Saab’s 20 years under GM control has been one long war of attrition. The first 10 years saw a stand-off between GM and co-owner Investor (a Swedish investment company). Neither side would commit serious development funds to the company.
Saab was forced to build the 1993 900 on an ancient GM platform, which badly compromised its premium position. It took seven years of GM control to replace the 9000 with the 9-5, although that was more uniquely Saab and much better engineered.
But the investment famine prevented the re-engineered 1998 9-3 being re-styled and delayed the introduction of the 9-5 estate.
In truth, GM’s parts bin was still not up to underpinning a premium brand. Saab suffered from a lack of modern diesels and petrol engines as well as a lack of four-wheel drive.
GM took full control in 2000, but still Saab survived on rations. It’s heightened sense of independence caused serious ructions while the new 9-3 was being developed. Ostensibly based on the 2003 Vectra, Saab made major and costly changes to the GM architecture to ensure the 9-3 was more ‘uniquely’ Saab.
GM’s revenge for these cost overruns was to delay the 9-3 estate – surely a self-defeating move. GM also cancelled three proposed SUVs – a model desperately need by US Saab dealers. Saab completed prototypes based on the Buick Rendezvous, Caddy SRX and Subaru Tribeca. GM canned them all at the 11th hour.
Saab had also finalised a new 9-5 in 2005, sister car to the Alfa 159. That, too, was canned at the last minute, when GM and Fiat dissolved their partnership.
So it is deeply ironic that Saab’s no-compromise flagship finally arrives just as GM decides to leave.
I have had a sneak preview of the new 9-5 and there’s no doubt it is the company’s most convincing model since the original 900. It’s big, subtly styled in the manner of the Audi A8 and, says the company, 80 percent engineered in Sweden. The estate is dramatic and promises huge load capacity. Downsized turbocharged petrol engines will be stand-out feature.
Even the 9-4X SUV looks good and Saab engineers are promising both the most car-like drive and the best safety results (especially for pedestrian impact) in the sector.
Of course Saab is currently both in bankruptcy protection and lacks a new owner, though the people I talked to in Trollhatten seemed very confident about the future. Although Saab needs to survive until next spring when the 9-5 saloon is launched, it will have a run of impressive new product form then on, cumulating in an all-new 9-3 range.
The 9-3, according to the product planners, will be the mainstay of Saab’s future with potential substantial sales. This car – Golf-sized but upmarket – will define Saab in the future.
It will reflect both Saab’s values – responsible performance, environmental friendliness, safety, sporty handling and progressive design – with the values of what it says are 40 million ‘upper class liberals’ across the EU and the US.
This area of the market is not ‘owned’ by other premium makers, says Saab. Mercedes is deeply conservative and BMW aggressively performance orientated, Saab insiders say.
If you were a potential investor, would you take a bet on this tiny Swedish carmaker having the potential to grow profitably in western markets that are increasingly driven by environmental concerns?
Or will Green-tinged Scandinavian post-modernism always be a niche market, appealing mainly to architects and upstate New York university lecturers?
I suspect that Saab will survive long enough to launch the 9-3 in 2012. By 2013 we’ll know whether Svenska Aeroplan AB has finally established a post-1989 ‘narrative’ that will ensure it can prosper in its own modest way.