Paul Horrell27 January 2010

Saab goes Dutch

Historic Swedish car maker is saved by Spyker, but its future is far from secure

New Saab 9-5

Well gosh, Saab survived. Invisibly tiny Dutch supercar maker Spyker has managed to buy it from GM.

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 Saab.

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 alone.

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 rivals?

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.

Paul Horrell

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