AMS talk with Carl-Peter Forster

Gunnar Dackevall from Auto Motor and Sport has penned an editorial that considers the recent failures of American companies to sustain a relationship with ‘premium’ brands.

One such relationship that hasn’t soured at this point is GM’s relationship with Saab. Dackevall considers that it hasn’t quite reached ‘premium’ level yet, either.

Dackevall spoke with GM Europe chief Carl-Peter Forster in preparation for this piece, which has been translated for us by ctm.

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One final opportunity for the US…

Few thing create such a debate among car enthusiasts as the conception of a “premium car”. Earlier, I wrote about GMs fruitless tries to convince us in Europe about the premium qualities of Cadillac. I allowed myself to question the capabilities of the Yanks to understand the concept at all.

At the final round of the Swedish Touring Car Championship (STCC), I met one of the former Volvo honchos. He agreed, saying “They don’t get it in Dearborn. They are in the process of ruining Volvo.”

Since Ford is about to get rid of all their premiums brands, it seems that Bill Ford finally realised that they are miserable at nurturing and refining luxury cars. The divorce between Mercedes and Chrysler shattered all hopes for the American mass producer of achieving higher margins.

After the debacle with Cadillac in Europe, the scrapping of Ford’s Premium Automotive Group (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo), and Daimler getting rid of Chrysler, there is only one small glimmer of hope in the premium segment for the American auto industry: the old abbreviation SAAB.

An insignificant, non-profitable, kind of unhappy little brand in the big automotive world (and that should go for the brand’s status in the aeroplane business as well). The maintenance is neglected, the model line-up sparse, and the global brand recognition is weak. The most positive thing you can say about the brand is that nobody dislikes it, a fact that is hardly true for any other well-known brand.

“It’s amazing how well the market reacts to news from Saab,” says Carl-Peter Forster, president GM Europe, during a meeting at the auto show in Frankfurt. “Even if we are talking just adjustments to a current vehicle, like the 9-3, it generally gets a very warm reception from the media. There seems to be an incredible potential in the brand, if we can only manage to deliver the right products to the costumers.”

And the right products in the near-term are the a brand new cross-over (9-4X, to be premiered in Detroit in January), a new smaller car (the 9-1, to premiere in 2010 and the only car to be manufactured in Trollhättan), and the replacement in 2011 to the current 9-3.

GM believes in Saab, no doubt about it, and the expectations are high. The idea to market Saab as the environmentally friendly alternative in the premium segment is rather attractive. A telling sign is the dealership network in the US, which remains intact despite slow sales and the fact that hope and XWD are the only things that can get the brand through until new models arrive.

But what about the new model line-up and its position at the market? Will Forster manage to do what former BMW boss Wolfgang Reitzle failed to do at Ford PAG, and Dieter Zetsche failed to do at Chrysler? That is, to create a serious premium brand within an American company?

I asked Forster how he would make a premium 9-5 out of an Opel Vectra: “Bigger car, bigger engine, more equipment, technology (XWD was mentioned), more refinement. And a more focused marketing of the brand.”

That is, more metal, more gadgets, more engine. An more money to market it. Forster is careful to point out that ‘premium’ is not a simple question of black or white. Everything is moving along a grayscale.

I don’t think we should expect the next generation of Saab models at the end of the decade to be premium. At least, not the way we Europeans define it.

True, they could still be attractive cars. But only on the surface. The American way.

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Some more thoughts on this to come……

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12 Comments

  1. It’s a shame that Saab’s investments in safety (and other design/engineering innovations) were completely ignored in this article. Attractive cars “only on the surface”?? If all Saabs became merely re-badged GM vehicles, that might be true. But for now, the 9-5 and 9-3 are industry leaders in terms of safety and solid construction (Saab also has the most advanced engine management system on the planet-I could go on!). Saab has invested a great deal in this area, and deserve to be recognized for their achievements. It always amazes me when so-called “automotive journalists” ignore these kinds of things about Saab. The article didn’t directly bash Saab, but at the same time managed to offend this Saab enthusiast. Sorry Gunnar, you have no credibility! Pull your head out of the sand and try again!

  2. He’s right about one thing — the 9-5 needs to be bigger and faster.

    And, let the record show that MB couldn’t make it in Detroit, either.

    Our old friend Mr. Kerkorian is right about one thing — it’s very difficult to find time to work on a brand with sales in the tens of thousands when you have brands that sell well above 2 million cars a year.

    I also believe that similar things could be said about European comanies in the same predicament. How many banners have been raised to celebrate Fiat’s ownership of Lancia?

  3. One thing that striken me as odd concerning Saab inside GM all alog is this:
    In Ford, Volvo-tech, such as safety, has been allowed to trickle-down into Ford’s other brands.
    Same is true for engines, which are shared across the cars – be they Volvo-originals or not.

    In Saab, I see very little come out of Saab into other cars, instead there’s alot of stuff tricklin-up into Saab.

    Why?

  4. Remember, this is Auto Motor & Sport (AMS) writing this stuff. For those of you who don’t have access to that magazine, its as pro German premium cars you can get. 50% of the material is just reprints of press releases from the German car makers without any objective journalism at all. Porsche redesign the exhaust? Top story of the week. BMW actually manage to get 5 stars in EuroNCAP? Front page news a couple of days. Audi release a new car? Its fantastic and a sure success before they even test drive it. Sad to say, to me the magazine is a joke today. They are a bunch of good journalists with lot’s of experience and could use their skill to something more serious. But its all about German premium and if something is different from Porsche, Audi or BMW its automatically shit because they make the best cars in the world and the cars people should drive and those who don’t drive them don’t really understand anything about cars… I’m interested in cars and the auto industry, but AMS is not the place to go anymore. I hadn’t even seen this editorial until Swade mailed it to me yesterday.

  5. Maybe GM have finally realised that Saab will never be a mainstream brand. The knock on effect of this is that they have to realise that niche also means exclusive. If you are going to make a profit out of 150,000 units then you’re going to have to ask for a premium, and premium is where Saab should be.
    Is an Audi just a re-badge of Volkswagen for the majority of their product line-up or does it run deeper. We’re not talking about torsion Quattro here which VW do not use. What I’m referring to is what separates the Audi TT to the Golf GTi. Same platform, same engine. and where 4WD is concerned even the same HALDEX system.
    To me the difference is materials and design.
    On face value there is no difference between Audi and VW as there is with Saab and OPEL. the underlying factor is that the materials today might match the price difference today, but the new products will require a lot more insight.
    Some issues need to be put into perspective.
    in order to generate a larger profit from a smaller production quantity the price is going to have to be adjusted. A higher price commands better quality to justify the increase. This can be done but GM have to ask themselves a question by pricing Saab in this sector. Is the Brand identity strong enough to be a convincing competitor to Audi and Co.?
    A question I have thought about when considering the pricing of the TurboX for example. A Saab enthusiast may well be prepared to pay the money for the car, but is it priced to make it an alternative to a prospective S4 buyer? And that I’m not so convinced about.
    The same will go for the 9-4x. will the vehicle have the quality to steal a Lexus RX 400h customer? If GM want Saab to wear the premium eco-warrior badge then they need to seriously think about who’s business they are going to steal by doing it? Will it be the Lexus Hybrid buyer, or the Mercedes Blue-Tec customer? Either way the quality of the next generations of Saabs will need to certainly be on par. Luckily GME are in charge of Saab design so I’m confident that Rüsselsheim will get the right mix. The hard part will be convincing GMA that the cost will be the only way to make Saab successful.

  6. Let’s hope that the new add firm starts to talk about the saab safety and all of the things going into Saab. The “born from jet’s” thing is cool, but GETTING OLD. When I see these adds, I think, Why would I want this car for my family? When I see a Volvo add, some of my questions are answered. SAAB MUST CLASS UP THE ADDS, THAT IS WHAT THE US PREMIUM MARKET RESPONS TO. The dealer I purchased my Saab from now is a BMW showroom. What does that tell you?

  7. TrakDah, “In Saab, I see very little come out of Saab into other cars, instead there’s alot of stuff tricklin-up into Saab.” What about SAHR – something similar is now available in some or all (?) Opel/Vauxhall models.

  8. Also TrakDah,

    Things from cupholders to the 2.8T have found themselves in other GM cars. Unfortunately GM does not promote the fact that this or that was developed by their Saab premium brand. Which is why the press position Saab as a dressed-up Opel rather than Opel as a dressed-down Saab. My concern is that with the next gen 9-3 and 9-5 is that they risk not being Saab to the core. eg. Safety might be unSaab.

  9. I agree, the 9-5 needs to be more METAL than the Vectra m/

    :p

    Eh…the article does kind of ignore what Saabs are below the sheet metal.

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