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Saab news — Saab goes Dutch - 2010
The deal was done last night, even as GM
had already begun to wind down the Swedish car maker, having despaired of ever
finding a buyer. That wind-down has now been halted, to the enormous relief of
thousands of Saab staff and dealers.
I’m happy for those people. But long-term,
I’m not optimistic. Yes, everyone wants to see Saab survive, but far too few
people did the one thing that would have assured the company’s future: buy a
Saabs have been second-rate for years. And
the important thing to note is this: Saab didn’t just make disappointing cars
in the GM years. Before that, it made them all by itself.
GM ruined Saab because it saved money by
building cars that didn’t have enough individuality in design or engineering.
They were Vauxhalls in fancy dress with the make-up smudged.
But pre-GM, Saab was too small to be able
to afford its own proper engineering either. The 9000 was a co-op venture with
Fiat Auto that also produced the Alfa 164. The 9000 was a decent enough car,
but it wasn’t individual.
So that’s the cleft stick: it’s hard to be
distinctive when you’re part of a giant global corporation. But it’s even
harder when you’re small and alone.
Saab-Spyker is now very small and very
So what’s to be done? GM has finished
developing for Saab some vital new cars to launch this year. The new 9-5 (pictured) is a
big car that comes in saloon and estate forms. And there’s the 9-4X, a BMW X3 rival. These will keep the dealers busy for a while. But the GM engineering
means they’re not compellingly different.
Longer-term, Saab will have to cut the
umbilical cord from GM. Bravely, Saab bosses are talking about replacing the
9-3 with a car that is ‘more unlikely than likely’ to be derived from a GM
platform. And that beyond that, Saab wants to build a compact, a 9-1, which
will take a lot of inspiration from the 9-X BioHybrid concept shown in Geneva in 2008.
Saab globally usually sells 100,000-150,000
cars a year. Mercedes, BMW and Audi do 10 times that. This gives them the
engineering resources and purchasing power to develop and build such fine cars.
How can such a small firm as Saab have such big ambitions to build premium
Saab people say they will need to
co-operate with suppliers over things such as mild hybrid systems. They will
also try to barter its expertise in design and ergonomics. It’s a new industry
model, and success is far from assured.
But first of all, people have to start buying
Saabs again. All of us car enthusiasts might be sentimentally upset to see the
death of the maker of the mad early 99 Turbo. But sentiment isn’t enough.