When Saab managed to avoid being scrapped by General Motors in 2010, the company’s deep thinkers sat down and decided how the company should approach independence. Saab’s engineering background (many of the projects being delivered for the wider GM family) was in platform engineering, electrical architecture, suspension and all-wheel drive, control software, and turbocharging.
Saab has never designed its own base engine. Over the years it has borrowed designs from DKW, Ford, Triumph and GM, usually improving them beyond recognition. When the company was plotting the new Phoenix platform it intended to engineer much of the car itself, or in partnership for the Android-based instrumentation and electric-drive rear axle. When it came to the engines, however, Saab simply signed a deal to buy the UK-built 1.6-litre turbo Mini engine from BMW.
So there’s a certain symmetry in that the latest rescue plan of a company, which has never designed its own clean-sheet engine, will now never use an internal combustion engine again. The newly-formed National Electric Vehicle Sweden company says that it will put the experimental Saab 9-3 ePower electric vehicle into production and then re-start the development work on the Phoenix platform, re-engineered to use ‘EV technology from Japan’ (which is rumoured to be sourced from one of Panasonic’s companies).
Ironically, this left-field shift might suit Saab’s engineering heritage. It was ‘thinking different’ decades before Apple was created. If you look at the company’s achievements over six decades it really comes across as an automotive think tank that happened to make cars.
Saab had already engineered a battery-powered version of the 9-3, so getting the company up and running will not be too onerous, so long as the suppliers can be convinced to get onboard (payment in advance being the most likely successful method). The deal also makes sense in that the manufacturers of electric propulsion technology cannot get into the automotive market and using the shell of Saab to achieve this is a neat solution.
Ultimately, a bespoke Saab-designed EV is an extremely intriguing proposition. But there is one cloud on the horizon for the Swedes. NEVS’ plan is to ride the Government-driven demand for electric cars in China and the US. China, particularly is likely to force the take-up of EVs because of the twin problems of having to import ever-increasing volumes of oil and the smogs which are blighting Chinese mega cities.
But, while using the Trollhattan factory to get the 9-3 ePower onto the market makes obvious sense, will the Phoenix-based EV also be built in Sweden when its main market is so far away and the EV technology underpinning it comes from Japan? If NEVS is successful, surely the chances are that, in five years time, Trollhattan will be primarily an engineering centre, rather than the home to the manufacture of large numbers of battery-powered cars.