So, who killed Saab? Ultimately, it was a tragically mis-matched marriage with General Motors. The small, quirky, car maker from rural western Sweden and the American corporate steamroller from Michigan were never going to gel.
Stop-start product launches and over a decade of models cobbled together from GM’s decidedly mainstream parts bin was the direct cause of Saab’s demise.
The problems began when GM swept in and stole Saab from under Fiat’s nose in 1989. A planned replacement for the ancient 900 was switched from being based on the admired Saab 9000 to being based on the aged Cavalier. The 1993 900 was a so-so car at launch that struggled on for a decade in the face of overwhelming premium-brand opposition. Saab was also embarrassed by the car’s poor showing in lab crash tests.
A major re-engineering in 1998 (when it was re-badged the 9-3) was a big improvement, but GM would not release the funds to allow the car to be re-styled, so a big opportunity was missed to give the only premium hatchback on the market a second wind.
The 1997 9-5 also suffered from being partly based (just 35 per cent by content) on the 1995 Vectra. But GM’s parts bin was just not sophisticated enough to build a car that could look Audi’s A6 and BMW’s 5-series in the eye. Saab’s unsurprising inability to make profits resulted in it being put on an investment drip-feed, which made its situation worse.
The 2003 9-3 should have been a breakthrough but Saab, mindful of the limitations of GM-sourced parts, extensively - and expensively - designed many unique components and systems for the 9-3. GM bosses were furious. It’s rumoured that the estate version of the 9-3, a crucial car in the European market, was delayed in direct response to Saab’s quiet and costly re-jigging of the Epsilon platform.
However, at the time of the 9-3 launch, GM boss Bob Lutz decided to take an active role in trying to save tiny Saab from getting lost at the back of the company’s annual report. Concerned that dealers, in the US especially, were dying away from a lack of the right kind of new products, Lutz pressed the panic button and got Saab to produce a badge-engineered version the Subaru Impreza (the 2005 9-2x) and a re-worked version of the Oldsmobile Bravada SUV (the 2006 9-7x). Although both improved on the base vehicles, both failed to sell in significant numbers.
GM’s predilection for canning Saab models at the last moment is probably unmatched in automotive history. At the beginning of the decade, Saab had prepared its own, near-bespoke, version of the Caddy SRX SUV, itself a pretty sophisticated vehicle and one Saab’s US dealers were crying out for. GM canned it at the last minute.
It also canned Saab’s version of the Subaru Tribeca SUV when GM’s relationship with Subaru ended. In that case, Saab’s 2005 New York show stand was left near-empty when GM’s decision to pull the vehicle was taken after the concept version of the proposed Saab 4x4 had already been built.
But perhaps the killer blow was GM’s decision, in late 1995, to cancel an all-new 9-5. Conceived during the GM-Fiat partnership, it was the sister car to the Alfa 159 and based on the all-new Saab designed ‘premium’ platform (the name gives a clear clue to Saab’s frustration at GM's limitations). Saab finally had a bespoke premium car, but GM’s split with Fiat saw the project canned. Saab simply never recovered from the loss of the 9-5 that never was.
In truth, Saab, as a carmaker, could never have recovered from these blows. But it is also not widely recognised that Saab’s incredibly fertile engineering centre turned out a huge amount of innovative work for GM, including designing, among other things, its four-wheel drive system, the Hi-Per strut front suspension, the Q2 mechanical diff, the Fiat Panda 4x4 system, and much of the current Epsilon 2 platform.
Saab was well on the way to becoming independent with its clever Phoenix platform and we can only hope that its Chinese suitors can pick up the design rights and then keep most of Saab’s engineering team together in order to bring the Phoenix to life, under whatever future brand. Saab was never very good at shifting the metal, but its left-field engineering genius was one of the unsung aspects of the car industry.