Jan-Ake interview No 2

This the second of two articles appearing in the Swedish press recently. As it’s motor show time, the car company executives are out and about and Jan-Ake Jonsson from Saab is amongst them.

This article actually features more of GM’s head honcho, Rick Wagoner.

This article was first published in the Swedish paper E24, and was translated from Swedish into English by ctm. He earns a huge “hats off” from me. Thanks mate.

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Rick Wagoner, CEO at GM, aims to almost double Saab’s sales figures in the US. From today’s 30,000 to around 50,000 in five years. All this thanks to GM putting resources into ethanol – an area where Saab has established itself. Rick Wagoner’s pledge is an important piece in the puzzle to get Saab profitable again. The GM head is in Frankfurt to promote new environmentally friendly cars. Among others, yesterday saw the premiere of the plug-in hybrid Flextreme which promise a range of 55 km on battery before the diesel engine kicks in. But in the near future, it’s all about diesel and ethanol. And ethanol is something he really believes in. Especially in the US, where the goal is that 50% of all new GM vehicles should be able to run on E85 in 2012. Thanks to the R&D on ethanol at Saab, it has a strong position within GM. Saab now has the responsibility for development of ethanol engines for all GM brands.

Why not introduce Saab’s ethanol cars in the US?

– “What an excellent idea, I’ll buy that!”, says Rick Wagoner and laughs.

Can you promise that?

– “It’s the next logical step. In the US, Saab only sell about 30,000 cars – in about five years I believe in 40,000 to 50,000. But you have to remember that Saab is niche brand.”

It’s an important piece of information for Saab. The pride of Trollhättan is still not profitable, and sales are still around 130,000 cars per year. Saab doesn’t see a profit until 2009-2010, when new models like the 9-4X and the smaller 9-1 arrives. At that time, sales are projected to be at least 150,000 cars. That’s why another 20,000 ethanol cars sold in the US is an important piece of the puzzle.

Jan-Åke Jonsson, CEO Saab Automobile AB, welcomes to information.

– “It feels good that him say that. We are of course monitoring the situation on the US market and are ready to move in.”

Today, the lack of ethanol pumps is the problem – only about 600 exist. But numbers are growing rapidly, partly thanks to the GM decision to invest in ethanol vehicles.

What’s his [Wagoners] opinion on the new EU directive on emissions, with a limit on 120 g CO2 per km in 2012?

– “It’s an aggressive goal.”

Will GM be able to make it?

– “As I said, it’s a very aggressive goal. The products that will be sold in 2012 basically already exist today.”

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17 Comments

  1. Thanks for the translation, ctm. I’m sure it requires a lot of time and effort.

    Always getting conflicting info. A few weeks ago I learned from SAAB USA that the current plan is to introduce BioPower to the U.S. in the form of a 200 bhp 2-liter 9³ in 2009. This was already announced to the media. Why Rick Wagoner didn’t bring that up, I have no idea. Also, Wagoner claims the lack of E85 pumps in the U.S. is the stumbling block, whereas SAAB USA claims it’s a need for testing and that’s going slowly due to a lack of engineering resources to perform that testing.

    I don’t know what (if anything) to believe from anyone at SAAB/GM. I just feel like we’re being handed a bunch of lines. They’re trying to tell us what we want to hear rather than really offering product that they keep promising. How long’s the 9⁴X been in development now? It’d better be darned good.

  2. I hear ya 1985Gripen. Sometimes it seems like you guys (yourself, Swade, and a few others here) are actually making the news and GM is following behind! Of course we know (hope) it’s not working that way, but sometimes it sure feels like it.
    I think E85 testing in NA is the only reasonable explaination for the plethora of Saabs I noticed on I-80 through Nebraska about a month ago. They weren’t all together, mind you, but they didn’t have Nebraska plates, were going the same direction, and were passed within a relatively short period of time. Either it was a huge coinsidence, or Saab/GM were testing E85 cars for 09 etc in North America.

  3. Ubermich: thanks for info about the sighting. Now if someone who lives in Arizona sees a bunch of 9³s with Michigan Manufacturer plates, please chime-in!

  4. Gripen,

    Having a bad day? Seem to be a bit frustrated lately in your posts. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I understand where you’re coming from. There’s definitely more crossed wires than we’re all comfortable with.

    Just throwing a bone out there: I think sometimes 1) they’re reluctant to cough up sensitive information that’s supposed to remain confidential (for whatever reason), and 2) they are likely to respond to questions in terms of what they know and are concerned about. For example, someone in the finance, USA, or marketing depts. is likely to give different reasons from someone in the R&D, Europe, or communications. Both reasons may be right- who knows. Just a thought. But again, I know what you’re talking about, and it’d be nice to get some straight talk and answers.

    Ubermich: Dude, that’s a cool and rare sight indeed, for your neck of the woods. Where was the camera? 😉 I just daydreamed up a pic of a Saaby photo of some silver 9-3 or maybe even 9-5 cruising through some narrow two-laner among the cornfields. Imagine if those Saabs were all together! That would’ve been awesome to see.

  5. RJ: truthfully, I’m getting frustrated with constantly being told one thing only to see SAAB do another. It’s all talk and no action. They talk about how BioPower will save the planet yet don’t introduce the technology in their biggest market, despite showing off BioPower vehicles at events like the SAAB Owners’ Convention and at auto shows. There are always excuses why. The time for excuses is over. SAAB is lagging behind badly.

  6. Übermich –
    I live in Colorado and have family in Nebraska…and made a bunch of trips back and forth on I-80 in my ‘silver 9-3’ this summer… maybe you just kept seeing me blast by….!!! 😉

  7. Yes, thanks CTM for the work. I forgot to mention that the first time.

    Gripen,

    I understand the frustration- I get sick of lip service easily and I’m a very skeptical person to boot, and so I tend to think: put your money where your mouth is, then I’ll start lighting the candles of obeisance.

    I compare Saab to someone who leap frogs ahead of the competition but then stagnates and sits around resting. Then they are passed by everybody else and they say “whoa, we’re way behind, we need to catch up” and then they surpass everyone again, only to lag behind once more. I could be off, but that’s how I see it. It just takes too long for Saab to get new vehicles out the door and into showrooms. And without that, how do you ever expect them to get into driveways fast enough?

    At the same time, I have to be fair and realize that in practical terms (and especially automotive terms!), nothing is ever as easy as it seems. It took me all evening one night just to change out the air and cabin air filters and upgrade the air inlet hose on my ’02 9-5. A two hour job always ends up being more like four or five. Likewise, I’m sure it’s not easy as it might seem to simply plunk down a diesel for the US, or just release BioPower to the states. To borrow the term you used earlier, it’s really quite simple to be an “armchair CEO”, but more difficult to actually overcome the mechanical, corporate, and geo-political challenges that you inevitably face as a car company.

    The biggest gripe I personally have is that they should be more transparent with these kinds of things- let’s appoint someone to be the focal point of those kinds of questions, instead of everyone trying to get a scoop from every last chairman, chief officer, president, and janitor at GM. Everybody’s got a piece of the informational pie but apparently nobody knows where the forks are.

  8. Gripen I understand how you feel. Sometimes here I think Saab advertising is just like teasing. For example when the 60th anniversary model was released, all the Saab owners got a small letter advertising new 9-3 range and there was photos and praising how great the anniversary model is. Then on the last page under the photo there a tiny small text telling us 60th anniversary model is not a part of Finland live up. Yeah, how great is that! Like showing kid a lollipop and then take it away. Same goes with biopower. It´s all over the press and everywhere, but not available for finnish customers. The reason being that we don´t have stations selling E85 and reason for that is something else..

    Saab seems to have a problem. If they want to sell cars in the US, which seems to be the main target and that´s just fine. So, they have to please US customers first. That´s fine too. But there seems to be a conflict to european market. If they wanted to be competitive there, they should focus on different things. Europe doesn´t want Turbo X with V6. That´s pretty clear if you look at what the press all over europe had to commented about it. Nothing. It´s not interesting enough. Unfortunately.
    If it would´ve been, let´s say TTiD with XWD and new higher quality interior and different marketing campaign, maybe, and just maybe, they´d get some praising from european press too. When we got first press release of Aero XWD, everybody was asking where´s the diesel version? It´s coming, okay. But you can make first impression only once. And that´s important.

    And this was all just my thoughts, feel free to disagree. I still like Saab, and I know for sure that the next one will be Saab also. A diesel. And hopefully TTiD… 😀

  9. Kroum, you’re right but as long as they’re trying to work with “new media” if they’re going to explain something I’d rather they not lie to us.

    As for SAAB as a whole, I can understand it takes time to get things done. But the “green light” seems to come so long after it should have. So they get a late start on everything. Right now supposedly the “entry level” SAAB below the 9³ which recently got the go-ahead for a release sometime around 2010 or 2012 actually was first proposed years ago when SAAB was given the 9²X from Subaru as a stopgap measure. So if you count all these years between then and when they’re hoping to have the model out (2011 is the latest I’ve heard) it’ll have been almost a decade in the making.

    Automotive markets are cyclical. There are trends. The SUV trend lasted a good 15 years or so and seems to be on a downturn. SAAB finally introduced their SUV toward the end of that cycle, when the trend was already heading down. Then they realized (after seemingly every other car maker) that “crossovers” are going to be the next big thing (which personally, I highly doubt and just don’t see. I’ve never met anyone who has said, “you know, I could really use a cross between an SUV and a car…”) after seemingly every other car maker introduced one. So SAAB will introduce their crossover right around the time when eco-friendly cars are gaining in popularity. Meanwhile, while every other car maker is introducing “green” concept cars at Frankfurt with an eye to the market in about five years, SAAB keeps showing the same tired BioPower lineup they’ve been toting around the auto show circuit for years. So far ethanol has hardly caught the imagination of the car buying public. It’s a solution to a problem that car buyers really care less about than how much money they can save by driving green.

    Why are hybrids so popular? Diesel? Driving these cars actually saves the owner money at the same time as making them feel like they’re doing some good. Ethanol doesn’t do this. All indications are that ethanol will cost an owner MORE in cost-of-ownership.

    SAAB leads the world in ethanol technology and is providing this to GM, but I really don’t see car buyers getting excited about the prospect of being able to buy a BioPower car. In Sweden, where it’ll save the owner money, sure. But elsewhere?

  10. Ubermich, the US Saab Owner’s Convention was in Michigan from Aug 23-26, and I know some people drove in from Colorado. I-80 is the route they would take.

    Did these mystery Saabs have Colorado plates?

  11. I’m not sure where to post this, so it’s going here: I stated last week in comments to a post about the U.S. probably getting the 2.0t 9³ as their first BioPower offering that I had heard that the 1.8t sold outside the U.S. is underpowered for the weight of the car. That’s the powerplant that puts-out 150 bhp.

    Now I think I was remembering incorrectly. It was the normally-aspirated (which I didn’t know they still even sell) version of the 1.8-liter 9³ (the 1.8i) that a mechanic I was speaking with familiar with the car said is grossly underpowered and that the engine is “questionable” in that car considering the power-to-weight ratio. It only puts out 122 hp!

    So I apologize for mis-remembering, but the point still stands that it’s my opinion that the 2.0t is a poor choice as a first BioPower offering in the U.S. I would rather see them go with the 2.0T or even better the 2.3T in the 9⁵.

    Back to your regularly-scheduled programming… 😉

  12. I seriously dont think ethanol is the way to go as E85 equipped Saabs get 30pc worse fuel mileage plus the fuel will be more expensive than gas – not exactly what consumers, particularly Americans, want to hear.
    I suggest Saab starts to import the TTid into North America and see what happens.

  13. zippy – don’t forget that consumers can still fill up on regular gas with BioPower engines. Offering the 9-3 BioPower will help towards the goal of “50% of all new GM vehicles should be able to run on E85 in 2012”, but without really doing much to reduce fossil fuel demand.

    I can still see potential for ethanol in the US as part of an E-Flex system or another kind of FlexFuel Hybrib. But that’s still on the horizon -along with E85 filling stations.

    The question that comes to mind is whether it makes sense for Saab to try to reconcile a hyprid or electric powertrain with a “Born from Jets” image?

    [off topic – whenever I see the “mobile garage” for those Segways in the Opel Flextreme I think of kangaroos and koala bears 🙂 ]

  14. Zippy: actually the per-volume price of E85 at the pump is quite a bit less than gasoline due to the various state and federal ethanol subsidies. Unfortunately humans are tuned to try and compare apples to oranges. They see a big sign that gives one price for gallon of E85 and another higher price for a gallon of gasoline, and yet another higher price for a gallon of diesel, they’re not being logical and thinking to themselves, “well, the diesel will get me much further than the gasoline and especially the E85 and therefore is more fiscally economical in the long run”.

    However, if you factor in that you’re going to be paying for the subsidies through your taxes and E85 gets around 30% worse fuel economy than gasoline, it quickly becomes apparent that using ethanol in your car will boost horsepower, but cost you more in the long run.

    TimJ: you’re right in your analysis. Supposedly according to GM there are over 2,000,000 flex-fuel capable GM cars on American roads already. What percentage of those do you think run E85 a majority of the time? Some of the time? Not at all?

    The Opel Flextreme’s Segways make me cringe. It’s like “how can we make a nerdy car even NERDIER!!??!”. Can you imagine picking up a date in this car? I like the drivetrain but the styling and gimmicks (Segways) leave quite a bit to be desired, IMHO.

  15. Woops – just realized that I spelled “hybrid” wrong two times above. On further inspection I guess those cars can go fast. Gripen – did biofuel hybrids ever come up in conversation at SOC?

  16. TimJ: the top speed of the Toyota Prius hybrid is limited at 105 mph. That’s why Woz’s feat is so impressive. That’s the car’s top speed. Al Gore III (former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Jr.’s son) was arrested after being caught doing 103 in his. Rookie. 🙂

    No, biofuel hybrids didn’t come up at S.O.C. I did bring it up in a private conversation with SAAB USA’s Communications guru and he explained that SAAB is still doing work on hybrids but that they’re really trying to focus on being known for one thing: ethanol. They do plan to have their diesel and hybrid projects going on, but ethanol is their big deal.

    When I brought up the convertible hybrid a week later in Washington D.C. as a possibility to market to Hollywood elite to Steve Shannon (something I like to call “gettin’ stars into SAAB cars”. Yeah, I’m pretty clever. Thinking about trademarking it…) he seemed to kind-of brush-off the idea. I think he’d be more keen to get them into BioPower convertibles in the shorter term. I’m guessing hybrid is too far off for SAAB.

    Even if they did have plans to release a hybrid it probably wouldn’t be for another five years at least, and by then who knows what new technologies might be out there that are even better than hybrids? Maybe by then SAAB will be given the E-Flex platform from GM to develop something.

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