Jan-Ake interview No. 1

As it’s motor show time, the company executives are out in full force, and Saab’s Jan-Ake Jonsson is no exception.

This article appeared in the Swedish paper DN.se and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to ctm for providing this translation. Awesome stuff.

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It started in Detroit, continued in Geneva, and here in Frankfurt it was out in full force – the green wave under the dark shadow of the climate change.

Jan-Åke Jonsson, since 2 years CEO Saab Automobile AB, thinks it somewhat strange.

– “I think there is a big lack of awareness about the issues we have to start working with, it’s just lately things started to happen. Europe is one step behind Sweden, while the US is even further behind. But even in Sweden there is a surprisingly lack of knowledge, it’s been the more extreme organisations that many has ignored that has been on the right track all the time.”

In the debate, the auto industry is often publicly disgraced and the answer usually was that the consumer didn’t ask for green cars.

– “First and foremost, we in the auto industry must take our responsibility. At the same time – if you look globally at CO2 emissions – the transportation system is responsible for 14% of those, it’s really not that much. Then there is the question of how much our customers want to compromise. Our ethanol vehicles consumes more fuel, so you have to fill them up more often. People complain about it and are not interested just because of a simple matter like that.”

According to a survey, consumers think that Toyota is the most environmentally friendly car maker. Do you think the same?

– “No. They have been successful with the hybrid vehicles, and for that reason lot’s of costumers consider them extremely environmentally friendly. Take a Lexus 400 H, a monster. It’s a hybrid, by some classified as an environmentally friendly car, if you step on the gas it spews out CO2. Toyota is not better than anyone else if you look at the average CO2 emissions from them.”

While auto makers try to outdo each other with green cars, Saab puts a black turbo in the spotlight – lot’s of horsepowers, rapid acceleration, and 250 km/h in top speed are the words in the advertising. It’s like nothing have happened. The car feels out of place at the show. The criticism doesn’t worry Jan-Åke Jonsson.

– “Of course, I would like that more customers used a green car – the reality is that globally petrol and diesel are still dominating. For us, to have a sound business we must also have cars like this. And, turbo is important for us from an environmentally friendly standpoint, you get lot’s of power from small cylinder volumes.”

Opel dominated at the GM presentation today?

– “We got lot’s of credit for the BioPower. I don’t feel inferior in this circumstances. We have lot’s of room [freedom?] within GM. Here at the auto show the new 9-3 is shown for the first time, but most of the journalists have already seen it.

Volvo got some press in the German paper Welt am Sonntag for the hybrid. Have you seen anything about Saab in German papers?

– “No, to be honest I haven’t seen anything in German papers.”

What do you understand by this?

– “There are lot’s of news here, they can’t cover everything. Then of course, if you have something extreme like the Volvo concept in a show like this it will get the attention.”

Do you think this whole thing with green cars is just a trend that soon will go away?

– “No, I don’t think so. Especially in Europe, authorities are toughen up the laws. It’s not something simple that we do just like that.”

What do you think about the new tougher demands?

– “As a private person, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

And as CEO for Saab?

– “The auto industry, of course, have to contribute. But there is room for a discussion on how fast we can make radical changes. But we can all agree on that we have to do something and that now.”

How would you like to have it?

– “At first, some standardisation. EU is active, that’s good, but what about the US. And what about Europe outside the EU. Then I would like more considerations to alternative fuels.”

The ethanol cars are the big alibi for Saab in this discussion. According to Jan-Åke Jonsson, the Saab model line-up emissions from fossil fuels are something like 35-50 g/km but goes up to over 200 g/km when including the alternative fuels. The new EU directive demands 120 g/km.

– “But, emissions from alternative fuels are not harmful since they are absorbed in the atmosphere,” he says, and think they shouldn’t be taken in to the equation.

There are some discussions about ethanol because of the CO2 that are released when producing it.

– “It’s still more environmentally friendly to use corn as fuel than to use petrol or diesel. Then we have to look at what we can achieve with the next generation of alternative fuels.”

Absolute limits and fines are not things that Jan-Åke Jonsson believes in. That means that some can just buy themselves out of the demands. He rather talks about “realistic goals” that the industry can achieve. Once again, Jan-Åke Jonsson raise the question about what the consumers think, how much they are prepared to pay. In Europe, Sweden has one of the oldest fleet of cars.

– “I saw a number saying that there are one million Volvo cars in Sweden. I cannot guarantee that they are of the latest model.”

There has been some difficulties exporting Saab’s ethanol vehicles because of the lack of E85 abroad. There are 900 E85 service-stations in Sweden, but only 90 in Germany. France is a country that is putting resources into E85, and Jan-Åke Jonsson thinks that the fuel has a future just because of the simple reason that we will be without oil someday.

Opel’s new hybrid, is that an interesting thing for Saab?

– “Absolutely. We are a part of GM and have access to everything that are developed. An E85 hybrid wouldn’t be bad. I believe in that technology, using E85 to charge the batteries is a really good idea. The issue is the battery, that should not only be able to power the vehicle but at the same time have an operational life of 10-15 years.”

Why wasn’t it Saab that premiered the hybrid?

– “Doesn’t really matter who. Sometimes we get the stuff, sometimes it’s Opel or Chevrolet. We showed E100 in Geneva. Things are spread among the brands inside GM. That is something we have to live with. I’m satisfied as long as I get the technology to our cars.”

When will we see a smaller Saab?

– “We are looking into that. It’s a segment that is growing. BMW has one, there is the Audi A3 and the Volvo C30. It would be suitable for Saab. It’s the car that we plan to build in Sweden.”

The new 9-3 and new 9-5 will both be built in Rüsselsheim in Germany. The smaller car is the hope for production in Trollhättan.

– “Saab needs a big operation in Sweden. It’s important for Saab as a brand, it creates credibility. It’s all about our Swedish heritage. Otherwise, it would be like BMW without any operations in Germany.”

Saab is not yet a profitable company. GM has put huge money into it during the years. According to Jan-Åke Jonsson, they are spending lot’s of money right now on development so it will take some time. He is not worried about GM losing patience with the little Swede.

– “We have an incredible firm support.”

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7 Comments

  1. Swade: I’m still reading this and it’s interesting so far, but it just occurred to me that it’s 2 a.m. your time. GO TO SLEEP! We love your site, but we can wait until later tomorrow for an update…

  2. exactly gripen 🙂 … I’m currently watching “sideways” the award winning movie… may be swade should watch it, too as it shows the bright Saab Vert’ history … it’s relaxing, a superb movie and it might get him asleep with smile on his face, that the Saab World will become just like that again… we should do a special about this movie, whilst drinking lots of red whine 😉

  3. I’m glad the interviewer pointed-out the fact that the Turbo-X seemed out of place at the Frankfurt Auto Show. I was thinking the same thing. It seems as if SAAB perpetually doesn’t have an understanding for the market and that translates into the low sales numbers they have, IMHO.

    Also, the part about Jan-Ake giving the Lexus 400H hybrid a hard time for being a “performance assist hybrid” while not acknowledging that SAAB’s hybrid was the same thing. Seems like there’s some hypocrisy here.

    Jan-Ake’s answer to the Turbo-X point: “Of course, I would like that more customers used a green car – the reality is that globally petrol and diesel are still dominating.” So basically his response boils down to something he objected to earlier in the interview: “the answer usually was that the consumer didn’t ask for green cars”

    His response is that SAAB offers smaller-displacement cars. Okay, how is the 2.8-liter V6 with 21 mpg combined a “smaller displacement car”? So SAAB can claim that at least they didn’t have to put a V8 in the car to get the same power as a V8? When SAAB eventually releases a twin-turbo V8 in the next-gen 9⁵ I’m sure they’ll claim to be “environmentally-friendly” because they get supercar performance that would usually require a V10 in a smaller “rightsized” V8 engine…

    Seems to me that SAAB will be screaming “ethanol!” and hoping that its availability will increase in areas that it is traditionally sparse, without actually having any reason to believe it will do so. The expansion of ethanol into new geographic regions since SAAB introduced BioPower a few years ago has been excruciatingly slow and I see no reason to believe that it will suddenly speed-up. It’s time for SAAB to shift gears away from ethanol, I believe. It’s just not catching-on outside of Sweden at any kind of speed.

    I’ve never met Mr. Jonsson, though I’m sure he’s a personable guy. However, I really hope he’s had his hands tied by GM because the actual product coming out of SAAB seems to have some of the longest development cycles I have ever heard of! Maybe their engineers are spread too thin working on other GM projects. But what it boils down to is that it looks like SAAB enters segments way after their peak.

    In five to ten years when SAAB comes out with the 9¹, electric cars (or hybrids) look to be all the rage and SAAB will absolutely look like a dinosaur when they finally release their own electrically-driven competitor ten years after that

  4. Rayman, I don’t want to ruin Sideways for you, but you’re yet to realize that this pleasant “relaxing” movie is going to take a turn for the worse to SAAB lovers… Write what you thought of it here when the end credits roll. 😉

    I was told by Jan-Willem Vester of SAAB USA that a few years ago when SAAB introduced their newest ‘vert they did a photo shoot where they traveled to all the places in the film (mostly near Solvang, California, just north of Santa Barbara). I don’t think I’ve ever seen these pics and I don’t know if SAAB would condone the way the owner of the SAAB in that movie treated his car… 😮

  5. toll… my friend just read your comment with me and started to smile as well… he spoiled me the scene though and said, that the car had to be crashed to save his friend’s marriage… I got the point now on why Saab never came out with pics on the californian tour 😉 … but for the new ‘Vert is so exceptionally good in safety, why not show what happened – maybe its only a minor scratch on the hood??? Safety Evolution 🙂 …. I have to agree with you on the “Saab is behind” story… I think its a shame, that the 9-4X will come out within the next 2 years! At the moment there’s even Ford coming with a Kuga, VW with a Tiguan, then Citroen and Peugeot… the clients who want a sporty more luxury version will buy the BMW X3 instead [it has an incredible market share for the ugly car it is]… next up is the Coupe/SUV that Mercedes introduced in some way with their R-Class and BMW is following as well as Audi [X6, Q5]. The 9-4X should better be marketed as something like that when it comes out! The E85 could have been great and I wrote earlier that we have to wait and see what happens now, that other brands are adopting it as well, but for Germany it won’t sell any more Saabs as no one is linking it specifically to Saab! A 9-1 would be too late 2 years down the road! We’ve seen it with the C30 you just can’t catch up anywhere near to the sales numbers of an A3 or BMW 1 series [and this car is rated rather high in tests!!] it is behind its competitors by 36.000 units in this year alone.How could Saab sell its 9-1 when its still work in progress [brainstorming wise]? These questions come to mind quite often and sometimes it seems that only a radical step would have been appropriate… they should have built the Aero X in some way – may be as a targa with lambo style doors – give it the new drivetrains [XWD and 320HP / 2.9 Diesel / 2.0T Biopower and some mild hybrid things like start/stop regeneration] it would have had an impact! 9-5 and 9-3 sales would have benefited a lot from this… there was one journalist on the IAA who shared his thoughts – he said, that Saab is dead already but nobody seems to know it… he complaint at the interior quality and then I looked for myself as well – open the storage box and tilt the armrest in a 9-3 … look at how they “attached” the premium [!!!] leather to it… its the same in every 9-3… the journalist came over to me saying that what I see there is what is left of Saab – its clinching to life the same way… 🙁 made me sad, for there is no other car in this segment that is such a beauty [the SportCombi]…………………..
    Oh he didn’t crash it, he had to use a brick?? thats no “dignified death”… I’m sad right now as well…

  6. Rayman: I’m sorry to see that you reached the part in the film I was alluding to and I didn’t warn you off about it. I didn’t want to spoil the movie for you! But one thing I did learn from that film is never to run nude through an ostrich farm (incidentally there really is an ostrich farm in Solvang)!

    It bothers me that at least one journalist considers SAAB “dead”. That would help to explain the lack of coverage of the brand at Frankfurt through many outlets. SAAB has a lot of work to do and I think drastic measures need to be taken. Patience is a virtue, but if they’re any more patient they’ll fall asleep.

  7. I’m not speculating here at all nor exactly implying anything, but in terms of opening minds to new ideas when previous ideas have not meet the objectives, the following must be true:

    When ways of doing something result in being wrong, the opposite ways of doing things may be right.

    In other words, if what many of you are saying that Saab has been historically putting out vehicle that are late to the game, then they must forceably launch a few vehicles “early” instead this time.

    This would mean that the 9-1 would need to be launched last year or by the end of this year at the latest.

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