and the development of turbocharging or sticking with smaller, utilitarian cars.

But does the shoe still fit?

Our Autoweek reviewer, Dutch Mandel addresses the issue of Saab’s unique nature. Warning: use of the ‘Q’ word ahead.

As Saab relished its individuality—hell, let’s call a herring a herring: its quirkiness—the preferred transport of global iconoclasts has never stood alongside other European contenders. Now it can sit at the big table with everyone else.

Don’t scoff at individuality as Saab’s draw and drawback. Last year, the company sold just 35,000 cars in the United States…….

By Saab’s definition, Cadillac is in the “upper-conservative segment.” Saab’s global customers are well-educated, well-informed professionals with annual income of $155,000. They live in modern households, and their belief systems accept fair and equal rights; they are active, authentic, often described as original and honest. They respect the environment and are nonconformist. Saab believes 12 to 15 percent of the car-buying public is iconoclastic.

If the potential market is that large, Saab is still not selling enough cars. And that has had to do with the product and the message. In its 60 years, Saab has undergone profound personality changes. It cut its teeth in motorsports, proving its mettle on the world-rally circuit. But in 1981, there was a nuclear winter of sorts, and Saab’s motorsports department, as famous Saab racer Erik Carlsson did, went on its roof and closed for business.

Saab pursued a different tack with small-displacement turbo-engine development that gave its cars and its company performance with a purpose and a cause: developing small engines to produce more power using smaller amounts of natural resources. At least, that’s how the changes were justified in the boardroom of public opinion.

That approach has taken nearly 30 years to take root, but the new 9-3 shows the roots are firm.

Indeed, turbocharging probably is the most tangible link to Saab’s glorious past.

The Saab 9-5 represented a small move to the mainstream when it came. It was a sedan rather than a hatch. It wasn’t Saab’s first sedan by a long shot, but it was the first time that I can think of that the sedan was the focal point of the model range. Although a wagon came shortly thereafter, it still represented another small step toward the mainstream.

It was only one of many such steps, however. The step from suicide doors to front-hinged doors. The step from a fully enclosed rear to one with a trunk lid. The step from two stroke to four stroke.

There’s many such steps in Saab’s history and they’ve all been necessary or desirable for one reason or another. Despite them, or sometime because of them, the company was always able to build a car with that particular Saab DNA to it.

The little Sven the Saab booklet told no lies. The Aeroplane really was the parent to the vehicle back in those days and the heritage permeated through the entire vehicle. It wasn’t an attempt to make them like an aviator would. It’s just that that’s what they did.

Today, there’s still a local connection in Trollhattan with the aviation industry. But it’s an informal one. Families will share a heritage in the various arms of the company, or with Volvo aero who share a boundary fence with Saab in Trollhattan. The formal design, manufacturing and decision-making connections are gone and it’s inevitable that this would flow through to the cars.

Today’s Saabs are safer, more reliable, quieter, faster, more economical per unit of power and much cleaner. In most instances they cost quite a bit less in real terms that many Saabs of old as well (see ref 1, below).

But are the cars as engaging? Do they create the same heartfelt connection with the owner? I guess that’ll vary from person to person.

——

With that in mind, what about the buyers?

Dutch’s profile is an interesting one and I know someone out there is earning a fair clip of money to make up for my shortfall on the $155,000 average. The rest of the profile is pretty accurate. It’s written about new-car buyers, but I think it probably applies to enthusiast second-hand car buyers as well. The ones that support and preserve the history and heritage of the brand.

The one thing that I consistently note about Saab owners is that they deliberately choose their cars. Owners of many brands can be reliably assumed to have bought a car because of reputation or rumour. Saab owners tend to have experienced a Saab somewhere in the past and the experience has prompted them to find out more.

It’d be interesting reading if there were a word-of-mouth or a previous-experience index out there for car buyers. A lot of people choose cars because of these factors but Saab buyers would have to be near the top of the tree.

And a lot of that has to do with the turbo. If you remember your first ride in a turbocharged Saab then you’ll probably know what I mean. Especially if that Saab was the first turbocharged car you’ve been in. If there’s one thing you can say about Saabs, they’re well capable of making a good first impression and they often surprise.

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There’s little doubt that Saab have lost a little of that iconoclastic edge. You have to shed some peculiarities if you want to appeal to a broader range of people and you have to appeal to a broader range of people if you want to survive, let alone grow.

The real question is whether or not Saab can get that edge back?

The new 9-3 is definitely a good start and with 5 or so new models in the coming years, GM has a now-or-never opportunity to give this iconoclastic brand a real presence.

——

Ref 1 – In Saab terms, a 1987 dollar bought you less than half of what a 2007 dollar will buy you, or to put that more plainly, a $30,000 base Saab 900 from 1987 would translate to around $57,000 today when you account for inflation over the period. A base Saab today in Australia is only $40,000.

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8 Comments

  1. I fit most of the profile, though I’m not (yet?) well educated (I was pretty high in my high school class and I had over a 4.0 GPA), and I definitely don’t make 155k a year. More like 5.5k. Then again, that description was probably aimed more at new car buyers.

    Whenever someone points out that most Saab owners are liberal, the conservative owners in the group speak up pretty quickly to object, but from what I’ve seen, it’s mostly true.

    I don’t know if I’d call Saab iconoclastic, however. They built cars they way they though cars should be built. They didn’t make the 900 a hatch to spite BMW and Mercedes or anyone else, they did it because that was what they thought the car should be. That isn’t iconoclastic. They’re more…uncaringly innovative :p

  2. The media and the movie industry like to stereotype and to ‘label’ people.
    They stereotype blacks, Asians, Arabs, Russians,Muslims, Catholics etc.
    Therefore they stereotype Saab owners as very liberal etc.
    I have owned a lot of Saabs since 1976.
    I’m a pro-life Catholic and follow Christian principles and am for limited government intervention. I don’t think that classifies me as someone Dutch Mandel thinks drives a Saab.

  3. HA! I read the Autoweek this weekend and sadly, I fit perfectly. The LovelyWife and I have 2 Ph.D.s, make about US$155k, and voted for “None of the Above” in the last US presidential election. I carry my empty aluminum pop can home with me because there is no place to recycle it @ work.

    We just got our first Saab: a 2006 9-5 Sport Sedan during 2006MY clearance. I’m a scientist working with a bunch of engineers, so I try and play up the “Mad Scientist” aspect as much as possible, of course.

    We were considering the Caddy CTS (*bad word here, I know*) or the SAAB, but the $8k cash on the hood and superior foul weather capability ultimately suited our active lifestyle better (skiing, biking, hiking, beach)…

    Reading Dutch’s prose, I felt like I was reading a horoscope.

  4. DC_Saab,

    Just like you, I read the Autoweek review, and I thought I was looking in a mirror. Socially, I am way left and the other descriptions ascribed to SAAB drivers fit for me, too.

    You’re smarter than me, though! Our household only has one Ph.D., and it’s not I. However, my better half drives a 2006 Mercedes SLK 350 Roadster, so, I think I am the wiser one in one regard, even though the Merc is a beautiful machine.

  5. I’ve been procrastinating about answering this one.

    I meet the profile.

    Saab’s global customers are well-educated check, well-informed professionals with annual income of $155,000 check. They live in modern households check, and their belief systems accept fair and equal rights check; they are active, authentic, often described as original and honest check. They respect the environmentcheck and are nonconformist double check.

    People automatically assume that this means college professor or hippie artist. I’m here to tell you that’s not so.

    I’m an engineer, corporate-type and like Vagabond, I want to buy only the small government with my tax dollars, thank you very much. Mostly vote Republican, but really I’m a Libertarian at heart.

    So, I hear you ask, “So, how can you say that you are non-conformist?” Well, I’ll answer in two ways: 1) Non-conformists come in all shapes and sizes by definition. Just because one conforms in some ways does that make one a total conformist? I submit that the answer is NO. 2) The so-called ‘non-conformists’ that the media stereotypes (liberal, long-haired, vegan agnostics with a menagerie of pets) are, in my view, actually conforming, it’s simply to a different social standard. Thus, I think that those that actually decide on each individual aspect of their existance separately rather than buying the whole lot from one agenda or another are the true non-conformists.

    The beauty of it is this: Saab owners really THINK about their cars and decide on the merit, NOT on the thinking of the masses and NOT based upon how they will look to others. That’s the cool part about Saab owners.

  6. Forgot to end your italics, there, eggs, or were you not conforming to normal text standards? :p

    The whole idea of conformity and non-conformity is pretty stupid, to me, because any “conformist” can make the arguement that they do what they do because they like to do it and not because that’s what everyone else is doing, and every “non-conformist” can be said to be conforming to non-conformity. So I usually just ignore the whole thing and do what I feel like.

    vagabond, not to sound like a jerk, but “pro-life Catholic” seems to be a label that you thought up and wasn’t imposed by any media conglomerate, or else you wouldn’t voluntarily call yourself that. The media and entertainment industry has to make those labels or they won’t know who to sell to.

    Look, Saabs are yuppie cars, along with (historically) BMW, Audi, and Volvo. The Germans are usually seen as the “conservative” yuppie cars, and the Swedes are seen as the “liberal” yuppie cars. Even so, there are always people that look accross the border and buy cars from the other side. Saab makes great cars, and that should appeal to anyone, regardless of politics or personal taste.

    Though there are a lot of college professors and left-wing dentists who drive the things. :p

  7. Never a fan of stereotyping, I find the description given to the average Saab customer to a large degree fits my personna (as I am not married).

    However, I cannot resists but think of Nietzsche’s “Master and Slave Morality”. Risking the label (stereotype?) of an elitist prick, I’d go as far as saying Saab owners, my humble self included, are most typically of the former breed. 😉

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