October 31, 2011

Confession #33: Give Saab a chance, but don't hold your breath

2012 Saab 9-3 Independence Edition Convertible (left),
Saab 9-5 SportCombi,Saab 9-3 Griffin SportCombi,
Saab 9-4x and PhoeniX concept car (Saab Automobie AB photo)
Last February, I was pretty elated when Spyker closed the deal to rescue Saab from the crusher of liquidation following an aborted attempt from tiny supercar maker Koenigsegg to buy the fellow Swedish brand from a bankrupt General Motors. I kept looking at my iPhone for news about the deal, occasionally getting death stares from a professor while she was talking about something. I’m not one to text during class, but Saab’s fate was fascinating to me.

The news this Halloween that Saab will be allowed to continue its second reorganization plan now that two Chinese companies you’ve never heard of will buy the carmaker and invest in it hasn’t got me quite so giddy. Pang Da and Youngman aren’t exactly big-time players in the China automotive, not like Volvo’s owner Geely anyway. Pang Da doesn’t actually make cars either; it’s a distribution company. It’s kind of like when Roger Penske’s company tried to buy Saturn, only this time Pang Da’s collaborating 40/60 with Youngman (an auto company) and Saab has its own engineers and plants.

The Chinese firms want to finally give Saab not only a serious distribution arm in their country, but produce three new model lines – including a large crossover and a small 9-1 compact rival to the Mini.

2011 Saab 9-5 Sedan
(Saab Automobile AB photo)
How much life the Saab brand has left in it remains to be seen, though. Saab wasn’t exactly a top-tier rival to the Germans, or even Acura and Volvo in the waning days of GM’s ownership. As much as people like to say Saab would have been dead long ago had the General not come and invested in it back in 1989, the fact remains the Swedes became a victim of GM’s neglect and favoritism on the part of their Opel subsidiary, which always relegated Saab to also-ran status. This 20-year-long episode under GM conspired to lessen Saab and its products.

2011 Volvo S60 (Volvo Cars photo)

Even I, a pretty devout defender of Saab, have a hard time recommending a car from a company that’s had three owners in as many years. Two separate people in the last month have asked me to recommend Saab 9-3-sized cars to them and I’ve steered them in the direction of their local Audi or BMW dealer. And if I were shopping for a $35,000 car these days, I’d have to give my money to a Volvo dealer in exchange for an S60. I also find it hard to recommend some of Saab’s new designs just on the basis that they’re not that competitive. After driving the new 9-5 Turbo4 sedan, I came away with the impression that while it is a good car, it’s not a great one. It’s roomy, solid-feeling and fantastic to look at, but it just isn't as good as it should be – especially at a $40,000-plus sticker price.

2013/14 Saab 9-3 Hatchback sketch
The car Saab really needs to build is one that looks like the sketch floating around in their reconstruction plan. That new 9-3, supposedly due in 2013, will have a turbo engine from a Mini Cooper S mated to an electric motor at the back, thus making it an all-wheel drive hybrid four-door hatchback. It marries the front of the PhoeniX concept Jason Castriota designed earlier this year to the pragmatism of the old 99 Combi Coupe. It sounds like the most brilliant piece of design and engineering and it would be the biggest shame if it were never to reach production. 

Here’s what it comes down to: The world needs Saab. The world needs engineers working in the frozen Scandinavian north seeing what would happen if they put conventional thinking on its head. Automakers these days are making a big deal about turbocharging, but Saab’s been boosting family cars since 1978 – it had the US’ first all-turbo lineup back in 1998. But Saab’s scale ultimately prevents it from being a serious player as a viable business case among carmakers. The new estimate of about 200,000 annual units still isn’t exactly large-scale.

Tata Motors’ leadership of Jaguar Land Rover proves that if left alone by its conglomerate parent, a niche company can make great products and turn profits. Volvo under Geely has the potential to do the same. There’s a reason Saab has cheated death so many times – it’s worth saving. I truly feel sorry for Spyker (now Swedish Automobile) chairman Victor Muller as he relentlessly tried to keep Saab independent. But the company has been beaten up so many times, and as good as its future products are, the ones available today just can't quite incite enthusiasm. And then there's the cruel reality of the global economy, which isn't as energetic as it should be. Today, I can only convey hope, not confidence, that this special little company will thrive under Chinese rule. Unfortunately, life isn't as fair as it should be.