I don’t know if, on a 35,000 unit run rate where we are now, what kind of a business opportunity there is unless SaabUSA were to significantly fund and help grow that business…and with everything else on our plate right now, that’s just not a high priority.
The quote on the right is Steve Shannon during my interview with him a few days ago. The full interview runs just over an hour and you can listen to the full recording here.
As you can see, one of the things we discussed during the course of the conversation was Saab tuning, and the possibility of Hirsch being marketed in the United States. In short, it sounds like it’s not going to happen in a hurry and I think that’s got to be disappointing for the Saab enthusiasts living there.
First, a word about the Hirsch arrangement.
Hirsch have been approved as Saab’s official tuners. Despite this status, their presence in any given country is not automatic. It’s up to Saab in each country to see that Hirsch modified vehicles will comply with local safety and design rules and then they have to market the products, usually through their dealer network.
Earlier in the interview, Steve Shannon questions why Hirsch aren’t in the US under their own steam. As far as I understand it, Hirsch won’t sell into a country without an arrangement with the Saab group in that country because their arrangements with Saab Automobile AB preclude them from doing so, mainly because of warranty issues and consistency of the relationship.
I think there’s a number of reasons why Saab USA should look at Hirsch again, and reconsider the possibility of bringing Hirsch vehicles to the US market.
The #1 reason why Hirsch modifications should be made available in the US is because it’s a bloody good product. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a drive in Jeff B’s Hirsch 9-5 here in Australia and it was hands-down the most dynamic Saab I’ve ever driven. It’s a very driveable car (though a bit too low for someone occasionally inattentive like me) but it’s also pure, unadulterated aggression when you decide to kick it in the guts.
And it’s not just the engine tuning that makes these cars exciting. The suspension and most importantly, the brakes are just outstanding.
I’d take a Saab over a BMW on any given day because that’s where my heart is. If I were to function purely on rational thought, though, I’d take a Hirsch Saab over a BMW any day because not only has it got the styling and ergonomics that I love, it’s got the performance to match.
Tuning isn’t just about 20-somethings in Honda Civics.
Saab tuning is about taking a great car with design features and cues that you love and making it your own. Whilst the Fast and Furious crowd usually end up with garish look-at-me-mobiles that end up as cop bait, I’ve rarely seen a tuned and customised Saab that’s offended me. That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened – it has. But more often than not we’re talking about tasteful upgrades in looks that enhance the design but keep the original aesthetic, and upgrades in performance that give people the chance to make their Saab the best it can be – for them.
There are aftermarket providers out there now doing this and doing a great job of it. But the fact is that not all parts fit perfectly from aftermarket guys and what you can end up with is a car that’s not quite up to the standard you’d like.
The good thing about Hirsch is that because they’re in relationship with Saab, the stuff’s guaranteed as if it came from the factory that way – and they can’t do that without providing an equal standard of fit and finish.
If you want to individualise your car and you’ve got the option of choosing individual parts endorsed by the factory, then that gives you the ultimate option.
Steve Shannon raised concerns about whether Saab’s US market is big enough to consider entering in the custom business. I’d be more concerned about whether Hirsch are big enough to handle the extra work.
First, there’s the unavoidable fact that Hirsch are doing business in multiple world markets and all of them are smaller that Saab’s US market. That happens when you’re the biggest.
Second, it’s not just the 35,000 you’ve sold this year that you’ve got as potential clients. There’s 4 years of Epsilon 9-3 sales to consider and almost 10 years of 9-5 sales. That’s a lot of cars. It’s still less than the number of Toyotas sold in a month, but it’s still a considerable client base, especially when you consider the next point…..
BMW don’t sell bucketloads of M vehicles and Audi don’t sell bucketloads of RS vehicles, either.
But they sell a lot of base-level vehicles from the reputation that they’ve built on the back of these high-performance elite cars. This is the qwan. The mystique. The aspirational.
I could never have afforded to buy one of the three Hirsch vehicles that came out to Australia for compliance purposes a few years ago. But having seen one I straight away wanted to drive it one day. And having driven it I wanted to do what I could with my Viggen to make driving exciting again.
These vehicles build passion. They build loyalty. They build excitement into the brand. They let people see what the potential for their car is. What company – what aspiring premium company – doesn’t need these elements in their brand-building strategy?
Steve Shannon’s other reasons for not looking at Hirsch include a lack of engineering resources on the ground to ensure the cars meet American needs, standards and regulations, as well as concern over how much they’d have to commit to build that business.
On that front, Hirsch modifications have to be developed to factory standards. I’d imagine that their agreement with Saab Automobile AB places a pretty big mandate on this. They’d still have to be emissions and economy tested – but I can assure you that anecdotal evidence seems to point to tuned Saabs running more efficiently, not less.
In terms of marketing, all of the imagery etc is already there. You’d only have to change it if you really wanted to. It’s well produced and consistent with Saab imagery around the world.
Steve summed it up by saying that it all comes down to having to make a business case for the product. Either it’ll sell well enough to be sustainable, or Saab will see it as important enough to sustain it, or it just plain won’t work.
His final word was that with his current to-do list in terms of getting the brand stable in the US, that something like Hirsch just isn’t a priority. In life-and-death terms I can see what he means, but I just hope that the file is put to the side of the desk rather than in the bin.
As per his request during the interview, I sent Steve a link to the 9-5 Turbo S Edition that I dreamed up a few weeks ago as a way to send the 9-5 out with a bang. That concept relied heavily on Hirsch development so I guess it’s a complete non-starter from that point of view.
But I also included a brief encouragement for Steve to try out a Hirsch vehicle next time he’s in Europe.
And if you get the chance, I’d encourage you to do the same.