Is this what it’s going to take to sell Saabs in the US?

Most of you would have read the piece “I” put together for publication at The Truth About Cars. It was published around 12 hours ago as I write this.

It was an interesting exercise, and one that got me thinking.

The final piece that ended up on the TTAC was pretty thoroughly edited by site owner/writer/editor-at-large Robert Farago. I need to take this opportunity to explicitly thank Robert for the work he did on it. At first I suggested he publish it with his name on it and credit me with an assist. He convinced me to go ahead, though, so I edited his edit a little and away we went. As he said to me, if your message is important enough to be put out there, then put it out there.

I’ve reproduced my original, first draft, below. If you’ve read the TTAC final piece then you’ll notice that the initial draft provides just the facts with little of the pizzazz. I was actually pretty happy with it too, and still am. I can’t write like Farago. I don’t have his thing for witticisms and sharp, crisp prose. I just wanted to get the facts across, which I think I did.

Most of the success of TTAC is due to Farago’s style. It attracts attention, is sometimes sensationalist and is never afraid of having a whack at a company. When my factual, solid draft came back into my inbox with all of the bells and whistles written in, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it takes to really engage an American audience.

Saab cars and Saab’s non-US advertising is loved by many because it’s understated. It’s classy, says what it needs to and then lets you go about your own business. I tried to write this draft in a similar manner, but it’s clear by the 40 or so comments on the TTAC piece – however unkind some may be – that Farago’s edit engaged the audience.

So here’s my original draft. If you haven’t clicked through to TTAC then here’s the link, you can compare the two.

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If there’s one keyword for describing Saab’s recent past, it’s underinvestment. When they were self-determining they were so small that they barely had any R&D money and what they managed to do with what you’d now call a skeleton staff was amazing. Saab developed a dedicated following by innovating, and creating cars that captured the imaginations of those who had a mind to embrace them. Under GM’s umbrella, however, it’s often been a distracted story of short arms reaching into deep pockets.

Some of this is Saab’s own fault, of course. Like when they spent millions of dollars developing a fibre-optic system that whilst quite advanced, was completely devoid of application in any of GM’s other vehicles. The corporate heads eventually took notice – and then they took the reins.

Whilst 2003 saw the 9-3 Sport Sedan released, what the devout Saabist didn’t know is that there was a full model range behind the sedan – models that were either delayed or scrapped after the beancounters took control. This resulted in a lot of short term pain for Saab enthusiasts and a lot of lampooning from the press.

Fast forward to 2006 and GM began to spruik a new-found commitment to Saab. There was the Aero-X concept car and a new worldwide sales record at 133,000 vehicles, plus change. It still wasn’t enough to get them in the black, but it was an improvement nonetheless.

That new-found commitment has finally begun to take shape in the 2008 model year, with a refreshed Saab 9-3 that is a definite improvement over the outgoing model. It’s more aggressive, much quieter, and features a couple of genuine mechanical innovations: the twin-turbo diesel engine (TTiD) and Haldex’s all-new Cross-Wheel Drive system (XWD).

XWD is a genuine pace-setting improvement and is already receiving positive press from the pre-production test drives. It’s a brand new all-wheel-drive system from Haldex and Saab are the first company to use it. Remember when Saab was all about innovation?

Like most modern AWD systems, it’s capable of splitting the power between the front and rear wheels. What’s new is that it’s also capable of splitting power to the rear wheels from side to side, via a new electronic LSD. If you get into a sticky situation, the usual grab-bag of gizmos read your signals and divert power to the wheels that need it in milliseconds. The end result is a level of control that allowed Saab’s own testers to put it through slalom tests quicker, and with greater control, than several premium German and Japanese AWD competitors – including the Porsche 911 turbo.

US consumers won’t see the TTiD engine as it can’t be made compliant with emissions regulations and remain competitively priced, a lack of foresight on GM’s part that I believe they’re going to regret. European customers will definitely find it to be of interest as it’s a brilliant, powerful and smooth – yes, smooth – diesel engine.

In the medium term, Saab will get an all-new and bigger 9-5 flagship, a midsize 9-4x SUV that’s designed from the ground up as a Saab to replace the 9-7x, and a new smaller Saab (called 9-1, for now). Add to that an all-new Saab 9-3 and you’re looking at a full, expanded range of new vehicles by around 2011.

Saab’s value to GM isn’t just about what it can contribute to the bottom line through Saab sales, however. What Saab bring to GM’s table is much more varied and valuable.

Saab have been turbocharging for 30 years and have been GM’s leader on the technology since they came under the corporate umbrella. Recently, Saab have also added a few extra areas of responsibility.

With an outlook toward cellulosic ethanol, Saab have been given the lead role in developing GM’s E85 capability for the future. GM’s previous E85 efforts have been an exercise in CAFE dodging and resulted in low-mileage utes that rarely use the fuel. Saab’s E85 technology uses turbocharging to take advantage of ethanol’s high octane rating. The end result is around 20% more power and torque when running on E85.

Finally, the XWD system debuting in the 2008 Saab 9-3 will be made available to other GM models in coming years and Saab have been charged with the rollout of this system to other front-wheel-drive model lines.

Saab built a heritage and a cult following based around doing things different. Not for the sake of difference, but because those things made sense. Innovation is still alive at Saab, even if it’s somewhat muffled by being part of GM’s bigger picture. Saab are still GM’s only global premium brand and it finally looks like they’re starting to make the contribution that a premium player needs to make.

More importantly, they might finally be getting the investment that they need.

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14 Comments

  1. “I don’t have his thing for witticisms and sharp, crisp prose.”

    Swade, why do you think we love to read your stuff? 🙂

  2. I have to say that if your name was not on the TTAC version I would not have known it was a Swade piece.
    Your orignal piece was Saab (fit for purpose and no undue BS). The “tweaked” piece was Audi 🙂

    Going forward maybe you can leverage your brand identity by using out of the box thinking to create world class synergies and proactivley sourcing new opportunites for significant growth. (or write more articles in other blogs if you like reading plain english)

  3. Swade, you are an excellent writer; straight and to the point. You’re not like a lot of the American car-journos, who utilize fluff and gimmicky-catchphrases to fill their articles to make them look respectable to the uneducated eye. TS is the benchmark that I use to gage American auto-journalism, when they report on Saab.

    Nevertheless, going back to your question, I believe that the average American is so inundated with attention grabbing, flashy and sensationalist advertisements, television shows, movies and news (the worst of it all!!), that they are often bored, and unresponsive, to understatement. Every once in a while, we love to sit back and enjoy an understated commercial, but those tend to be for things that only 20 – 25% of the populace can own (read Merc, Rolls-Royce, ad nauseam.) The only automaker that I can think of that has used understated advertisements, and succeeded, has been VW. They started with commercials talking about the safety of the vehicle (1), then progress to commercials with random, unexpected humor (2) and then utilized a catch-phrase or music/pop-culture (3). But even they use sensationalism (4).

    From these commercials, I believe you’ll get a fair idea of the type of advertisements we see throughout the US. I apologize in advanced for the lack of proper linkage. I looked for the page where Swade says how to do it, but my insomnia is wearing out and I’m blabbering on. So for all of us, I’ll end it now 😛

    (1)
    “Like” Safety Commercial

    “Big Day” Wedding Commercial

    (2)
    “Rabbit Pack” Commercial

    “Da Da Da” Commercial

    (3)
    “3 V-dubs under 17 K” Cafe Commercial

    “Mr Roboto” Commercial

    “Bubble Boy” Commercial

    (4)
    “Un Pimp My Ride” V-dub Commercial

  4. Again, I agree with the others. Good piece in your style, I thought that the TMOAC (nee TTAC) piece had a few over-the-top pieces woven in (Swedish words?).

    Again, Farago misses the point: Saabs are NOT sold to those that want excess adornment. For those, there are Hummers, ricey Scions and Lincolns. Thus, his over-wrought prose is a little out-of-place with the Saab way of thinking.

    Advertising only brings people to the website. The cars must be better for Saabs to sell in the US. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the US market has more choice than any other. It has an affect.

    What is needed to sell Saabs in the US? A 9-5 that is both bigger and more powerful (sorry Rod). A Hirsched-out 9-3 ‘halo’ model, much like the Audi S6 is to the A6 or the M3 is to the 328 Bimmer. Wait a minute — they could call it the Viggen! Wow, what a concept!!

  5. As far as the 9-3, it’s not the exterior. The interior quality needs to improve, especially the “gadgets”.

    a 33k + car should have bluetooth and iPod functionality standard. Get that in there and it’s a start.

  6. Whats it going to take?
    Fewer V6s and automatics…less displacement, same power…TwinTurboDiesels…more attention to interior and audio details…maybe more integration/models with Opel…lose BFJ, replace with Pilots Prefer Saab or some such. In ads, show cars at their best, in hellish ran and snow…doing 90! Not to be attempted by an Ultimate Driving Machine.

    Finally, with the ever-weakening $$, maybe more US component and even car production.

  7. What I gather from the comments is that Saab is a plain but good-hearted girl, hanging around the punchbowl in her flower-print frock and glasses, smelling faintly of diesel oil and ethanol; while all the hotties (Audi, BMW, etc.) are strutting their stuff on the dance floor in their shiny gold miniskirts.

    And us clueless Yanks are paying more attention to the hotties on the dance floor (who really aren’t good for us) than to the PBG-HG (who is). If we knew what was good for us, we would go straightaway over to the punchbowl and ask her to dance.

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