In the great premium car boom of the last decade, Sweden's car brands have somehow failed to catch the passing wave. Volvo's base of 400,000 sales has not have grown much; without the XC90, it probably would have gone into reverse. Saab is in a much worse position though, having hardly broken through the 140,000 units barrier. It has spent much of its time under full General Motors ownership in the red, in fact, and stumbled badly when it comes to homegrown product.
GM took 50 per cent ownership of Saab in 1990. Swedish company Investor held the other half. The upshot was a standoff, with neither side willing to sink serious money into new products.
Saab has also been long hamstrung by the GM parts bin. Believe it or not, the rushed 1993 900 model was based on the Vauxhall Cavalier. Despite a massively beefed-up upper structure, unique interior and some of its own engines, the 900 was badly hobbled by its understructure. It was massively improved for the 1998 model year, and renamed the 9-3, but Saab was refused the funds for a facelift that would have given the car a fresh start.
A really fresh start should have been possible in 2003 with the launch of the new 9-3. It was designed to leave behind the truck-like driving characteristics of previous models. It was meant to be compact, nippy and fun-to-drive. But Saab's sense of independence had tripped it up again. Sources say that it had made extensive changes to the source GM Epsilon platform. It was a different size, had a different electrical architecture and even different seat frames. And that meant it couldn't be built in other GM factories. GM bosses went ballistic, but also realised that it had to fully integrate Saab in the GM family. Which means Saabs being built all over the world.
Nobody was too impressed with the Impreza-based 9-2x (though it improved a lot on the donor car) and the body-on-frame 9-7x SUV. GM said they were vital cars, helping keep the US dealer network on board.
Today, Saab boss Jan-Ake Jonsson has to sit tight and wait for 2009. By then, the new Saab 9-5, inspired by the Aero X concept (right) will have arrived and the new 9-4x SUV will be rolling out of a factory in Mexico. Because these models stick closely to the Epsilon 2 architecture, Saab can spend money on unique styling and high-quality interiors. And ironically, the 9-5 and next 9-3 will be built in Germany alongside the next Vectra massively improving Opel's economies of scale.
2010, however, should see an Audi A3-sized Saab built at the company's Trollhatten HQ. Jonsson has to shrink down the factory and workforce, as well as roll out a brand new production line as production of the old 9-3 and Caddy BLS is wound-up.
Saab has been on a tightrope for decades. The next two years - waiting for the most focused new models ever - will be the most nerve-racking of all.