Brian Nesbitt roll(ed) in a 9-3 Aero

The Boston Globe has an interview with Brian Nesbitt, Vice President of GM Design North America.

Toward the end, Nesbitt is asked by Globe reporter, Royal Ford, what he’s driving:

I had a Saab 9-3 Aero for the summer. I test drive a lot of the stuff we’re dealing, and right now we’re kind of in the 2012 time frame, so now I’m driving next-generation Enclave, next-gen Acadia, next-gen Escalade.

Well, at least he had one for a while. It’s important to get these movers and shakers from GM into these vehicles so that they can see where the strong points and weak points are.

He also had a few things to say about Saab’s target market, which were interesting:

That’s what I love about working for GM today, because there are so many brands to target to different customers. I mean, there’s Hummer, with extreme mission equipment. With Saab, we target upper liberals, small engine displacement, appearances that originated out of the Nordic region, all those play together to portray an image and a value system that upper liberals appreciate.

I….kinda……really……really……hate that sort of thing.

The cars were built a certain way for a reason, whether it be practicality or safety, or whatever. He makes it sound like their designing Saabs just to suit a particular demographic.

“This is Joe Saab-buyer, and he will be attracted to X, Y and Z”

Therefore, apply X, Y and Z to chassis “E” and all will be right with the world.

The problem is that the market, especially the American market, can be so fickle. And what if you get the definition wrong? He’s pushing Saabs at ‘upper liberals’ when polling here amongst Saab readers indicated that the minority of respondents were left-leaning, politically. Perpetuating the stereotype at a cost to the integrity of the car’s a dangerous business.

Perhaps I’m taking his response the wrong way here, but it sounded a lot like formula-driven planning. I worry that marketing is structured the same way.


It’s great to see that Nesbitt has a familiarity with the brand and has been driving around in a 9-3. We need GM’s brass to be familiar with Saab on a day to day level.

I just hope they’re getting it right, and getting the right insight.


Royal Ford has also put together a list of vehicles that’d make good acquisitions in 2008.

Amongst them was the Saab 9-3:

A classic for New England drivers, this Saab features an all-wheel-drive system that, combined with stability control, made it virtually impossible for me to toss it off a test track in Sweden. Simulated ice, wet corners, gravel, nasty potholes, sudden lane changes – they were all no problem. Expect to pay from the mid-20s to the high 30s.

He’s a great appreciator of Saabs in all the time I’ve been checking out the motoring press, so it’s good to see Saab making his list once again.

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  1. Most of the Saab people I’ve met off of this site are lefties. This site seems to attract a lot of the right-wing nutjobs.


    I think Saab’s target market is mostly left-leaning, but I think Saab’s enthusiast community is a little skewed to the right. Does that make sense? I understand what I’m saying.

    Of course the planning is formula driven. There is a Saab formula – practical but not boring, sporty but economical, ergonomic interiors, safe design, and weird-looking Swedishness. Oh, and unreliability. 🙂

    GM knows at this point (to an extent) that they can’t just take elements X, Y, and Z and put them on chassis E and then PROFIT! They tried that with the 9-2x, and it didn’t work. They tried that with the 9-7x, and it did work, but it’s probably the most ridiculed vehicle since the Yugo.

    They do, however, know who buys their cars, and they know what they want based on that.

  2. The problem is that as long that Americans try to position Saab as a brand according to their view of the world and their taste of things, Saab is in for some big trouble.

  3. Nesbitt’s comments have incensed me.

    You are right Swade- this is corporate ‘kit’ car ology- badge engineering gone mad – grab a platform off the shelf, add-on/stick on some key motifs and bingo its bleedin Saab!

    NO. bloody NO!

    A Saab has a core, a DNA, a inner being (even a smell- ss that article…). We had this with the ‘add-on create-a- Saab game with the NG 900 – which ahd to be tweaked in to the 93 Mk1; has GM learned nothing.

    As you can see I am really unahppy about this design philosophy. And why bring New England politics into a global brand? This is the perfect example of Nesbitt’s blinkered USA -only, thinking.

    And no offence to the USA – I would say the same about any car from anywhere that had a design chief who wanted to design in elements that represent only a small part of a global identity -in fact only a small part of his home market! What a contradiction that is in itself.

    What a way to start 2008… grim…

    I am off for wine without an ‘h’.

  4. lance – Um, I would fully expect the head of GM design NORTH AMERICA to only focus on NORTH AMERICA. He probably doesn’t have much to do with Saab design, just like he probably doesn’t have much to do with Opel or Holden design.

    Sure, Saab is a global brand, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this, because he isn’t the global design guy. His comments were pretty much right in line with what I expect from a random GM higher-up – he doesn’t get Saab. Luckily, the cars are designed in Trollhattan and not in Detroit.

    You guys can piss and moan all you want, but without platform sharing, there would be no Saab today, and there probably wouldn’t have been a Saab after 1998 or so. Saab gets to tune the platforms when they get them, anyway.

    I mean, jeez, Saab only has two cars, he must have either been talking about the 9-3 or the 9-5, and damn near everyone here loves both of those cars. As for the 9-7x, that’s going to disappear and be replaced by the Trollhattan-designed 9-4x, so that’s not a source of worry.

    Point is, I really, really doubt that Nesbitt’s comments are indicating that the next round of Saabs are going to be Cobalts and Impalas with three-port grilles. All they say is that he doesn’t get Saab, so thank God he’s not in charge of Saab USA.

  5. ctm and swade, who do you think should try to position cars for sale in America? Saab Sweden didn’t so well in that, even given 30 years. That said, positioning is marketing, it’s not design or engineering.

    It’s reasonable for the American sales folks to ask Saab buyers, those who never considered buying Saab, and those who considered Saab (but chose some other brand) what they think of when they think of Saab. Once the marketers know that, they can tailor their marketing to reinforce the positive traits that people see in Saab, counter the negative ones, and try to create new impressions that will drive sales. Note that I said that they should tailor the message, not the product.

    The second step is for the US marketing team to tell Saab Sweden what they found; the other worldwide sales and marketing folks should do the same thing. Finally, the folks running the brand can decide how future design or engineering changes might fit in with or oppose the preconceptions in each sales market.

    For example, we here all blame the American market for the introduction of the V6 to the Saab line (in both the 9-5 for a time and the 9-3), saying that it was done because Americans want HP and cylinders yet don’t understand what horsepower, torque, cylinders, displacement, and turbo actually mean. (We are, I think, correct: Americans don’t get those things.) Yet, few of us is really complaining about the Turbo X using a V6 and I doubt that a Turbo X with a highly tuned I4, even one that reached 300 HP, would compete well (against BMW, Audi, Infiniti, etc) or other sell to many Americans who weren’t already “part of the family.” The auto press (come on, we all hate them because they only love RWD in general and BMW in particular) would savage such a vehicle…or call it a “quirky” way to power a “so-called” sporty car. Whether right or wrong, any automobile buyers not already in on the truth would remain shut out of Saab.

    In the end, to any business, it is all about sales, not purity of purpose, design integrity, or engineering mastery. It’s all about the $, £, €, and ¥

    If the local sales and marketing people don’t tell Saab what their markets perceive and what they want, how would you propose that Saab decide what to build? Surely, no one is suggesting that there is only one “right” way to build a sporty, efficient, safe, fun, practical automobile.

    Swade said it best when talking about Nesbitt: “He makes it sound like they’re designing Saabs just to suit a particular demographic.” Not that they are designing for a particular demographic, but that they’re making people in each demographic feel like it was all done for them. (It’s like telling your kids that you love and like them all equally. 😉 )

    That’s exactly what they’re doing.

  6. I think Brian Nesbitt’s comments make many of us worry because it seems to confirm our worst fears about GM having it’s head up it’s collective backside with regard to Saab. Nesbitt’s comment reflects a kind of thinking that’s altogether wrong. Saab design transcends socio-political boundaries to appeal to a much wider audience than that, and if GM is trying to appeal to “upper liberals” it will most certainly fail. I know conservatives AND liberals who own and enjoy Saabs for their unique blend of characteristics (perhaps if one of the GM execs spent an hour on this website they might begin to understand what those are). The 9-2X and 9-7X were NOT successful for Saab. I know they’ve sold a decent amount of 9-7X vehicles but that has not helped Saab’s reputation in the long term. It HAS helped further the idea among would-be Saab customers that Saabs are just re-badged GM vehicles these days. I know this is not true (of the 9-3 and 9-5), but many people I talk with seem to have this impression (at least here in New England). It’s been a PAINFUL 6 years for the Saab enthusiast (yes GM, I’m talking to you…not that you’re listening). GM killed the hatch just when the automotive world was beginning to embrace the “hot hatch” concept. It introduced a Saab branded, gas guzzling SUV just as gas prices were reaching an all-time high. Anyway, I’m sure we all appreciate GM for helping to keep Saab around, but if GM doesn’t wake up what will be left of Saab? A production plant in Sweden that produces primarily ugly-mobiles? A group of Swedish consultants who make automotive fashion suggestions to GM? An engineering group in Sweden which serves as the center of expertise for engine design for every other GM brand first, and Saab last? C’mon GM, maybe you should talk to folks from Saab Sweden about Saabs. You think they might know what makes a Saab a Saab? GM, you’d better figure it out soon.

  7. Ken B – you are not wrong, but my whole point is that Nesbitt’s comments reveal a view of Saab that is NOT askincg the whole of America what it thinks – which is the marekting knowledge you appear to refer too -asking America – but is thinking it knows what an ‘Upper Liberal’ segment of America might think.

    This is the contradiction I was referring to.

    How is a farmer in Montana who wants a 95 or 93 wagon going to identify with a product portrayed by Nesbitt as ‘Upper Liberal’ ?

    That is my point..

    Also, what’s this about Saab not succeeding in the USA over 30 years? Under Bob Sinclair Saab USA sold 50,000 cars a year in the mid 1980s and posted rising sales figures every single month- all based on ONE model- the 900.

    And when Ralph Millet persuaded Saab to send over 250 cars (93 models) in 1956, he sold the lot in days.

    These cars sold because of what they were, not what they pretended to want to be.

    And I wrote an article on Saab for The Independent that quoted Bob Lutz saying that there was a need for a ‘temporayy dilution of brand’ -like the Saab-aru experiment – as necessary to create showroom traffic and dealer survival.

    I hardly think that little experiment worked did it…

    I am not suggesting that Saab should exist as loss making rare species in a protected zoo for cars supported by profits others make, but surely the whole point is that if Saabs appealed for their design qualities in the first place, why and how can a faux pastiche of a Saab possibly succeed?

    That is why the Porshce ethos would work for Saab. It is also what Ford did not dare go too far with its tinkering and shared components for Volvo.

    Yet paradoxically Ford built a Jaguar based on a Mondeo that bombed – becasue it was a retro pastiche that was full of Ford bits – and people knew it.

    The Volvo V50 is a unqiue car- too small, too prestige, and yet based on a cheaper car called the Ford Focus. Yet Volvo have got away with it- because its full of Volvo bits- not Ford parts bin bits.

    The Ford Focus estate sells quietly in Europe – its perceived as an average box. Yet the Volvo V50 estate is the same car -but is a top seller – perceived as a prestige model- despite the fact that ti is small, cannot carry much and it totally eclipsed by the Saab 93 Wagon!

    So yes, Saab could share a floor pan- the same way a Skoda Octavia shares an Audi A3 floor pan, or as Volvo does with the Focus based V50 – BUT just filling it with Saabesque trinkets of design will not a profitable proper car make…

    We need design not tat

  8. Lance, we agree for the most part. (We’ll have to agree to disagree on how well Saab has ever done here. I don’t think that 50,000 vehicles/year is success, but I’m doing my part by plopping down money for a Turbo X, my fifth Saab in 12 years.)

    I suspect that Nesbitt, like politicians who get asked the same question over and over again, has developed an unfortunate shorthand for Saab’s traditional market. “Upper” may mean people in the upper half of middle class who can afford a car in the $30-45K range; “liberal” may refer to the northeastern states (and California?) where Saab does fairly well and which happen to generally vote for the Democrats (although party affiliation is no sure-fire guarantee of political position).

    The real challenge for Saab is in making sure that their shorthand for their current market doesn’t become a confining box. Growth of most kinds means moving beyond a comfort zone. Saab needs to get out of its box without abandoning those of us in the box with it.

    On a note related to shorthand, look how Volvo’s name has been (mis-)used recently in the States:
    1. Conserative political commercial from four years ago accused Howard Dean, then Governor of “liberal” Vermont, of being part of the “Volvo-driving” set. (It’s worth noting that the Club for Growth, who sponsored this ad, also strongly attacks Republicans who it feels aren’t sufficiently conservative.)

    2. The Urban Dictionary includes definitions of Volvo drivers as too concerned about safety and value. You should also look up “saab” there — Saab has a quality perception problem (and Urban Dictionary has a user maturity problem).

    3. The adjectives for liberal have included “Volvo” since the 1960’s. (Note particularly paragraphs 3 and 5.) In spite of Besbitt’s shorthand, there doesn’t appear to be a general public association between “Saab” and “liberal” in the way that there is with Volvo, as least as far as Google is concerned.

  9. lance – What kind of Montana farmer drives a Saab? I’m sure you could find one, but he’d probably be the only one. :p

    And I’ll bet he’s one of them Brokeback Mountain cowboys, too :p

    KenB – Urban Dictionary posters are one step above Youtube commenters (who are the absolute lowest form of life on the net, they’re like the internet’s version of Juggalos) on the Internet Stupidity food chain. TS posters are at the top, obviously 🙂

    That said…My mom is a Republican, and she drives a Volvo…but then again, she voted for Kerry, so I don’t know what’s going on there.

    I think KenB might be onto something when he says that “liberal” is some sort of code for New England and California. Hell, he might not really mean politically liberal. Maybe liberal car buyers are the people who buy Prii and Minis and conservative car buyers want trucks and pony cars. Who knows.

    It’s true, a lot of my friends’ parents have made fun of my car. They’re all weird foreign people (I have an oddly high proportion of German friends, and then the rest of my friends are Pacific islanders for some reason) and the liberal ones (the Germans) tell me that I’m part of the “establishment” with my Saab and the conservative…one tells me that I have an awesome car.

    Maybe Saab is popular among younger liberals and older conservatives? I dunno.

  10. This is a very interesting debate. I’m 32, grew up in the mid-Atlantic US, and from the time I knew what a car even was, associated Saabs and Volvos equally with bearded, practical PhDs–the kind of people who could maybe afford a 3-Series, but who would sooner plunk down 80% of that cost on a car that better suited their needs (as opposed to their egos). This group of people–academics–tend to be of a liberal, individualistic mindset. As I can attest from my time in academia (and as a current Saab owner and future PhD), this image is lasting. The corporate owners may change, but the brand image remains.

    The exception, though, was the 900 Turbo, the quintessential Yuppie-mobile. Take a look at the shallow caricatures in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation … Maybe that’s where the Saab-as-conservative’s-toy image came from?

  11. This is an interesting conversation–thanks folks. A point lurking just below the surface is that GM marketing is concerned with selling new cars, perhaps (but I doubt it) off-lease two-year old models. One of the many joys of this blog is the attention also given to mature SAABs! S, who is the likely US or Cdn buyer or lessor of a new SAAB. It should not surprise any of us that marketing department’s target demographic is different from the TS overall demographic. From where I write it’s 59 minutes to 2008. A great one to you all (and for SAAB)!

  12. Nesbitt should be fired. True or not, his comment is condescending to Saab owners whether or not you fit his stereotype. Marketing 101 is not insulting your customers.

    If Nesbitt is unconerned with expanding the brand of one of HIS brands by providing sales, service, and marketing outside of New England, Great Lakes States, and Northwest then he doesn’t deserve his job. My turbo blew halfway between Seattle and Portland, and there was no garage in the area, despite several GM garages in the area.

    Jeff, my cousins in Havre, Montana (he works at the grain elevator) has had Saabs since the 80s. Saabs in Montana wink their lights at each other b/c they are rare. They have to drive to Bosman for service (some 300+ miles away).

    Independant Saab couldn’t afford to expand beyond population centers. That GM has had Saab for this long and hasn’t even cared to try is one reason why Saab bleeds cash from GM. Nesbitt offers excuses for why Saab hasn’t done well when the reasons rest at his feet.

  13. Garrett – I was using exaggeration for humor, hence the :p. I’m sure if you look hard enough, you can find Saabs in any conservative stronghold, but they’re not going to be plentiful, especially since you have to, say, drive 300 miles for service. I mean, sure, we all know who Danni is, but he’s crazy. An awesome, good kind of crazy, but still.

    In a marketing sense, Nesbitt is totally right about Saab. Who is more likely to want a smaller engine? Who is more likely a car with a “different” design? Who’s more likely to “vote” for a lost cause?

    That last one was a joke, but still. Nesbitt’s job is to approve NA designs, and as far as I can tell, he’s doing a great job. He’s allowed to have opinions on the cars his company sells, and there’s no reason at all to suggest the guy should be fired. It’s not his job to promote Saab, he’s a design guy, so I have no idea why you’re saying it’s his fault that Saab is stumbling.

  14. Folks – by “Upper Liberal” he is in no way commenting on the politics – left leaning or otherwise – of his target customer. He is referring to a market segmentation structure used by many car manufacturers that has a very specific definition of what an “Upper Liberal” customer actually is (for the record he’s talking about SIGMA Milieus® – lots of industries use them). There is a lot of science and data behind that seemingly casual comment, and it has very little to do with where people live or which party they vote for. I think you may be misinterpreting his remarks and getting wound up over nothing – still, it’s an entertaining debate!

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