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.
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.