On Saab: Final Thoughts For A While… Probably… Maybe

[hr]

Prompted by a recent comments thread over at Saabs United and the level of detail at which people were examining things, I figured it was probably time for me to reflect on my own interest levels. Are the measures people apply to the company within normal parameters – myself included? Maybe it’s time to shut up, wait and then evaluate any new product from Saab when the company has one to show (and no, I don’t consider the 2014 Saab 9-3 to be a new product).

I’ve been critical of various parts of NEVS’s operation and my critical approach has been there for two important and inter-linked reasons. Firstly, I have friends and acquaintances who are very interested in anything Saab does, any product Saab makes. Are they getting full disclosure about the product and the company that’s making it? And second, I think it’s important to take such an approach when the company is under new and relatively inexperienced management.

The bottom line, with those criteria in mind:

  • Could I recommend to friends that they spend five-figures on a car from this company?
  • Is the car itself compelling enough to do so?

I think they are honest and fair questions. If I’m going to write anything about Saab, especially given my personal history when it comes to writing about the company, then I want to make sure I include as much information as possible and present it in the right context.

In the past, the first question was a no-brainer. Even under GM, Saab was Saab. There was a clear line of continuity from 1947 to 2011 in terms of geography, vehicle lines and management. There was continued innovation along a certain theme, commitment to a set of principles that governed vehicle technology and design, as well as a hope that any principles that we were watered down during the GM years could be restored.

That first question is no longer a no-brainer. There has been a clear and distinct change of management and the company aims to make vehicles that are clearly different from those in the past. They will use some historical components (out of economic necessity) but the aim to focus on electric vehicles is a clear shift that only some of Saab’s historic customer base can align with.

The second question – is the car compelling enough to recommend? – is one that we, as Saab fans, allowed ourselves a certain amount of flexibility with in the past. The 9-3 and 9-5 were definitely great cars in their heyday, but they lagged behind some of the competition due to material and equipment choices that were restricted by cost-cutting measures enforced by GM. The gap between these cars and the competition only expanded as time went on. We accepted and forgave these gaps in the product because the cars were still very good, and because they were Saabs.

The change of management and subsequent change of direction has meant a lesser willingness on the part of many to be so forgiving, however. And I think that’s quite fair.

Saab is no longer the company that it used to be. And that’s where I think that some of the commenters in the SU thread might have things wrong. It’s where I think I’ve probably been wrong at times, too.

We’re approaching matters related to Saab as if the company were undergoing what we’d all like to think is a subtle shift in the historical continuum. We’d all like to believe that historical changes in the ownership/management of the company were just subtle kinks in a straight line. If we’re honest, however, I think we’ll admit that the GM ‘kink’ was more like a dent, the Spyker ‘kink’ was a vastly under-funded effort to bring it back (to some degree) and this latest NEVS ‘kink’ is, in fact, almost a right-angle bend.

Quite a few Saab fans are evaluating NEVS’s progress with Saab – every itty-bitty detail, sometimes – according to their own wishes of what they’d like Saab to become, a view that is quite likely biased by historical perspective and experience. That’s all quite natural but I wonder if they’re torturing their automotive soul by doing so.

It’s fair to have aspirations and an opinion on what’s happening but that needs to be tempered by a key understanding that some are yet to encounter – you might not be Saab’s target market any more.

Be that as it may, most traditional Saab fans have an interest in what’s going on and just like everyone else, I’ve got a few thoughts to share.

The fans – Moving On

I find it a little strange that I have to put this in print, but…..

I’ve been damned by a few people in comments and I know others have, too. Our crime? Moving on and exploring other automotive interests.

My message to anyone contemplating the same – go for it. Moving on and experiencing other vehicle makes is not a crime. In fact, condemning someone for doing so is much closer to a crime than actually doing so. Saab is not a cult (though there are references made to “the cult of [brand]” made about many enthusiast followings, they should only ever be taken as light-hearted spin). Saab is a car company and for automotive enthusiasts, a hobby. Yes, the cars foster heightened levels of interest for many but being interested in Saab doesn’t mean that you’re bound to Saab only. Anyone who has a serious crack at you for doing so ought to re-examine their priorities.

So if you’ve got other automotive interests, feel free to check them out and get excited about them. You’re not turning your back on anyone and you’re not a traitor to anything. No-one lives, dies or is morally compromised by your alternative automotive interests. You’re just a person who’s interested in cars and that’s perfectly fine.

The fans – Staying Put

Just like moving on, staying put with Saab is fine, too. You’re not strange, you’re not a hero. You’re just a person who’s interested in cars – Saabs, especially – and that’s perfectly fine, too.

I imagine a lot of people are going to maintain their interest in historic Saabs and a smaller proportion will have an avid interest in both historic Saabs and NEVS Saabs together. I think all Saab fans will maintain an interest in what goes on with the Saab name, but there shouldn’t be any conflict between current and historic Saab fans.

The company – Public Relations and Marketing

I really hope that NEVS puts a PR machine together soon and starts to communicate its story more clearly to its target market, wherever and whatever that may be.

Of course, the story will depend on a few things:

  • How deeply linked they want to be to Saab’s history and traditional market, and
  • The products they intend to develop in the future.

Do they want to tie themselves to Saab’s history – make themselves part of that continuum? That draws a boundary around the historical part of the story.

The future product and the philosophies that underpin it will give direction to where the story is heading.

Their target market will influence the way in which the story is told.

NEVS will choose the story it wants to tell and in doing so, it needs to decide upon those things.

The company – Product

This is the car business. PR and marketing can do some of the work, but at the end of the day it’s all about the product. It’s down to how you design and execute.

The last 20 years have been more difficult for Saab fans (in product terms) than the 20 years that preceded. Yes, the product was more reliable and efficient, but it was less distinctive as a Saab. The 9-3 and 9-5 won a number of new Saab fans, but they also lost a number of traditional Saab fans and it’s fair to say that the GM era put a taint (not a stain) on the Saab brand in the eyes of much of the motoring press.

If NEVS want to reset, then they need to do something special with their first all-new vehicle when it finally arrives.

They need to build a killer product for which there are no contextual explanations needed, no excuses. They need to hit all mention of compromise out of the park.

NEVS and Saab can survive if they fall short of this lofty goal, but just imagine the positive impact they could have by blowing the negative aspects of the GM era out of the water with a truly killer product.

Car companies live and die by the quality of their product. It’s a measure of GM’s colossal success through the mid-20th century that they were able to hang on until 2009 before going into bankruptcy, given all the crap they built from the 70’s onwards. There are few companies in this modern era (and maybe none in the car industry today) that could withstand such a long run of dud products dominating their range.

NEVS’s survival will ultimately depend on the quality of their product and its ability to meet the needs of a market.

The survival of Saab fans will depend on whether or not they are a part of that market.

[hr]

With that off my chest, I’m going to sit and watch what’s going on at Saab.

I’m very interested in what they’re doing. I’m very hopeful for the future but I also have to acknowledge that my love for the Saab brand is based on its Swedish roots and philosophies. If Saab is extracted from Sweden, I know that my interest will shift dramatically and I offer no reservations and make no apologies for that.

NEVS/Saab need to get their story together. They need to get their product together.

Anything I could say about either of those two priorities right now would be little more than educated guesswork and aspiration. I’m a little tired of that (both from myself and from others) so I’m looking forward to sitting back and seeing what they do.

Some of the Saab fans that are getting all up tight about various aspects of the company’s operations might want to do the same.

The challenges that NEVS face have to be met by NEVS.

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26 Comments

  1. Actually, I’m doing fine. 2008 9-3 has 55,000 miles on it and 2009 9-3 has 28,000 miles on it. There are no Saabs for sale within 250 miles. And no, I’m not in Australia.

  2. “Saab is no longer the company that it used to be. And that’s where I think that some of the commenters in the SU thread might have things wrong.”
    That’s because it is a brand and not a company. There was Saab Automobile AB and now NEVS. Both sell/sold Saab cars. I think many Saab fans (especially on SU) still don’t really see that difference.

    I still like my 2005 Saab Automobile AB Saab (a SAAB Saab!) 9-5 just as much before and after the bankruptcy and I have no need for a new car. But even when SAAB was still in business, I always looked at other brands and dreamed of / owned many other cars. No brand is perfect, especially with my changing taste and requirements through the years.

  3. and in other news I’m looking forward to checking out the current state of the car market at the Washington Auto Show this week. Apparently the Porsche 918 will be making an appearance.

  4. At our ages (72 & 73) my wife and I are plotting our Saab/automotive future with a slightly shorter time horizon than we would in our 50s, or even 60s. We don’t have the motivation or the energy to dive into another brand of vehicle with the fervor we have exhibited for Saab cars since the early 1970’s. Forty years with almost 30 Saabs that we have owned and enjoyed. So here’s our plan…….

    1. Upgrade our daily drivers to the 2 best late model Saabs we can find. The result is a 2009 9-3 Aero Sport Combi V6 XWD for my wife, and a 2011 9-5 Turbo4 Hirsch-tuned 6-spd manual sedan for me. These cars should serve us well into our 80’s with the good dealer and independent parts and service support we enjoy here in Denver.

    2. Upgrade and reduce our vintage Saab collection to more valuable and historic specimens to include a 1967 Sonett II, a 1986 900T CV, a bullnose 96 for our grandkids to restore, and a vintage 2-stroke 96 race car. Gotta have some toys to play with in the shop, as well as drivers.

    In this way we don’t really have to be too concerned with what product(s) NEVS produces and whether we are part of their target market. We can continue to enjoy the best of the past 50 years of Saab products, and we won’t need to compromise our status as lifelong Saab enthusiasts!

    Avis and Tom Nelson – Evergreen, CO USA

    1. And that’s exactly as it should be, Tom. No compromises, free to be interested either way.

      That sounds like a great collection, too. Enjoy.

  5. Two things I’d like to comment on.
    ” The gap between these cars and the competition only expanded as time went on. We accepted and forgave these gaps in the product because the cars were still very good, and because they were Saabs.”

    IMHO Saabs were never bought just because they had the badge. It wasn’t -at least for us- that my family ever had to settle for one. Heck in many ways a it’s still a superior choise for many and now especially for the price. PS. How many reliable, safe and affordable used turbo cars are out there?
    As an example I could not imagine letting the Mrs. leave early in the morning for a long roadtrip in -25 degrees C with any other 14 year old car that has 460k km on the oddometer than a Saab without thinkin twise about it. The darn OG 9-3 still runs like clockwork.
    There are also some combinations of characteristics that can not be found in any other vehicles, so in other words the brand was a better car as a whole (to us) than all the other with nicer interior plastics or greater price tag.

    ”They need to build a killer product for which there are no contextual explanations needed, no excuses. They need to hit all mention of compromise out of the park.”

    Absolutely right. There is nothing except lack of funds that would prevent NEVS from producing the best Saab ever and there would be hundreds of thousands of customers ready waiting for this to happen. No more compromises à la GM, thank you.

    1. “IMHO Saabs were never bought just because they had the badge.” – Not so sure. There are definitely a lot of people who had near-perfect experiences with their Saabs, as you have. As soon as I read your comment, though, I thought of half a dozen people I know personally who loved their Saabs but readily acknowledged the shortcomings.

      As I’ve written in my post on flaw theory, sometimes it’s the things you have to cope with or deal with that endear the car to you. They give it character. Sometimes they’re a pain in the backside. It doesn’t necessarily mean you love the car any less, but for some, it IS something you have to buy with your eyes open.

      And it should be mentioned that even though there were/are some areas in which a Saab might be lacking, there are other areas where they excel like few others. Winter driving in snowy conditions, as you mention, is one of them. That’s the advantage of owning one and it’s something that kept people coming back again and again.

      1. Swade, my bad I was going to write that people didn’t buy Saabs for the badge or exlusivity in Scandinavia as they where like Volkswagen around here.
        I acknowledge there is more to ‘Saab the brand’ than just the car but that has more to do with the traits of the products than just worshipping a name. The design was different because it was smart. I don’t think people bought Saabs just because they looked cool or strange.

        As to shortcommings I’m one of the first to point them out, but compared to almost any other make Saab was very, very competitive in areas the general public was mostly unaware of. Every year having the cars M.O.T. inspected makes my case stronger.
        The beancounting downgrades and variant cuts by GM however were unbelievably unfortunate.
        I mean how much more would it had cost to put in originally locks on the 9-3 sedan that wouldn’t freeze 10 times every winter for example?
        Lets hope NEVS is silent because they want to hit that ball out of the park and not just because they don’t know what they’re doing…

  6. You know, loyalty is a weird thing. Follow a football team through their annual failures to miss the finals for over thirty years, with the ever hopeful thought that ‘this is our year!”, and every year too, tends to harden you up for extended periods of failure in other loyalty schemes in other domains, like the car brand many of us have ‘branded’ ourselves with.
    Why is this such a tribal thing? I can’t put my finger on it, but it runs deep into the automotive soul that is starting to shriek in anguish and some pain from some in the Clan.
    I suspect that NEVS may (?) have decided from the outset that the classic fan base is to be left behind and discarded in the wake of its forward progressions. And that is fine, so long as they articulate this in the near future. Then we would all know either way and there would be no more torment. Lets get rid of the torment, please. It is SO draining that hope fades away day by day, in much the same way that a prison sentence saps the soul in isolation and deprivation. We need more than this, out of respect for our very involvement in SAAB. Not exactly sure what attracts the domain of drivers to the brand n the first place, but it is not what other brands enjoy. Turtle neck grey skivvies and architects, and a weird subgroup of younglings who actually ‘get’ the recirculated turbo thing, all go into the mix of the fan base. The educated male in their fifties who wants to hide on the road in a super safe but ironically energetic and dynamic car may now be an extinct breed. That’s fine too. But isn’t it also a little strange that these drivers intend to hang on to their cars for many years to come? More than a little, I think.
    NEVS could consider tapping into the fan base sooner rather than later and could stand to gain a lot from it. But without visible PR presence, we will never know, will we?
    Let’s assume they AREN’T reading this…(unlikely) and that they don’t care for the historic element that the brand lives upon, then you would logically conclude that there is an almost malevolent disconnect with the thousands of people around the globe who could quite actively promote the future of SAAB. For FREE!
    C’mon NEVS. Tell us what you are doing, and more often and keep th e flickering flame alive. There is only ‘gain’ for you and the fan base if you do.

  7. trollhattan residents are very lucky to have any activity at the old saab factory, nevs employees and subcontractors would be happy to be in gainful employment, in a few years australia will feel the closure of two car factories and two cities will have change mindset to come out the other end, think aussies are hanging onto their top end saabs as very few are for sale and my car brain has deserted me due to our extended heatwave……

  8. sad to say, NEVS silence indicates that any new Saab will probably not have much appeal for present Saab owners. Unless they’re really stupid, reaching out to current Saab owners early on is Public Relations 101. The fact that they haven’t means only one thing. They don’t give a rat’s ass about current owners, even to have the courtesy of putting of pulling the plug on their fantasies.

    As for myself, our year old 2011 9-3X-SC will get its first real winter driving test in an hour as my wife takes it from New York City, which experienced about 10″ of snow last night, for about a 25 mile drive to White Plains. Assuming she doesn’t mess it up on a patch of ice, we’ll have this car for the foreseeable future.

  9. Arguably, the 9-3 is more competitive than it ever was, now that every single competitor has embraced the “small engine, turbocharged” philosophy.
    From an owner’s point of view, all that is missing is a modern interface (phone/music/nav/etc).
    That being said, any discussion of NEVS is pointless until they release the next-gen cars. The NEVS 9-3 is a legitimate purchase choice if you live in Sweden (known-good car at a competitive price), but it’s not available anywhere else.

    I vote that we keep NEVS discussions to a minimum for now.

    In the meanwhile, I suggest that everyone distract themselves by listening to Tom Waits’ What’s He Building?

    “What’s he building in there?
    “We have a right to know…”

  10. Well put, Swade. To be honest, I never had a great interest in Saab until I bought my first one in 2000. Over the 13 years I have owned that OG 9-3 now, I have so grown to love its combination of feature, function, fun and safety that every time I look at possible alternatives, I cannot find anything out there now (in the same approximate price range) that combines those same features to the same extent. I can find two or three out of that list of four in a number of cars, but I’m still looking for four out of four in something else.

    From everything I read about plans for the new Castriotta designed 9-3, I fully assumed that would meet my needs and would be my next new car. But now that that is off the table, I am interested to see what NEVS comes up with and whether it will be available in North America, but I am not counting on that like I was before. And yes, I have interest in the NEVS news, but excitement…probably not. (Although, I would welcome NEVS to wow me with something.) In the meantime, I will continue to repair and drive my 9-3 as long as that is economically and mechanically practical until such time as I can find something else that meets my needs.

    I admire those people that talk about having owned 30 Saabs over the years. That sounds fun, but I am not sure quite how they accomplished that. 🙂

  11. Swade: My honest answer to your two bottom line criteria has to be no – at least for now. I could’nt recommend to a friend spending 5 figures on a new SAAB (a used one however is a different matter!). That said, I’m willing to give NEVS some time to see what they can do, and decide whether their ownership is really a dramatic “right angle bend”. Already they seem to have modified their commitment to build only EVs – tho’ I’m sure this will remain their primary focus (wasn’t SAAB moving a bit in this direction before the bankruptcy?) Absolutely agree with you on two things: the new Phoenix-based 9-3 will have to hit the ball out of the park if SAAB is to have a long-term future (here in N. America at least); and NEVS needs to do a much better job of cultivating the existing fan base, even if they aren’t in a position to make firm commitments about re-entering traditional markets. If they have no intention of doing so, why did they bother to acquire the rights to the SAAB brand name?

  12. What NEVS will need is buyers of new cars, not people who buy secondhand. These people don’t keep their cars for long, perhaps three years, and will have moved on by now. Getting them back will be a big challenge and the new SAABs will have to be a HUGE improvement. I have moved on to a Jaguar XF and will only be tempted by something as excellent in design and build and which is as markedly different to the German brands.

    1. I have a Saab mate who bought an XF-R a few years ago and I can see why you love it. It’s an outstanding vehicle and like you, he’s (quite rightly) extremely pleased with it.

  13. Swade, I hope you will keep an eye on what is going on with NEVS and report/comment here periodically if they do something big/interesting/important. I really don’t have time to follow SU – the signal to noise is very poor. Aside from that, just a couple comments/questions…

    re The Product and compromising: all engineering involves compromises. Even supercars require compromises, and certainly anything built to a price must compromise in some way (everything you and I can afford is built to a price even if the companies don’t want to admit it – even most really expensive stuff is). NEVS has to make compromises to make a product. I think what you mean is that you hope they make the right compromises, ones that are in the spirit of the SAABs of the past (eg pre-GM, but even under GM there were many innovations).

    re NEVS being a right angle bend… well, there is a discontinuity in ownership, production, people… bankruptcy does that… but isn’t it true that many old faces (especially in engineering) have returned? wouldn’t these people have the core values that made SAAB what it was? Perhaps you mean EV vs turbo charged ICE is a right angle bend? But SAABs have had different power plants over the years, and were developing EV technology in house even under GM. You’ve posted about it before, and imho that was very interesting stuff! I wonder if NEVS is perhaps just making a relatively sharp bend to counteract the long drawn out bend GM imposed away from SAAB’s original trajectory? Would a SAAB not under GM not had electric motors in the drive train by now? They did have a through the road hybrid vert (first ever hybrid vert) at a motor show back a decade or so ago (2004? 2002?)… even if the rumour was that GM made them cover up the plug in port!

    re Message/Media usage… ok, sure the website could be better etc. but if you don’t have anything significant to report, heck it’s probably good not to spend too many resources (time/money) on that imho. They have reported on where they are at so far. Pretty straightforward imho. We had the opposite with the last ownership and for all the excitement they created, the product available was underwhelming. Imho, all the hype of that era is what lead to all the crazy comment threads over on SU…

    To me, what makes SAAB a SAAB is innovation in engineering, with Swedish values of efficiency, safety, driving fun, winter capability, and clean design… I don’t see why an EV would not be in that vein for 2010’s just like the turbo was for the 1970’s… The big question for me with NEVS is: will they make the thing look like a VWToyotaHondaNissan, or will they make it look like a modern c900? But they aren’t going to tell us that just yet, and I think that is good!

    I hope for the best, but I’m not too worried about it all… I’ve got enough SAABs in the garage for now and they’re holding up just fine!

  14. There used to be an internationally renowned Swiss watch brand known as “Solvil et Titus”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvil_et_Titus . It was sold to Hong Kong business in the late 1970s and while still being presented as a Swiss, Western brand, it now caters for the Asian markets only, its “Western” brand value allows its Hong Kong owner to go more upmarket and earn more than they could have been with a domestic brand.

    I think Chinese-owned Saab is heading the same way: becoming a Chinese domestic brand, albeit outwardly Western for marketing purpose in China.

  15. Even though I have never owned a Saab, I’m drawn like a moth to the ongoing saga. My interest started back around the wind down, and Spyker era, because I was an Investor in a business in Sweden, that , like Saab, was run by a Dutchman, and like Saab, was train wrecking. As you do, I enjoy Sweden, Swedish things, and the people. Interestingly, once my old company did train wreck ( luckily, I was out by then) the bankruptcy administrator was one Lars Zetterberg. He is now NEVS legal guy, per their website.

    If you look at your posts on Saab, and similarly the posts on SU, the ones that generate by far the greatest comments are the ones to do with the business, and not the cars. It’s a complete soap opera! I bet most people would be hard pressed to name who runs VW, Volvo, Peugeot, or Toyota, but we all knew Muller, Jan Ake and so on.

    While I don’t subscribe to the it’s coming back to its former (sort of) glory, I think at best now it’s on the “MG” track. ( they managed to sell 510 cars in the UK last year, so about the same size).

    The MG track (go check out their website) is to pretend they are British, somehow try to convince the public that they have a heritage, but clearly, the public either doesn’t believe them, or have moved on once the heritage ended at the bankruptcy.

    I think the Swedish end of Saab will be the bare minimum they can get away with to satisfy Saab AB , in order to keep the rights to the name. If that’s 500 cars a year, so be it. It’s part owned by a city in China, and their focus is for jobs in that region; not supporting loss making manufacturing in some high cost European country. Their stated goal is selling to the Chinese government market. That hardly bodes well for innovative , compelling cars that the western enthusiast would like to buy. They will likely all be black, and in that respect – Nevs is already half way there.

    In terms of a relevant automobile manufacturing story, it’s currently a non starter. When Audi for example, (itself a subsidiary of an even larger auto company) announces it’s investing 30 BILLION euros in product development in the next 5 years, and annually makes 1.5m vehicles, then how is NEVS even going to get out of the starting gate and hope to compete?

    As a human interest story? It’s way more entertaining than any successful , dominant German company ever will be!

  16. Great post, Swade. An eloquent and thoughtful way of telling folk to get a life.

    My thoughts: NEVS themselves have located their Saab in the Saab historic timeline, and secondly the whole electric car thing is something that old Saab was moving towards anyway.

    Yes, it’s a new company, and yes it might just be an empty shell full of PR guff that over time ends up selling an essentially Asian product to middle-class Asians who are being duped into thinking it is Scandinavian. (Just as we get sold expensive Swiss watches that trade on 150 years of heritage but are actually cheaply made unreliable junk. I speak from experience.)

    But I live in hope that won’t be the case with Saab, that NEVS is in the process of marrying the Asian sides (and the tremendous possibilities for success that entails) with the traditional and innovative ice-cool Swedish side, and that a Saab will remain, as ever, a Saab.

    I agree with everyone on the key point: the next generation of Saab car has to be a killer product, otherwise forget it. We Saab geeks (a tiny and largely insignificant portion of the required market share of NEW cars) might buy it anyway, but not enough other people will buy it, and crucially buy it new fresh from the factory, and that really will be the end of the story.

    PS – still slightly freaked by the number of Al(l)ans around here.

  17. I will stay with SAAB for a while and will wait to see how the business of NEVS develops. “Thanks” to the bankruptcy it was financially possible for me to fully rebuilt my SAAB 9-5 Estate 2002 to Aero biopower specs.. (engine, transmission and all the other parts have become reasonably priced) So I can drive for a couple more years and will move on.

    Meanwhile I am following with great interest the developments of Tesla. Tesla is so far keeping it’s promises and is doing what SAAB could have been after the banktrupcy.

    I will keep my SAAB 9-5 as I kept my first, fully restored, car (a VW Beatle 1968) anyway. Meanwhile my fingers are itching to do something about the brand building and marketing/communication of SAAB (NEVS) if NEVS should built on the heritage of SAAB and in advance of a new product. The big IF is what are they up to?

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