A drive in the new 9-3X last night has got me contemplating one of the most interesting and pertinent questions in car-making right now: where does Saab go next?
Last week the Swedish government agreed to guarantee a loan from the European Investment Bank that promises to provide a new dawn for the company free from GM control.
If the Koenigsegg Group’s acquisition of Saab goes through, the firm will finally be free to do things entirely its own way. So where will the company’s famously independent streak, known to cause General Motors’ accountants much frustration, take it?
I’ve never found it easy to understand Saab; always had to work at it to appreciate the ‘alternative, progressive appeal’ of its cars. That’s probably because, under GM, the brand has never been at the height of its powers.
The 9-3X, for example, isn’t a bad car. The one I drove, a 2.0-litre Turbo, had a fine powertrain, a sophisticated ‘cross-wheel drive’ system and pretty decent performance and refinement. For a Saab.
But that, of course, is the problem; as modern car-buyers, we’ve grown so accustomed to this company producing cars that don’t quite measure up to the competition in so many ways.
Cars that aren’t good enough, in terms of performance, dynamics, ergonomics, quality and more, to worry a Honda or VW, let alone an Audi or Mercedes. And while they’ve grown accustomed to making average cars, we’ve grown used to accepting them.
So the challenge for the incoming owners-to-be is big. They’ve got to make cars that hit the class standards in all the areas that are taken for granted; in terms of interior accommodation, rolling refinement, outright performance, material richness and fit-and-finish. No excuses, no compromises.
These cars should also lead the market in terms of fuel efficiency, environmental responsibility, safety and technical sophistication, if those values are what Saab is going to continue to base its brand around.
And the critical thing: they’ve got to look and feel right. I like the new 9-5; it looks like a significant step in the right direction. But I still don’t think it looks as elegant, advanced or desirable as a Saab should.
So here’s my message to Saab’s new owners, if that is what they eventually become. Well done on seeing the deal through; you’re clearly patient and determined types, and that bodes well. Now to your cars; make sure get the basics right. Strive to make the new 9-3 more competitive than it ever was under GM, and that means bigger inside, better built, better quality, more refined and better-handling.
Second, can I gently suggest that you drop the aircraft allusions; they don’t sell cars. Third, refine the design language; be bold and original, but classy. And realise that it is possible to make cars that are both beautiful and alternative-looking.
Lastly, give us a car that’ll bring some younger clientèle into showrooms and some extra desirability to the brand. A TT rival, or even smaller; maybe a Saab ‘Mito’. You could even call it a Sonett if you like. Best of luck to you.