I interviewed Mikael Östlund from National Electric Vehicle Sweden yesterday. NEVS is the company that now owns Saab, a car company I worked for last year and have been a fan of for a long, long time.
I hope the interview succeeded in addressing a few of the questions that people have about what NEVS plan to do with Saab. It certainly answered a few of my questions.
Here are my big takeaway points from the interview:
Saab really is a Chinese company now in many respects. I guess being based in Trollhattan kept me thinking they were Swedish, but it’s not really the case anymore. When NEVS negotiated to use the Saab name I assumed it would be a continuation of Scandinavian Cool at Saab but as Mikael mentioned, the Swedish contribution will largely be manufacturing expertise. Engineering will primarily come from Japan and China. There will be Swedish input along the way, but the continuity we’re used to in terms of Saab’s model range and market focus is well and truly over.
Those Saab fans who were hanging out to buy a Saab hybrid should head off to the Toyota/Honda/Whatever showroom now. Alternatively, you can try to look up your Saab hybrid at notgonnahappen.com
The other realisation that (I think) won’t hit traditional Saab fans for a while is that they really aren’t Saab’s target market anymore. We still talk in terms of sentimental attachment but the cord has largely been broken with this change of ownership. Interest in Saab’s activities was never really a choice for me before, even under GM ownership. It is now. NEVS’s whole vision for Saab is based around China and everything is being done with that market foremost in their mind. They will, I’m sure, keep selling in various countries around the world, but if you think your demands for a $20K electric hatchback for the US are going to be heard and heeded, please think again.
I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised by some of the questions that went unanswered. For example, I’d have expected Mikael to know about whether they’d need to modify things to get the traditionally powered 9-3 into the Chinese market – not the technical bits, but the generalities at least. I’d also expect them to have launch venue plans made up (we had plans in place for the next few years in terms of what motor shows we’d be at, and even what we planned to show there – years in advance). To be fair, Mikael’s flying solo in terms of company PR duties so whether it’s reasonable to expect him to be on top of such details is open to debate. Having a team would help, I’m sure.
When you’re associated with something that you really enjoy – a company, a product, a culture – it’s really hard to imagine it in someone else’s hands, doing something other than what you did with it. That’s what’s happening with Saab now. It’s the same factory, the same machinery, but with someone else with very different goals in charge of it all. I remain very interested to see how things will turn out primarily because of the quality of the car that they say they will build. But this isn’t my Saab – our Saab – anymore, and I’m still unsure as to how to react to that.
On the positive side, they do seem very committed to building a genuine premium electric vehicle based on the very latest technology. I’m not convinced of the size of the market, but they certainly do want to build the right car, which may not necessarily be what most Saab fans will consider as being an affordable car. I’m convinced that this is the only way a small-volume carmaker will be able to survive in the future: to build good margins into a quality product. That seems to be the way they’re aiming and I’m pleased to see it.
Some of you will read this and think I’m still very negative about NEVS’ and Saab’s future. Not so.
I remain unconvinced about their chances of success and I’m not sure that their future product will be something that I’ll be able to relate to, or eventually buy. I really hope that it is, but I’m not sure.
I am pleased, however, that they are so focused on what they believe is the right path for them. If I can’t see the same path, it’s most likely because of my own skewed view, not because the path isn’t there. I’m pleased that they are so committed to building a premium electric vehicle and I hope they can build something that is a true successor to Saab’s name and technical heritage.
I’m not sure it’ll be for me and I can’t claim to understand or agree with the path they’re taking, but I’m impressed by their commitment and hopeful that they’ll get to do all that they want to do.
I can’t wait to see their first offerings.