3 September 2004

Saab is on the verge of a massive re-invention, and there’s a raft of new models being planned which owner General Motors hope will secure the future of its sole ‘premium’ European brand. And one of the most dramatic ideas being considered in Trollhatten and Detroit is this radical fastback replacement for the ageing 9-5.

However, there is a pay-off for the notoriously quirky company. In the future, Saabs will be built on three separate continents in other maker’s factories, sharing common platforms and engines with other GM products. Saab has been a thorn in the side of General Motors since 1990, when the American car giant swept in under the poised pens of Fiat executives and bought a 50 per cent share in the Swedish firm. GM has owned the whole of Saab since 2000, but the Swedes have continued to lose money and, like Jaguar, missed out on the premium-brand boom of the past decade.

GM’s patience has been sorely tested, but then again its half-hearted management has underwritten Saab’s curious semi-independent state. GM neither prepared a fully-funded product blitz nor a takeover of the running of Saab. Only this year does Saab expect to just about break even. It hasn’t reached its break-even point of 140,000 cars since the late 1980s and the era of the successful 900.

Now GM’s attitude to Saab has changed under its ‘product czar’, Bob Lutz. Lutz has a soft spot for the brand (both his wife and his daughter drive Saabs) and he has ordered that Saab’s range be massively expanded over the next few years. Beginning at the bottom of the range, Saab has already rolled out the Impreza-based 9-2X. Developed in record time, the 9-2X wears its own nose and tail and benefits from greater refinement and better ride quality than the Subaru donor. This US-only model has shocked Saab traditionalists, but GM sources point out that Saab was about to miss another new niche – America’s booming ‘premium compact’ segment.

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Although the current 9-2X has a brief shelf life, Saab engineers and stylists are said to be working closely with Subaru on the next-generation Impreza, which will form the basis of the next 9-2X. Unlike the car pictured (right) the next 9-2X will have a unique interior and exterior and is likely to be sold globally, although there’s no news on a diesel engine. Subaru had a prototype flat-four diesel undergoing development, but couldn’t justify the expense of launching it – Saab’s involvement may tip the balance. More upmarket versions may also get a V6 petrol engine. Expect to see this new machine in late 2006/early 2007.

Next up in the range is the current 9-3, which has been a modest success for Saab. But it has suffered without a five-door version – a practical touch that has long been a Saab speciality. The good news is that the long-delayed 9-3 Sport Hatch (it should have appeared in 2003) will finally be launched in late summer 2005 (see gallery). This new car will also be one of the first 9-3s to be fitted with GM’s new ‘High-Feature’ V6 engines. Sources in Sweden say that output of this all-new motor will run from 170bhp to 250bhp for the range-topping twin-turbo version – a figure that’s limited by the 9-3’s front-drive chassis.

A four-wheel-drive system capable of handling 300bhp has been engineered for the 9-3 and Vectra families, but GM and Opel are undecided on whether to give it the green light. However the next-generation Epsilon chassis will definitely have the option of all-wheel drive. The arrival of the 9-3 Sport Hatch could also be the trigger for a mild facelift which sees the 9-3 get a revised interior with better-quality plastics, a new nose and flush door handles. Next up in the Saab hierarchy is the new 9-6X soft-roader, which will be a rival for Volvo’s XC90. Expect to see a thinly-disguised concept version of the new 9-6X early next year. This is another co-production with Subaru, but the 9-6X has its own exterior and interior design. Otherwise, the car is the same Legacy-related vehicle as its Subaru cousin, the Tribeca, and will feature permanent four-wheel drive and flat-four engines. The 9-6X will be built at Subaru’s US factory in Ohio and it should go on sale in the US in the autumn, with UK-bound versions scheduled for early ’06.

Perhaps Saab’s biggest problem is at the top of the range. Despite its character and loyal following, the 9-5 hasn’t made serious inroads into the executive-car market. It’s old, has a spartan dash and mediocre diesels and its front-drive chassis cannot cope with the power of the bigger turbocharged engines.

Next year the old stager will get a significant makeover – including a radical new nose and tail, revised interior and new Fiat JTD diesels. This move was forced upon Saab when the planned replacement 9-5 was stopped over 18 months ago. It was based on the Alfa Romeo ‘Premium platform’, but Saab pulled out of the project.

The bad news is that final decision on the form and function of the 9-5 are still up in the air. Saab stylists favour a radical new fastback look for the new 9-5 to help the brand stand out in the executive crowd, however sources tell us that GM chief Bob Lutz favours a more conventional three-box saloon. Whichever way they jump, there will also be a conventional estate car. Saab stylists are also working on a new corporate nose design.

More seriously, there’s still no decision on the chassis that will underpin the new 9-5. The car will either be based on the global versions of Holden’s new VE rear-drive chassis or on the wide-track version of the Epsilon 2 platform (see box, below). This crucial decision is complicated by the fact that new 9-5 will have to be built alongside another GM vehicle, which shares the same underpinnings. Enthusiasts must hope GM plumps for the rear-drive chassis. Complaints about torque steer from turbocharged front-wheel drive Saabs must be among the longest-running in motoring.

Saab is once again at a crossroads. It must become more attractive to the mainstream and retain an upmarket position. The risk is that the deal, with its massive increase in partly-borrowed new product, could also kill what individuality it still has. But the future of Saab still rests in Sweden. The question is whether its management can make the right product strategy decisions to secure its future.

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