My 2 Cents On The Jason Castriota Saab 9-3 And All That Seeing It Means

Pictures are out there, all over the place now. The world can see the basics of the Saab 9-3 replacement vehicle as designed by Jason Castriota. This isn’t just some guy’s idea of what a future Saab could look like – this is IT.

JC-Saab9-3-4

All images from the awesome gallery over at Auto Motor and Sport.

A personal, historical perspective…..

The most common questions I’ve been asked in the 15 months since Saab’s bankruptcy are “Did you see Jason’s new car? What did you think of it?” – the assumption, of course, is that I’d seen it while working at Saab. My response is that I hadn’t seen the car, so I had no opinion to offer.

That was 99% true.

I saw a rendering on Jason’s laptop in Los Angeles, in late 2010. That was a flat 2D rendering with no color or contour and it was difficult to form any sort of impression on that. In May or June 2011, when I was in Sweden, I saw another image as part of a corporate presentation. It was just a small icon-type image in the top quarter of a powerpoint presentation and I only noticed it just before the slides changed. It’s fair to say that I didn’t like the image that I saw at that time.

When I was working for Saab, I lived in a building next door to one of Saab’s design staff. He never showed me the car, but the things he told me (usually over some ribs at O’Leary’s) really encouraged me. I learned a long time ago to hold my reactions when seeing a new model for the first time and that practice, along with what I heard over a few dinners, gave me a lot of encouragement and hope for the future.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so glad that Jason Castriota has released these more complete renderings instead of just the basic images we saw early on. Having spent some time looking this car over from top to bottom, front to back, I think it looks absolutely sensational.

Here’s a couple of rules about new cars that you can take to the bank. Renderings never look as good as the real thing and the real thing never looks as good at a car show as it does out on the road. A car is a three dimensional object that’s made to be in motion, in natural surroundings. That’s the best way to see them. Saab’s PhoeniX concept never looked so good as when it was on the streets of New York.

The Look

I’m happy to have waited before passing comment on this design. The first images that surfaced a month or so ago included the early clay models and they weren’t stellar, it’s fair to say. Anyone who’s seen early clay models of other Saabs know that those models don’t always bear a true resemblance to the final product.

In this case, these new CGI renderings of what would best resemble the production-intent model look fantastic. It is, in my humble opinion, a respectful and progressive movement in Saab design. The car has presence. It looks solid. It’s as sporting as a five-door family car can be and it doesn’t look like it’s trying to be something that it’s not.

The reason I came to love Saab was because it offered the best combination of luxury, utility, safety, comfort and performance that I could find in an automobile. That reasoning was based on the Saabs of old – what Victor Muller first referred to as ‘Saab Saabs’. This car looks like it would have upheld that tradition, and I don’t think I could pay it any higher compliment than that.

The Car

We haven’t seen any interior concepts, so we have to work with an assumption that the interior would have been up to par. We know that Saab would have developed the IQon interactive/entertainment system for this car. It was quite advanced when it was first announced and while it wouldn’t have been the first of it’s kind at release, it would have placed Saab well and truly ahead of a lot of competitors.

Couple an innovative and classy interior (assumed) with this good-looking exterior and you’ve got the visual makings of a great package.

What would have set this car apart, however, is the combination of the visual/tactile package with the mechanical. Saab would have had both a new powertrain and a new drivetrain for this car – the BMW-sourced 1.6 turbo engine and the eXWD system being developed in conjunction with eAAM. This mechanical package was being tested at the time of Saab’s bankruptcy. I was in the building at eAAM when they were removing their components from the test cars. This wasn’t vaporware, it was the real deal, and whilst I didn’t get to drive it, I think this car would have offered mechanical advances to the Saab range that would be similar to what Saab achieved with the 99 Turbo.

This would have been a massive car for a re-born Saab. Have no doubt about it.

Let’s take a proper look, shall we? Click to enlarge.

—–

The Consequences

The consequences are all theoretical, of course, but I’m going to take a stab at them for the hell of it.

The Swedish government were happy to throw Saab under the bus. OK, they were happy to see Saab trip over their own shoelaces and fall under the bus. To say that the Swedish government couldn’t have taken a longer-term view and do more to help Saab is to ignore things that governments do every day.

Saab were politically sensitive thanks to the focus placed on them by the Swedish press and the Swedish government were more than happy to take the politically popular line – do as little to help Saab as possible and let the company fall where it may. “We do not plan to get into the car business” they said. “We will not risk taxpayer’s money” they said. Well, we all know what happened.

The Swedish taxpayer’s money was at risk because of loan guarantees to the European Investment Bank. The only way the Swedish taxpayer would end up on the hook for that loan is if Saab failed, which it did. It’s not just the EIB loan, however. There’s also the double-whammy comprising welfare payments and the re-training of former Saab employees, as well as the loss of tax revenue from the wages they earned working for Saab as well as the business taxes the government might have earned from Saab. The Swedish taxpayer is now paying through the nose and they’ve lost one of the cornerstones of their manufacturing industry. And if you don’t think Volvo’s slowly but surely heading the same way, you’re not looking close enough.

If the Swedish government had found a way to provide Saab with meaningful assistance – and I don’t know what that way would have looked like but the governments of Germany and France seem to find a way – I think Saab would have had a chance. We might have made it. We might not. But I believe we had a strong enough brand and a strong enough range to do something special.

The Saab 9-5 launch didn’t go well and Saab knew it. There would have been changes in MY12 and MY13 to address this.

The Saab 9-4x didn’t even get a real chance but having spent some quality seat time in it, I think it would have gone gangbusters (in Saab terms) in the United States. Success there might have opened up other markets for that car, too.

And then you have this new Saab 9-3, which I think would have been a technological gamechanger for Saab. I think this new 9-3 (or 900 as I believe it would have been called) would have captured a LOT of imaginations. I know one guy in the press who got to drive an early eXWD prototype and spoke glowingly of it – and that was a prototype. Imagine the finished product.

Sadly, we’ll never know what might have happened. The Swedish government took their stance and now they’re dealing with a shrinking parts business as a result. GM took their stance and I look forward to watching Victor Muller’s legal case against them. I don’t know whether he has a realistic chance seeing it’s going to be fought in GM’s backyard, but seeing this car I can see why he’s so motivated.

Spyker, of course, turned out to have not enough accessible resources. Their main investor wasn’t allowed into the deal and GM blocked other potential investors, right or wrong.

We’re dealing with imperfect information and a sliding-doors scenario that’s 100% irrelevant in 2013. That’s sad, but that’s the way it is.

NEVS

So what of NEVS and this Castriota design?

I’ve mentioned before that NEVS must have rocks in their head if they’re not chasing this design – and that was before I’d seen it.

The simple fact is this – this design was based on the architecture that NEVS will use to build their electric Saab. Using this design is by far the most efficient way to get that car to market quickly, both in terms of time and finance. The fact that the design looks good only makes the case more compelling.

Time will tell what they decide.

——

Congratulations, Jason, on a job well done. You created what I think would have been a truly memorable Saab.

It’s such a shame that we never got to see it or drive it.

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37 Comments

  1. Whenever I got The Question, I would always tell people: “Throw a Porsche Panamera, a Jaguar XF and the old Saab 900 in a blender, think of what the result could be at its best, and then double that. That’s what it looks like.”

    Awesome design, a crime it never made production.

  2. @Swade: I think your comment “This isn’t just some guy’s idea of what a future Saab could look like – this is IT.” is absolutely spot on. Forget photoshopping it! This IS what we would be buying, now or 3 yrs old or 6 yrs old or whenever we can afford to hop on-board. I would definitely have been interested.

    @Jeroen: good ingredients, good description! 😀

  3. I’d probably call this design too busy. I love the 9-5 for its simple straight lines. This 9-3 could’ve been more like it. BUT that’s just my personal opinion. This 9-3 would’ve been a game changer for Saab, for sure. The right combination of technology and bold design always works!

  4. i’m a bit surprised that you went to work on the other side of the world and ended up in a paddy pub for dinner….i went there for a beer….dont know what to think about jason castriota’s design….

  5. Thank you Swade for your thoughts on the JC 9-3. This all makes me even more sad about what happened to Saab. I have no faith on NEVS, but I surely hope I´m all wrong!

  6. The design follows the recent fashion of surface entertainment (a BMW term) and has too many unmotivated ridges and concave areas to be a design a could like, even without having seen it in 3D. What surprised me though, is that fact that the base shape looks just great. This I hadn’t expected.

    The term I had used over at Saabsunited was “de-cluttering”, which imho should be applied to the central bulb on the bonnet, to the fake wings front and rear, and to the concave indentation below the longitundinal ridge below the windows. To a lesser extend also the side skirts should be alleviated. Then, I might start liking it. If anything, in its present version, it might be an American or Chinese design, but not Scandinavian (nor Italian, despite Castriota’s background).

    1. @ THYLMUC I saw your comment on SU also and I appreciate what you are saying and where you are coming from. I am quite sure we cherish the same design language.

      However, you have to appreciate, when looking at 3D image renderings, what the use of light and light sources (i.e spotlights or point light) does to the appearance of the image and especially surface. By adding spotlights and working with large contrast in light intensity, as done on these CGI’s released by JC, the pictures becomes dramatic and subtle discontinuities in surfaces stand out aggressively.

      Curvatures and kinks of surfaces stands out in a very differently way from how they would appear “in normal” or diffuse light. The curvatures of the bonnet that you do not like will appear completely different and much more subtle in real world. The elongated line above the door hands, in the CGI showing the car from the side, looks like a sharp kink much like a what couple premium German brands cherish these days. In fact it is a more subtle soft curvature and you will appreciate if you start with the image showing the car from the rear and work your way forward. I work with 3D rendering on a daily basis and I use point light and contrasts when I want to investigate discontinuities of surfaces.

      I am overly impressed by what JC has released and I am sure we have not seen all he has got. This is an appetizer to correct the poor impressions establish by the material that slipped a few weeks ago. I pray to that NEVS will be going forward working with JC and using this design as the starting point.

  7. I don’t think there is any chance of this being built, but SU is hinting that NEVS talked to a designer at Geneva that all Saab fans know well (Castriota?), so maybe we’ll see his influence. Maybe these images were released just to gauge public opinion of his design direction.
    I like this. Some complain about the clutter, but I really think the ridges are there to control air flow and keep it laminar. I think ridges also help to stiffen large thin panels so as to reduce vibration. I can’t believe how thin sheet metal is these days. Besides, it still looks much less cluttered than anything Volvo is making. The new 9-5 was so uncluttered it was absolutely boring. It even looked like it was yawning at itself. 🙂 I do think the ridges could be toned down a little, but maybe the CGIs just exaggerated them.
    Anyway, great article Swade, insightful as usual.

  8. I know I was planning to buy one of these once I heard it was going to be offered as a hatchback, and that combined with the new engine and drivetrain made it the perfect replacement for my 2000 9-3. Yes, alas, what could have been…

  9. “Renderings never look as good as the real thing and the real thing never looks as good at a car show as it does out on the road.”

    The words feel like a justification mode. It just isn’t a great design.

    1. Not at all. It’s a simple fact and it’s why I didn’t go into dissecting each section of the car in this post. The whole of this design looks good in these images (to me, it never will to everyone because that’s the immutable natures of design and humanity) but the whole of the design and the details will never look as good on CGI as they do in person.

      1. I think what Keith meant is that a good design doesn’t need the comment that it will look better in the flesh. A car does, as you rightly point out, look better in real life than on CGI.

  10. I’m not so hot about the vertical slice at the wheel arches. That’s a design feature that I’ve noticed a lot recently, and it’s always on the most insipid cars (the kind where you don’t know if it’s a Toyota or a Hyundai at first glance). It’s like the designers took a trowel to the clay model so they could get home earlier.

    The length of the hood (bonnet) bothers me a little. I know it’s due to hard points in the Phoenix platform, but it still looks to me like the front could have been packaged a little tighter. Swade, Jeroen, do you know if they were leaving some room for a V6?
    Kudos for integrating the hood line with the grille and fenders.

    Overall, it’s a good mix of surface details and flowing lines. I especially like the hatch treatment. A lot if cars look good up close, but fall apart when you step back. As I’ve read somewhere, “it’s like the designers are working in a very small room.”

    I must admit that I am slightly disappointed that the side spoilers from the Phoenix Concept did not make it to this version. Perhaps they were saving them for the Viggen.

  11. Keeping in mind that this is badged as the Aero X model, it probably deserved a little more going on. A power bulge, slightly flared wings, spoiler, wheels. You will probably find that a lower spec’d car would have less going on and would still stay above the ‘bland’ zone.

    What could have been!

  12. Hey Swade – great post this, and to my mind that car is definitely one I would have bought. I’m struggling to decide what to replace my 9-3sw 2.8T with, because there is nothing that excites me that is sufficiently practical. I can’t fit two kids in a Cayman. I love the concept of a GTR but it’s a ridiculous vehicle for where I live and what use I would make of it. And there’s the kids too. This 900 would have done it.

    The styling is great – to me it picks the best of the Phoenix (the neatly packaged front), adds a long wheelbase and a rear that is reminiscent of both the C900 and the 96 (rear screen, anyone?) without being a retro pastiche.

    When have Saab ever done a bad interior? OK, 9-3ss could have had better seats and better materials, but the design was spot on. Especially my button dash model ;o) Again I have no doubt this car would have worked, without the need to rehash GM sourced seats and steering wheels etc.

    The mechanical strategy for the car was going to be monumental IMHO. Everyone is downsizing engines, this would have taken Saab in exactly the right way. The eAAM system appeared to be fantastic in the early you tube clips so I have no qualms about that, if they could make it reliable. Again, when left to their own devices and not using hand-me-downs, when have Saab ever produced a bad chassis? In comparison with their contemporaries, never.

    Yep, I’d have bought one of these over a 3-series GT/touring, an A4 avant/A5 or any manner of more mundane stuff. Such a shame that I can’t.

    Bugger.

  13. Hey in the article it states -The Saab 9-5 launch didn’t go well and Saab knew it. There would have been changes in MY12 and MY13 to address this. Interesting comment. Just out of curiosity what where the problems they thought needed rectifying? Any one know?

  14. I think J.C’s design is growing on. That’s something I can’t say for most of the designs that happened in that decade of total GM ownership. Had the 3 door hatch/coupe version eventually happened, I would have tried extremely hard to buy one. Hopefully NEVS will take J.C’s design and further enhance upon it for it’s first totally new model Saab 900. I think going back to the 900 designation would be a great idea for a born again Saab.

  15. My 11 year old daughter just saw this over my shoulder and said..’Wow! that’s so cool!” Is it a Saab?
    When will they make it? We should get one of THOSE Dad.

  16. I have seen pics of the car for weeks now, so here are my 2 cents on the design…

    The first time I saw the pictures, it reminded my of something British… Something from the 60s or 70s. I can put my finger on why, but it was not a good feeling. The next thing was that it looked to be some design study from Mercedes. The reason for that is, that despite all the moderns design clues it looks so conservative and “heavy” – not agile or vibrant.

    It looks good from some angels, but then again almost all cars do. The two views that do not like at all is from the side and from the rear. Now, I know that design usually grows a bit. I know that from both the OG9-5 facelift and the NG9-3 facelift. I didn’t like them at all from the start, but after about two years I came to like them a lot. But the dislike didn’t have anything to do with the overall shape/proportion of the car itself – just details. In this case I have major issue with the overall shape. There is something that makes this car very heavy at the rear. It’s almost as it is “sitting down” instead of being ready to sprint. The car looks to be too long (although I do not think it is for that segment). It almost feels like a stretched version of a slightly smaller and more dynamic car.

    To me, the rear is a mess, especially the spoiler and the rear window. It is like the front and back are from two different cars (just like the Saab 90…). The front have a clear flowing design language but the rear just ended up as it is due to lack of inspiration. And the middle part try to connect these two parts with some lines, but do so by not knowing what to do at all. I do not like the wheel arches at all, and not that “German” bodywork on the lower part of the doors.

    Yes, it is a hatch and for most Saab fans that seems to be enough. It is almost as it is more important that Saab builds a hatch than they sell enough cars to survive. If I’m not wrong, Saab had the best year in 2006 when it didn’t have a hatch in the major segments. Lots of Saab fans know about the history of the hatch and love the hatch – problem is that they were not enough in numbers. Saab had to target much larger groups of buyers. Sometimes one has to be pragmatic.

    A note about Swedish tax payers money…. I’m a Swedish tax payer and have been so since I turned 18. There have been a lot of talk from people abroad about what our govt. should have done with our money. A lot of talk about that our money should be spent in this way or that way. A lot of stories about how almost half of Sweden will die the day Saab is closed down. Trust me, it didn’t happen and I’m glad they didn’t sink even more tax payers money into it. As a Swede I have seen enough of wholly or partly govt. owned/subsidized corporations in my life to wish for yet another one… Yes, there are unemployed people in Trollhättan, but the situation is far from being close to anything that was predicted by “experts”. The old Saab didn’t work out. One can argue about why, but the mistakes were probably cemented in the mid 00s with lack of product development. I think it would have been close to impossible to revive Saab as a consumer brand without a major shift in philosophy about the product. I honestly do not the think the NG9-5 and this 9-3 would have done it. One can think what one wants about NEVS and their plans, but at least it is a major brake with the old and as such they have a chance to build something new for the future. Whether or not the car is for me is another story. I rather have a successful car company in Trollhättan building cars for the future that are not for me, than a almost bankrupt car company building the “perfect Saab” to my taste.

    1. CTM,

      I agree with most of what you wrote about the design (no personal stake in Swedish politics).

      I think that the reason it looks like a slightly stretched version of a smaller car is because of the wheel arch treatment. That vertical slice makes it look like there’s a smaller car hiding underneath, and the gap between the two bodies was plastered-over. It’s something that’s especially noticeable in the Camry, making it look like the wheelbase and track are way too short. This 9-3 would look substantially better if the body flowed all the way to the wheel arch lip.

      I like how you’ve coined the phrase “German bodywork on the lower part of the doors.” I know exactly what you mean, but I’m willing to cut JC more slack. I assume that this serves an aerodynamic purpose. The new CLA has these, and it gets astounding Cd numbers, so it probably doesn’t hurt the aero.

      One thing that I didn’t mention earlier, and which deserves to be pointed-out, is that the rear door window is nearly a parallelogram, and the belt line is relatively low. This tells me that the car would have felt good on the inside, unlike most cars that have nearly triangular rear windows and a high belt line (like the CLA). It means that the back seat won’t make you feel claustrophobic. To me, that’s real “luxury,” and it’s especially appreciated if you have kids (most adults are capable of managing their entrapment anxiety for the duration of a car ride).

  17. Firstly, can I say I am a great fan of JC and amire his work; but sadly, I am just not feeling ‘it’ with this design.
    As others have said, there is just too much going on. To my mind, a Saab was a simple, clean design that stood out because of its simple, clean lines. While I agree with Swade that the technical advancements that Saab wanted to do in this car would certainly have got it back in the game, I think the external design would have detracted from this.
    It’s great to see the basic shape is back and the five door hatchback would certainly have won over a lot of people but I totally agree with CTM above; this looks like two different cars joined to a central unit. It just does not marry properly. It’s a mute point I know as this car will never see the light of day and my opinion may have changed if I ever got to see it in the flesh but it just looks to me like the Saab GM would have eventually got around to producing if they had managed not to screw Saab up in the first place.
    Swade is right: cars need to be seen in the flesh to really appreciate them, however; great design is great design (Alfa Romeo 8C/Ferrari California/Castriota Stratos) sadly, IMO this design is not great.

  18. This is a beautiful car and I was wondering if it was a hatch-back? When view from the side the hood looks flat instead of sloping down which would make it more aerodynamic to the eye. I saw such a photo elsewhere.

  19. You are absolutely right, a car should only be judged in real life, not from pictures. Well, sadly, pictures is all we will get. 🙁

    Some are hoping that the design could be re-used by NEVS. But is NEVS continues with focussing on EVs, the design would have to be modified significantly, in order to improve the aerodynamics at the front (no big grills required, act as air brakes).

    1. I would be surprised if NEVS will show any interest at all in this design. I have the feeling that NEVS actually are trying to distance themselves from the “old Saab” with building a brand that has no more in common with “old Saab” than the brand name, the location in Trollhättan, and some middle management. I could be wrong, but that is the impression I get from reading between-the-lines every time they have talked about their operation.

  20. Interesting observation. Maybe they try to “filter” out all of the negative aspects that Saab’s history had in the recent years. I wonder if that will succeed.

  21. It’s great to finally see what Jason had in mind, but previous speculation had some sources embellish what little they had to work on. I’ve had a ‘leaked’ version of Jason’s design on my PC desktop for the past year or so, and to be honest I kinda prefer that one over this. The differences are subtle, but this one strikes me as having more masculine lines: http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/saab/9-3/35185/new-saab-9-3-image

    1. Your link (as I understand it) was not a JC design, but rather a Padian. I also vastly prefer the look of it for a few reasons, but they all come down to 1 thing: form. It’s not the CGI reflectivity detail that bothers me in JC’s design, but rather the proportions in the side profile:

      1) too heavy in the hood (probably for pedestrian safety criteria, but strikes me a bit like the big Chryslers)
      2) not wedgy in the lower window line (that line is too horizontal imho), makes it look less sporty (Padian’s does this well, perhaps at the expense of sight-lines?)
      3) and no “swoop” in the side profile of the hatch – by which I mean a concavity in the metal work of the hatch region (again, Padian’s metal work does a subtle swoop, like the 9000 and c900 and og9-3 and other modern Saabs, whereas JC’s rear looks bulbous to me like a Honda Crosstour)…

      I think part of the reason JC’s design does this is he has gone much further back in Saab history and blended a lot of stuff into this car… but I think that is at the expense of some of the great modern Saab cues, that many enthusiasts connect with more strongly than the early models (for better or worse). Eg the rear ends of the older Saabs (pre-99) were more bulbous and the fronts more heavy whereas the SPG was not. Imho he has blended too much, and the end result would have been more focused and clear if he had put a higher emphasis on the “SPG” form, probably the most iconic form from Saab and what people remember (Saab fans or not)… I’m not saying remake the SPG, but make sure the new thing is very true to that basic form (which this is imho not really) while being new in other respects… when you are trying to sell a product, a clear and focused image is very important!

      I actually have quite a lot of respect for JC, but I’m just noting what I see, and I know others saw also judging from the commentary over on Saabnet. I know he worked very hard on this design, but it just doesn’t do it for me other than the basic 5 door practicality and the mechanical package (turbo + e-xwd etc).

      I do hope NEVS is successful in producing an electric car that is true to the Saab we know and love. I think it is possible, but it will not be easy!

    1. It’s a nice look and a nice dream, but remember that Gray can work freely, without the constraints of a real vehicle platform to work with (e.g. points where it has to actually be engineered to the chassis, etc).

    2. Gray Design came up with a nice looking car, but looks more audi than saab to me! it’s proportions and cues as I discuss above. The chrome strip in the lower window line may have commonality with that in the NG9-5, but it is not really the hockey stick shape the chrome was meant to emphasize! It’s not the chrome that matters, but rather the shape itself!

  22. I know all this is purely academic, but what do you guys mean by “vertical slice at the wheel arches”? And I agree with most of the criticism of this design. Not generally dynamic enough, and too much going on. There is something really cool about simple (1961 Lincoln Continental, Saab 900, Saab interiors in general), and a lot of cars have gone nuts with sculpturing lately. Swedish design is and has been for many years all about form follows function and less is more, done beautifully. And why not bring back the roundish windshield? OK, I know in reality nothing is coming back.

    1. It looks like the wheel openings are surrounded by bigger half circles. The area between the opening and the outer circle is flat, which provides a jarring contrast to the rest of the (curvy) design.

      That’s why I think that it looks like the designers took a trowel to the clay model and went for an early lunch. The flat sides fail to resolve many of the design themes used in the rest of the car; plus they make the car look like it should have been bigger (had the body curves continued all the way to the wheel openings), which in turn makes the platform look too small.

      This, to me, makes the design top-heavy. It looks like there’s a bigger car stacked on top of a smaller car. The fashion equivalent is an ill-fitting suit with shoulder pads.

      I have to admit that this design choice wouldn’t bother me as much if it didn’t remind me of recent Toyota Camrys.

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