Gripen at the SOC – Part 1

If you were reading this site back in February then you’ll know two things about Gripen’s coverage of an event.

1) There’s a lot of it.

2) It worth reading every word.

Nothing’s changed here. This is the first of several pieces I’ve got in my inbox this morning. It’s some coverage of the roundtable Q&A session held at the SOC and includes many of the questions you were all asking here a few days ago.

Thanks Gripen…..

——

Once again I’ve been treated as a V.I.P. by SAAB USA. I keep thinking that one of these days they’re going to realize that I’m not really a journalist. I’m a SUPERSTAR here! I’m HUGE in Detroit (I’m of course exaggerating my influence, but not SAAB USA’s hospitality). The funny thing is I never got an idea of just how proliferating the TrollhattanSaab.net website is in the SAAB community before this weekend (and to a lesser extent in San Diego back in February). It seems everyone I speak with reads it regularly, including employees of SAAB USA! I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I know that people actually read what I write. It’ll make me more measured in what I write. I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

SAAB USA graciously provided me with a wonderful 2007 9-3 Sport Sedan Anniversary Edition to drive for the weekend. It is a very nice car and was very much appreciated. I’m going to be even more disappointed then usual when I get back home and behind the wheel of the Dodge Stratus V6 SXT company lease vehicle I drive for my “day job”.

Okay, my penance for being able to get my material posted to Swade’s great ‘blog is that I had to get some questions answered for the TS regulars.

Many of the questions were answered by Steve Shannon, President of SAAB USA; John Libbos, Program Director 9-3 and 9-5 of SAAB USA; and Jan-Willem Vester, Corporate Communications of SAAB USA. Also, Peter Backstrom, curator of the SAAB Museum in Trollhattan interjected some answers from the audience. The forum was largely the Round Table, which was held in one of the conference rooms. Regular TS commenter “SG” of saabhistory.com got video of the round table so I’m sure it’ll be available on his website in short order.

The first question asked was, “with the advent of XWD are there plans for SAAB to enter motorsport”?

Steve Shannon answered that there really aren’t any plans right now and that racing is largely a “go big or go home” venture. A manufacturer has to pour a lot of money into motorsport to get started and unless you’re willing to finance a team all-out there’s no point in competing. The financing just isn’t there right now for a SAAB factory team.

The next question was along the lines of “the German manufacturers are all planning to bring diesel cars to the U.S. When is SAAB going to and if not, why not?”

Steve Shannon answered that GM has a lot of good diesel technology already being sold in the States in trucks and SAAB has some great diesels in Sweden. He mentioned that when they had a lot of magazine journalists from the U.S. in Sweden a few weeks ago for a press event (9-3 unveiling) they actually had the dealers drive the diesels to get some impressions. The overall impression from the dealers is that they were very impressed. Unfortunately there are no plans right now to bring diesels over to the U.S. for various reasons. He cited the fact that U.S. emissions requirements make it very expensive to bring to market a 50-state emissions compliant diesel in the U.S. and the diesel is already more expensive to manufacture than a gasoline car, even without the extra equipment which would be required to meet emissions requirements. He points out that right now a $3k, $4k, $5k price premium over the gasoline version would be very difficult to sell, but could change with market forces. There’s a tipping-point where the fuel costs savings can no longer justify the price premium, but as we’ve seen with fuel prices increasing and a new attention being paid to carbon footprint diesel may be something that can eventually be fiscally justifiable in the market in the future. He then mentioned that ethanol engines allow rightsizing which may be a better means to the same goal. John Libbos interjected that though diesels are too expensive to produce right now SAAB will continue to look to see if there’s a market for them but dealers are really pushing for it.

With the V6 in the 9-3 Aero models putting-out the same horsepower as the 9-5 is SAAB going away from their tendency for fuel economy?
Mr. Shannon pointed-out that rightsizing will be the way SAAB heads in the future. Former President of SAAB USA Bob Sinclair interjected from the audience that during his tenure as President of SAAB USA (he was President during a period the insiders refer to as the “go-go 80’s”, when SAAB was at their peak of popularity in the country) they had difficulty selling SAABs because people wouldn’t even consider SAAB because they didn’t have a V6 offering. It’s a marketing issue.

Someone asked, “emissions regulations for diesels are supposed to get even more stringent in Europe in coming years so is there a possibility they’ll get tighter in the U.S.?”

Obviously nobody’s omniscient, so the answer was simply “perhaps.”

Someone asked if they can buy a BioPower car as part of the European Delivery Program

The answer I believe was from Jan-Willem Vester, who stated that one cannot. Cars destined for the U.S., even if purchased through EDP, are built to U.S.-spec. However, that being said Steve Shannon pointed-out the first batch of 9-3 SportCombis mistakenly were shipped to the States with the non-DOT spec European taillights. This was quickly corrected then the mistake was discovered. So some lucky U.S. SAAB buyers got the European taillights.

Another person asked, “are there any plans for an entry-level model”?
Steve Shannon said they’re interested in the market space below the 9-3.

There was quite a passionate question seconded and thirded by several present about displeasure with OnStar being cancelled on the earliest of the SAABs equipped with the service. As you’re probably already aware, the first generation of OnStar worked on the older analog cellular network. GM (owner of OnStar) has decided to send letters to subscribers of analog OnStar explaining that they’re cancelling the service and offering them $300 (the price of a yearly subscription), or something along those lines or suggesting they buy a new SAAB. The new SAABs come equipped with digital OnStar. People were quite angry about this particular issue, both with the way they were notified and with GM’s suggested remedy (to buy a new SAAB). There is no “upgrade” available from analog to digital OnStar.

There wasn’t much Steve Shannon could say on this issue. I mean really it’s an OnStar/GM issue, not a SAAB one I believe. There’s not much SAAB can do about this.

Someone asked if it would do any good to send GM a complaint letter about the OnStar cancellation

Again, there really wasn’t much Mr. Shannon could say on it except that it’s always good for GM to get feedback from the customers. Peter Gilbert (owner of the million-mile SAAB) interjected from the audience that many cell phone providers now offer turn-by-turn directions service right through the cell phone, so that might be a viable replacement for at least the turn-by-turn voice navigation service OnStar provided.

There were various passionate complaints about dealers and the lack of dealers in certain areas

Steve Shannon said that the most important thing in the dealer network is that the dealers are making money. If they’re not making money they’re not going to be in business for long. He points out that there are many factors in deciding what areas can sustain a dealership, including but not limited-to competition in the area. If an area is going to get a new Ovlov dealer maybe SAAB will weigh more heavily in favor of putting a dealer of their own in the area. Also, regarding dealer quality there’s a broad spectrum. At one end they have some dealers they absolutely love who couldn’t possibly do any better, then you have the middle area where there could be some improvement but for the most part they’re okay, and then you have that tail-end of the spectrum where they really need to improve. There’s a team that’s sent-out to work with dealers in improving. Where viable they’re really trying to package together Cadillac, HUMMER, and SAAB. That’s their ideal.

Someone asked for details on Turbo-X
Everyone was quite mum on the subject and only said that more information will come out at its’ debut at the Frankfurt International Auto Show. They appeared unable or unwilling to give any details on it. Mr. Vester pointed-out that it’s all about the torque, not just the horsepower.

With one of the last questions at the Round Table I got up the courage to finally ask one of the 26 questions I had written down from the list readers of TrollhattanSAAB had submitted for me to ask. I didn’t want to come-off as negative but I was a bit confused at how earlier in the round table ethanol was mentioned as an alternative to diesel in the States, but by the same token it’s all been just talk up to this point. We still can’t buy a BioPower car in the States even if we buy all the great publicity on it (they even had a BioPower 9-5 on show in the parking lot!). So my question was something along the lines of “we keep hearing that SAAB is interested in efficiency and a smaller carbon footprint and all but we still don’t have diesels or ethanol-powered SAABs here in the U.S. while it seems at every turn SAAB is pushing sales of the V6 and bigger engines such as this. When will we see the BioPower cars for sale here?”

Steve Shannon replied that something like 70% of the volume of sales in the U.S. is the 9-3 and something like 80% of those 9-3s sold in the States are the 2.0T (4-cylinder) variety. BioPower is indeed coming. He said we’ll get it early in ’09. The reason they’re doing so well in Sweden is that there are favorable environmental laws in Sweden which not only tax less on ethanol-powered cars but the fuel is less expensive. We just don’t have the same favorable laws for ethanol here in the States.

——

That was pretty much it for the Round Table, but Steve Shannon and Jan-Willem Vester were crazy enough to come sit with me at lunch at my table where I had been sitting virtually alone. We discussed many things, one of them was the situation with ethanol distribution in the States. He pointed out that in my own home state of California there is only one station where one can buy E85. He also asked me if I’d read the editorial in the L.A. Times last week bashing ethanol. I hadn’t. He said the author of the editorial was really trashing ethanol left and right so there’s an atmosphere here in some circles in the States which is very anti-ethanol. I posed the rhetorical question, “so gasoline is better?” He agreed with me that ethanol is not the end-all-be-all solution for all the world’s ills, but it’s difficult to argue that ethanol isn’t at least better than continuing to run on gasoline.

I should’ve probably reported on this next bit first as it occurred last night, but the unveiling of the MY2008 9-3 went off very well at the dinner. Mr. Shannon’s speech was very interesting and at one point we even suffered a power failure for a few seconds during the 9-3 unveiling! It turns out there was a tornado in the area and it affected the power. I was later informed that the sirens were sounding (warning of a tornado) in the area but I didn’t hear them. Good thing too. I wouldn’t know what to do. We don’t regularly suffer tornadoes in Los Angeles. That would scare the daylights out of me seeing one of those things approach! At least earthquakes are kind enough to not inform you of their impending presence. I can’t imagine how worried the owners of the beautiful SAABs in the parking lot must’ve been at the prospect of a tornado throwing their car around.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Mr. Shannon mentioned Bob Lutz’ comment on the GM Fastlane ‘blog calling SAAB a jewel in the GM family, he mentioned that this event is the first time that three SAAB USA Presidents were in attendance at the same time (in addition to Mr. Shannon, Jay Spenchian and Bob Sinclair were there. Is there some sort of rule that SAAB USA Presidents have to have last names that start with the letter “S”?), he mentioned the great safety accolades SAAB has earned in the recent IIHS testing, and he mentioned that he enjoys reading the customer reviews at Edmunds.com because those are from real customers. In September the MY2008 will be available for sale in all three body styles (sedan, combi, and convertible). XWD will be available come the 1st of the year or early in the new year.

They then pulled the covers off of both MY2008 9-3s they had on hand for the unveiling, one a sedan and the other a combi. People were then allowed to come up and sit in them and check them out. Someone turned on the headlight light pipes. Shortly thereafter is when the power went out, so I had assumed it was someone turning off the lights so we could better see the headlight effects but it was later pointed-out to me the emergency lights came on as well, a fact I hadn’t considered.

From all the pictures I’ve seen of the MY2008 I really didn’t care for it. I thought the chrome was too flashy and doesn’t adhere to SAAB’s understatement ethos. Jan-Willem Vester kept warning me, “wait until you see it in person to make a judgement”. I didn’t quite believe him until I indeed saw it for myself last night. It really looks great. I have to admit I was wrong. Pictures do not do the car justice. The chrome really isn’t chrome. It’s more like a “brushed aluminum” or satin look. The models on display were not the Aero-spec so they didn’t have the treatment around the fog lamps, so that added to the look, I think. I have changed my opinion on the new 9-3s and I really like them aesthetically now.

Speaking with Mr. Vester later after admitting that he was right and that seeing the car in person really does make a difference I pointed out that I would hate to be a new car buyer right now. Do I save all kinds of money by getting a great deal on a great car in the MY2007 9-3 Anniversary Edition or do I spend a little more and get a brand new ’08? I had to state that the biggest draw for me on the ’08 would have to be the noise-reduction package, or whatever they call that feature. He pointed-out that that feature was a direct result of the BLS development and that if it weren’t for the BLS the SAAB wouldn’t have gotten that.

——

I probably should split this into a separate post, but I’m on a roll. It’s going on 1:00 a.m. as I post this but if I don’t get it all out of my head now I’m just going to have more work when I get to my next destination tomorrow for the U.S. 9-3 XWD unveil event that SAAB USA has been so kind as to invite me to report for TrollhattanSaab on.

Earlier today the event organizers were loading people onto buses to take them over to CAS (Custom Automobile Specialties or something like that). This is the company who restores the cars for the GM Heritage Collection. As you probably already know GM has their own private (not open to the public) museum of GM cars. GM goes out and finds a car (the latest project they are working on is that they bought an ’80 900 5-door to restore) and they pay this company CAS to fully restore the car to showroom quality. It’s amazing how they make these rusted-out buckets they’re handed, which oftentimes don’t have period-appropriate parts, into showroom quality cars.

Mr. Vester was kind enough to offer me a ride in his company car, a 2007 9-3 Aero automatic with navigation, over to the event. However, on the way he had to stop-in at the GM Heritage Collection facility to oversee some duties as they prepared for tonight’s banquet dinner. So I got to spend probably an hour with my run of the place while they set-up. While I was there all the lighting was up, allowing for great photographs. At dinner the lights were dimmed. You would not believe this place. I can’t even describe it. While I was impressed with the SAABs on display naturally, I had already seen them all as I was privileged enough to attend the media event in San Diego for the SAAB 60th Anniversary in February and even got to ride in and drive these cars! But what really impressed me were the other GM makes there. I’m not a huge car guy outside of SAAB, but you gotta be impressed when you get to walk right up to (there are no ropes or stanchions or anything preventing you from getting touch close (but don’t touch!) to some of the greatest cars in GM history. They have EV-1 serial number 1 there. They have the concept car which became the EV-1 (called the decidedly poor name “Impact”), they had the GTO from the movie XXX. They had every concept car you can possibly think of, including a huge animated mechanical display from the 1950’s at one of the World’s Fairs. You’ll have to see my pictures if Swade has the bandwidth to put them up (time is the onlt problem this week – SW). They have everything you can imagine and more there. A fuel cell van from 1966 (and they keep saying the hydrogen economy’s only 15 years away perpetually…)! An electric Corvair! As you can see I was most impressed by the EV section. But they had trucks and commercial vehicles, and in the back behind the scenes (later hidden from view during dinner) they had a WWII-vintage “duck” (amphibious vehicle). I can’t put into words how amazing this place was.

When it came time to leave Mr. Vester took me into an off-limits area that nobody else got to see later where GM keeps its archives. All archival material is stored in these huge filing cabinets which roll on tracks. It was overwhelming. He explained that when SAAB USA moved from Atlanta they consolidated all the archive materials from that facility into this one.

He then took me over to join everyone at CAS and it was very impressive. Mr. Vester showed me the quite beat-up ’80 900 5-door and pointed out that they needed a donor car for the interior because the interior in the first example they bought was not period-correct. They found a donor car locally that is arguably in better condition for restoration than the first one they’d bought! Now they’re mulling which one should be the donor. I pointed out that the rear bumper cover on the first one they bought doesn’t seem right because the bumper strip is wide, like the later 900 whereas the later one they bought had the period-correct thin bumper strip. Jan-Willem was way ahead of me on that one and had already noted that. So that would seem to make the case that the second car they bought might be more true to factory spec, but then I pointed out on the second car they bought the badge on the hatch says “900 Turbo APC System”, which isn’t correct at all. APC hadn’t been innovated yet back in 1980. Mr. Vester told me that he hadn’t noticed that before and that I’m absolutely correct. He said APC came out in 1984, so someone must’ve replaced the hatch on this car with one from a later model at some time in the past. Score one for me!!!

We then walked over to CAS’s other building and saw a bunch more beautiful cars that probably couldn’t fit into the Heritage Collection or something. Bob Sinclair pointed-out to me that he had a hand in the Cadillac racing car they had there as he was a member of the board of the company that developed the engine (I think he said it was McLaren). They even had a big HUMMER H2 from the movie “Transformers” in there. The really impressive thing to me though was the SAAB 95 they had there. Jan-Willem tells me that it really was in bad condition when they bought it, but now it looks like it just rolled off the assembly line in Trollhattan. It’s amazing to me how they can do this sort of thing. The 95 wasn’t part of the collection yet back in February when I saw most of the other SAABs from the Heritage Collection present. There was also a 9-2X which wasn’t in San Diego and a 9-7X. Mr. Vester tells me that he got a phone call about the 9-7X that plans for it were that they were just going to crush it as it was used as a show car and had no more use for it and would the Heritage Collection be interested? This particular 9-7X was such an early model that it has an Oldsmobile VIN! The interior had some features not ever offered on production models. The leather on the doors was parchment to match the seats (which can only be had in black in production models), the wood trim is much more plasticky than in production models, and there were some other differences I don’t quite remember (while a fascinating story about the origin of the car and I fully appreciate the time he took to give me a personal tour of the facility, I really don’t care for SUVs so I kind of don’t have interest in the 9-7X, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him. Though I’m sure he’s reading this now and I just blew it. Good job, Mike. Duh.).

I’m sure my photos won’t even do the GM Heritage Collection justice. The facility is just amazing and it really shows GM’s full committment to SAAB. They’re really integrating SAAB into the company and not treating it like some sort of red-haired stepchild. I’m told that the guys from both CAS and GM really appreciate and enjoy the SAABs in the collection.

I’m sure I’ll think of more material later, but it’s now 1:35 a.m. and I’m falling asleep. I’m off to bed. I’ll write anything else I remember at a later date. Thanks for reading all this and I hope you enjoyed reading about the event.

Note: this is the first time I’ve ever seen this error. I went to spell-check this message and got an Internet Explorer message, “message is too long. Only a fraction of the text could be checked”. When even my computer is complaining I wrote too much, that’s pretty bad. You’d think one of these days I’d get the hint. Nah…

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21 Comments

  1. Awesome coverage, Grip!! I wouldn’t be worried about your personal anecdotes in your post; There’s something to be said in hiring an honest, straight forward man.

    On a side note, man I’d love to see the EV-1… Talk about an almost revolutionary car killed before it’s birth. Though I know a lot of the information in “Who Killed the Electric Car” is biased (less so than a Michael Moore film), it does make ya’ wonder where we would be if the project made it to production as originally planned.

  2. double post.. sorry…

    I never noticed that the time stamps on the entries are in Aussie time…. It scared the hell out of me… I gotta’ report for a school with the US Navy at 0700 am on the 27th, and the time stamps are saying it’s 1200 already!!

    I need to get a barracks room with a window, lol.

  3. Great job! Very nice.

    I’ll have to read it again when I have some more time and can appreciate even more, but there’s one item in question we are all dying to know….

    …bluetooth?

  4. Thanks for the comprehensive coverage Gripen.

    I’m confused by Steve Shannon’s comments on BioEthanol: “Ethanol isn’t widely available today, many people are against (corn-based) Ethanol, the laws aren’t favorable for ethanol cars in the US, but Saab is brining BioEthanol to the US in ’09”? Not exactly a vote of confidence – seems like SaabUSA is betting the biofuel farm on ethanol and he is preparing to pass the buck if they don’t sell over here.

    I left a comment on the first SOC update with a Sierra Club comparison of biofuels and I’m still leaning towards Diesel. I don’t want to see corn ethanol drive up the price of high fructose corn syrup resulting in more expensive Swedish Fish 🙂

    VW/Audi know there is a market for dieslel over here – that’s why they are bringing diesel models back to all 50 states in 2008 (BMW and Mercedes too, I think). A reassment of Saab diesel in the US is overdue – we want to go fill the car up on BioWillie or fryer grease!

  5. Hi Gripen, great write up, loved it. can I surgest you up load the pictures to flickr.com, you wont have to worry about any band width,,,,,,and we get to see them big!!! 🙂 Robin

  6. Great coverage! Thanks for spending your free time with the updates. I, for one, would not like a single detail to be left out so please don’t edit yourself too much!

  7. Gripen,

    Thanks for the amazingly detailed write up! The SAAB community owes you BIG for attending and reporting for all of us who could not go. I read every word TWICE just to make sure that I didn’t miss a detail. Personally, I cannot wait to see the new MY 2008 in person. I envy you.

  8. Fritz Henderson spoke for 10 minutes at the awards banquet on Saturday night. His comments were encouraging and upbeat, but disappointingly generic. If you have ever spent time at the GM Fastlane corporate blog, you have the flavor of the speech, only with less specific content.

    The fact he was there at all is still an important thing. He did say his wife is now driving her fourth Saab in a row, and she turned him down flat when he suggested she get an Escalade instead (which prompted some slight, but good-natured, booing — which he took in stride, remarking with good humor “I’ve got a bunch of other brands I’m responsible for, too.”).

    GM’s big SUV’s came up briefly later, and he defended them, saying they are “great vehicles — but they’re not Saabs.”

    He also talked about the “Q” word – “quirky.” Which he noted can be used in one of two ways — annoying or endearing. And that Saab’s uniqueness has been endearing. And that GM is committed to keeping Saab’s uniquely “endearing” qualities intact.

    For what it was, it was an OK speech. His mistake was not attempting to engage his audience at their level of sophistication and knowledge about the brand.

  9. Great job on this post!

    To comment on one of those questions/responses on the V6 as a marketing strategy – I love that 2.8L V6 as it just sings all the way to its 6200RPM fuel shutoff. Not sure if I would enjoy a four cylinder as much – but I only spent a short time test driving one when I looked at my car.

    At any rate – it was a huge selling point for me to have one available. I like the Ecotec, but…

  10. good coverage 1985 Gripen! you’re doing an outstanding job; and good nuance material, too.

    kudos to Greg Abbott, as well!

  11. “the first batch of 9-3 SportCombis mistakenly were shipped to the States with the non-DOT spec European taillights” — OK. now I’m confused again: does that mean that the 9-3 SportCombis are NOT getting the “iceblock” tail lamps after all in the US?

  12. Scott, I’m guessing here, but I think that was referring to the SportCombis that were shipped on the model’s initial debut. According to SaabUSA’s site, Iceblocks will be standard for the SportCombi in 2008.

  13. Thanks to all for the kind words as always.

    joemama: Bluetooth is a touchy subject. It’s a political thing I think. As you probably already know it’s not an issue in Europe, but here in the States because GM also owns OnStar, I believe it’s seen as a competitor to some of OnStar’s features and is therefore not available. Nobody’s said so much, but I’m guessing that GM requires SAAB to disable Bluetooth in lieu of OnStar.

    For those of you saying that I should work for SAAB USA, I’d love to but I highly doubt I can convince my wife to relocate from Southern California to Michigan even if it were offered! 😛

    TimJ: I got a better clarification out of Mr. Shannon tonight you’ll see in an upcoming post I just sent to Swade regarding the ethanol issue.

    Psycho Dave: thanks for the update on APC. Mr. Vester told me it was 1984, but I suspected it was before that. I knew it was sometime after ’81 as I used to own a non-APC ’81 900T sedan!

    andybarnwell: regarding Fritz Henderson: I concur with Greg Abbott’s assessment. It’s nice that he showed-up, but he was basically preaching to the choir regarding SAAB. He was recounting what SAAB is and what it stands for. I kept thinking to myself (and I hope like heck he’s not reading this…) that I wonder if Bob Lutz or Rick Waggoner were asked first and declined and he was the third choice. I mean, the convention was in GM’s backyard, it’s not like it would have been too far out of the way for Mr. Lutz or Mr. Wagonner if they were in-town…

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