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.