My 0.02c on Saab and “premium”

First thing – If you haven’t done it yet, you need to scroll down and read the Auto Motor and Sport editorial on Saab. Go on. Do it now. Either scroll down or click here. This article is a response to that piece.

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Ok, now that you’re done with that, let’s get down to business.

SaabUSA have said themselves that they see their competition as being BMW, Audi and Volvo. Whether they’re actually competing in that segment, against all those players, is a matter for discussion. I’m pleased, however, that that’s where they set their sights.

Now all they need is the product to get there.

The first thing I want to say about Gunnar Dackcalle’s editorial is that I really enjoyed reading it. Sometimes the automotive press get it quite wrong when it comes to Saab, but I thought it placed Saab and GM quite realistically. I agree with MarkS in comments, in that the article sold Saab short in several key areas (safety, engine management etc). When the rubber hits the road, though, they’re things that you don’t notice too much until something goes wrong.

I’m generally quite happy with the products I see from Saab, but the whole reason I love to promote Saab via this site is because I want to keep on driving them in the future – and that means growth. And growth requires innovation, competitiveness and quality.

Saab, quite rightly, want to play in that “entry luxury” segment. The good news is that Saab still have enough points of difference to do this without coming across as a wannabe player. Saab can be a genuine alternative to the big Germans – if GM let them.

People think I’m a broken record on this subject, but the investment that GM are making in Cadillac for the European market is money wasted. The Saab 9-3 has been a beneficiary of this with it’s new quieter ride, but that could have happened just as easily with a genuine investment into Saab.

And instead of thousands of BLS’s sitting unsold on Swedish forecourts, we could have had better interior materials. Surfaces that would do a better job of fulfilling Saab’s premium aspirations. It’s not about being as good as the Germans, it’s about being the best Saab they can offer for the money. They Germans can take care of themselves. They will always have journalists and customers waiting at their feet. But Saab need to take of themselves as well, and build the best Saabs they can.

This takes investment, and a willingness to commit to building a Saab as a Saab should be built.

Carl-Peter Forster said it himself:

“It’s amazing how well the market reacts to news from Saab. 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.

Amen to that.

I’ve been banging the drum on this for a long time now: Saab, by it’s own philosophy, brings the best over all package of performance, comfort, utility and safety that I can find. The trouble is, the philosophy has been lost a little along the journey with GM. Back when they had it there was no doubt whatsoever that Saab were “premium”. They had cloth seats when most domestic producers were using vinyl and were well into leather when the others used cloth as standard. Things like this matter.

Now? Well, we’ve all heard the complains about interior surfaces, right?

The fact is that whilst you and I might love them and everything they’re capable of, there’s a market share out there that is yet to be convinced. They need something more. They need something in their premium car that’s a bit. more. premium.

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Let’s not forget that General Motors are ‘general’ in name and general in nature. It’s one of the hardest things about having Saab, a very particular brand, owned by such a large bureaucracy.

Don’t forget, either, that Saab in each country has a product team that decide what sort of spec you get in your home market. It’s not just the beancounters that decide what’s coming.

Can’t get 19 inch wheels in the US? It’s not because Saab don’t produce them.

Can’t get Hirsch tuning in Australia? It’s not because Hirsch don’t exist.

Premium customers expect choice. They expect to be able to customise and get the car that they want. Right now, in some jurisdictions, they can’t do that to the level that they should be able to.

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One thing I disagree with Gunnar about is the possibility for the next generation of Saabs.

From everything I’ve heard, the 9-4x is going to be the next all-new release (not counting the 9-3x) and it’s probably the one where the full spec of the car is developed, bedded down and unchangeable right now. Dealers who saw this vehicle in Sweden in June and July came back suitably impressed.

What’s more, they also got a look at the first models for the next 9-5. If we’re talking about ‘premium’ in terms of interior design and quality then first reports are actually quite positive. Saab have said that the Aero-X will provide design direction for the next generation of Saabs and the word filtering back to me is that this extends to the cabin as well as exterior design themes.

Saab have already displayed a positive progression with the 2008 9-3 and I really believe that will continue. As long as GM have the cohunas to get Saab to the place where Carl-Peter Forster himself seems to think they can reach, then there’s a good chance we’ll be OK.

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Time to put your money where your mouth is, GM. Saab are a great brand with huge potential to diversify your product range in a meaningful way.

If you let them.

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13 Comments

  1. I, for one, hope that Saab just don’t go the “premium” way like Lexus, Audi and BMW. That is, good quality, nice material, no history, no personality. If one think about the word “premium”, it really has to do with getting costumers to pay for something they really don’t need. To get them to pay for a feeling or a way of living. Because how often can we really enjoy that feeling? There was a good comment about this at AMS a week ago or so (you Swedish people can read it). Someone said something like this: do we need premium when doing 20 mph in congestion in the city to and from work every day? When taking kids to and from the ice hockey practice on a rainy autumn evening? When hauling building material to and from our summer house? Apart from lots of money, what is the difference between a Skoda Octavia and a Audi A4 during those moments that make us enjoy “premium”? Because, as we have seen, “premium” is not the same as top safety or trouble free ownership or comfortable seats a practical cars.

    How many Saab costumers the last 10 years have bought a Saab because they thought is were nicer and more upper class than other cars? And how many have bought a Saab because of the safety, the seats, the design, the quirky engineering under the hood, and all the other stuff that showed that car was unique and did stuff it’s own way? How many choose it because we made our own decision without looking at the price tag?

    Swade talked about it earlier. Saab enthusiast love the brand. We buy a brand new 9-5, but still just love that old 900 Turbo. Ask the nearest Audi owner if he loves that old Audi 100 from 1985. He probably not even know about it. He bought a dream for a premium price tag, not a specific car from a brand with a history he loved.

    I could buy the next Saab if its premium AND quirky with has a personality with roots in Trollhättan. It its only a global premium product, I would probably not be interested anymore.

    (Note to myself: stop reloading Trollhattan Saab and do some real work today!)

  2. ctm: funny thing is when I purchased my first 900 vert, I did so expecting premium treatment and service. (a step up from toyota) Only after that, and experiencing the car, did I get myself educated on the Saab brand. AND AM I HAPPY I DID.

  3. That´s very good write Swade. Once again. I think someone already said this, but Saab should hire you to give them marketing directions and keep them premium like Saab used to be!

    A Premium car. What´s that?

    To me, it´s comfortable seats, good driving position, driveability (you can sense what´s happening around you, traction etc), easiness of driving when you don´t want to DRIVE the car, good driving lights (the best lights ~ Saab), comfortably heated seat (no burned bum, no cold “spots”), controls that you can reach in dark without any effort doing it, functionality of all the controls (no stupid tricks!), good windshield/lamp washer (the best ~ again Saab), Safety (contains several things like performance) – passive and active, robust and reliable (like C900 used to be compared to competitors), air conditioning (AC where Auto is enough in cold winter morning with 4 passengers) with effective heating and cooling, interior materials that can hold on hard usage (9-3 have suffered probs on this).
    And so on.

    There´s so many things that I start missing if I drive something else than Saab. And I´ve done again lot´s of test driving lately. Still I say, I love Saab and to me nothing comes close as a whole package.

    Tme, 9-3 Sport combi MY08 is as Saab as it could get today. I don´t care about radio and door handles if they come from Chevy Malibu or what. They don´t affect the car being premium or not. It´s better than any of previous Saabs (you can shoot me for this ;).

    My wife resists to even think of driving other car than a Saab. You should´ve heard her comments when we´ve testdriven few other makes 😀

    And in Finland you cannot throw a stone without hitting V70…

  4. “And in Finland you cannot throw a stone without hitting V70…”

    To that I say: Throw more stones! or maybe just bigger ones!

  5. I like MarkoA’s definition of a premium car which pretty well corresponds to Saab, except for the RELIABILITY. That is certainly the single element that hurts the brand the most. But it does not correspond to the industry’s view of a premium brand. So let Saab be a different type of premium brand Just make it more reliable and offer more models. Keep away from the gadgets and electronic gismos, which by the way killed Merc’s reliability record.

  6. No. 9, I have to agree with you on that part…. Technology for technology’s sake in a car is begging for demons to play with it. I’d like to see Saab right where it is in it’s technology ethos. Anything that goes into the car is functional and semi-needed. I think a lot of the stuff that people cry are necessary for a premium car, technology wise, are not entirely functional.

    The more features and technology a car has in it, the more likely something is going to fail and fail often.

  7. Maybe I wasn´t clear enough. I wrote “like C900 used to be compared to competitors” in it´s time it was quite reliable. It seems that newer Saabs suffer lot´s of problems. Also quality of interior material got mentioned. And I don´t mean feel or the like, but peeling, falling apart and so on.

    Our 2007 SC has been very good for us. Now 30000kms without a single problem. Knock on wood to that!

  8. Premium needs other aspects too to be able to become real premium. The correct *clonk* when you close a door, the correct *clonk* when you ram your elbow into the door’s inside while seated, the correct *smell*, the correct *feel* on all of the plastics (oddly, the latest Audi A/S5 is a step back in this respect compared to the old A4!), the correct *weight* in the doors even if that takes loading them with metal just to achieve that (!), etc.

    This is what I believe Dackevall s getting onto – and we may agree or not, but this is in essence what defines premium.

    Does Volvo do this? Nopes
    Saab? Nopes
    Jaguar? To some degree
    Lexus? To a large degree
    Who does? Well, the troika: BMW, Merc and Audi.

    What this really tells me is that “premium” is something the germans invented to get a competitive edge, and they keep redefining what’s premium to fit their makes. No one can keep up, because per definition they can’t.

    The question to ask is: does Saab need to be Premium or can it be Saab instead?

  9. “The correct *clonk* when you close a door, the correct *clonk* when you ram your elbow into the door’s inside while seated”

    You just described 3dr c900.

  10. Seriously, you say the things that need to be said, you filter our ideas and dreams for Saab and distill them into 100% Proof Trollhattan Saab Spirits.

  11. As right as some of you are about what makes a premium car “premium,” the cars still have to be fresh. The 2008 9-3 is, sadly, as fresh as it gets.

    The 9-5 is a decade old platform. While it was passable in 2005 (Aero) in terms of look, equipment, and performance, the “face lifts” (interior and exterior) have done nothing to improve a vehicle that, by all accounts, should have been replaced at least 2 years ago. As the “premium midsized” market (BMW 5 series, Audi A6, Acura TL, etc) has gone to 6-cylinders, rear or all-wheel drive, and yes, to an extent “technology for technology’s sake,” (which, incidentally, doesn’t the Aero-X seem to be built around?) the 9-5 has, well, “languished” for lack of a better word, with the same hardware its had since its inception.

    The 9-7x, while a nice SUV, is the last gasp of an aging (or even obsolete) platform. The market, again, is moving more towards car-based “Cross-overs,” which the 9-4x will address to a point. However, SAAB is late to the game and will have a tough road ahead if it wants to compete with the established players.

    We’re not even going to discuss the 9-2x, which was a good idea in concept… execution was severely lacking, however.

    There are those who say that too many models in the line-up would be bad for SAAB, and I disagree to a certain extent. How many “mainstream,” entry-level luxury brands today have only three models, two of which are not even close to being modern? If SAAB wants to compete with Mercedes, Infiniti, Lexus, BMW, Audi, etc, they’re going to have to greatly expand their model lineup. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening under GMs stewardship.

    The question begs to be asked: Who will save SAAB from GM? SAAB has absolutely no future under GMs oppressive rule, no matter how many platforms it gets to play with. GM’s product offerings are so similar across the brand that differentiating, ESPECIALLY with the limited budget GM allows SAAB, will be nigh impossible. Even if the new vehicles don’t closely resemble something else in the stable, SAAB will still fail if the platform is found to be lacking. The upcoming 9-5 will be, in my opinion, make or break for SAAB. If it doesn’t sell well, GM will pull the plug. Here’s hoping!

    (Sorry for the novella!!)

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