June 13, 2012

Confession #44: If the faithful won't buy a Saab EV, who will?

2010 Saab 9-3X (Saab Automobile photo)
I've expressed my love and skepticism for Saab several times. But I never wrote an obit.

I very nearly counted them out as the production halt in April 2011 turned into a potential sale, which turned into reorganization and then full-on bankruptcy around Christmas. They were down, but not dead and buried. Yet.

Today's news the broken remains of Saab Automobile – the plant, various tooling pieces and probably a lot of stationary and swanky Swedish furniture – were sold to a consortium called National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS). NEVS is based in Sweden, led by a Chinese-born executive and has Japanese and Chinese money. Sounds like an interesting party, to say the least.

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that NEVS' goal is to electrify Saab to make it viable – by being essentially a Swedish Tesla Motors and banking on the EV wave that is coming over the world's biggest markets – like China, the US and parts of Europe. An electric Saab, theoretically, sounds like a good bet, too. Historically, Saab customers have been creative and environmentally conscious forward-thinkers.

Save Saab, Paris, Jan. 2010 (Saabactu photo)
That's why I've been stunned at the reaction from Saab fans at the blog, SaabsUnited.com. These are the vocal fans largely credited for getting GM to sell the company to Spyker back in 2010, and kept faith long after most people consigned the weird cars to the history books. You'd think they'd want to see Saab live above all else.

It turns out many of them would rather see Saab dead (or sold back to GM, for that matter) than it be turned into an EV company. Comment after comment from today's press conference of the sale had users shuddering at the thought of an all-electric 9-3 that NEVS wants to put on-sale by the end of next year, and a new 9-3 in the future that will be an EV. It's not that these Saabists don't want a new Saab, they simply don't want a Saab without an internal combustion engine.

Which is shortsighted, in my opinion. First off, the basis for Saab EVs for the foreseeable future will be models developed by the company under GM and Spyker. The first 9-3 EV will probably be similar, other than the engine, to the last cars that rolled off of the Trollhattan line before the money ran out. That's a car the SaabsUnited faithful are quick to defend as competitive, even though the bones are from circa 2002. And the new EV will benefit from the R&D Saab did post-GM.

As much as I like a turbo and think EVs aren't quite ready for primetime, an EV-only Saab Automobile sounds like an interesting prospect – if the money doesn't run out like it always does in Saab's history. EVs aren't mainstream yet, but Saab will never (and should never) be mainstream. Tesla and Fisker have proven EVs and range-extenders can be desirable cars. In fact, the biggest questions I have for NEVS are these: Will the first 9-3 EV be priced competitively given its age? And why the dominant focus on China, where Saab is a non-entity, instead of the US and UK, where EV Saabs have a shot at selling?

Those two points seem like the biggest hitches in plan for a new Saab. But again, it is a new Saab. The company's property has been tossed around like a bag of Swedish Fish over the last few months and many key engineers have found work elsewhere. So, again, I'm curious to see what becomes of the Saab EVs. But I have my car-buying sights set on an XC70, from that other Chinese-Swedish carmaker.