Saab: Needs Must

saab needs must

I get kinda touchy when people start kicking the boots into Saab, especially when they're basing their opinion on mistaken information. As Saab is a GM brand, and Mr. Farago is the author of an ongoing series called "GM Death Watch", it's understandable that the author was black about the brand's future. But the "seasoning" enhancing his main points is pure theatre and his conclusions overly pessimistic. Let's examine his argument point by point:

'Saab's Aero-X, a Corvette-based concept car…'

Reports prior to Geneva indicated that the Aero X concept is based on a completely independent platform that won't see production. But hitching it to another GM car suits Farago's unquenchable thirst for GM badge-engineering stories.

'…a brand that's lost GM several billion dollars over 17 years.'

GM has never put a number to Saab's losses. Objective reports quote a figure of about, or a bit over, $1b.

'…Lutz' alternative to York's Saabicide is badge engineering. Or, more specifically, MORE badge engineering… turning German Opels into Swedish Saabs.'

Saab doesn't live in an ideal world where funds are free-flowing and accountability is non-existent. (Saab lived in this world for a while, right before Investor AB sold it to GM.) The "badge-engineering" following GM's takeover was nothing more than a cost-effective business decision. Whilst it hasn't always been done as well as it could have been (think 9-2x), the business case is clear. It's a matter of head vs. heart. As Jimmy Johnson said in The Cinderella Man: 'My heart is for my family. My brains and my balls are for business, and this is business.'

Saab is now working on a new entry-level car– from the ground up. They're also working on at least one new SUV– from the ground up. Yes, they'll share underpinnings with other vehicles, but that's 'business'. The market will judge whether they're Saab enough, and if they aren't, they won't sell.

'Saab's ignition key slot will remain in between the front seats, but the decisions about its major components will now be taken somewhere a long way away from Sweden.'

What's he referring to here? Powertrain? Is the award-winning, Swedish-specced, Mexican-cast, Australian-assembled twin-scroll turbo 2.8l V6 engine not a decent powerplant? It certainly was when I drove it last month and it had the key hallmark of a Saab powerplant: huge torque over a wide band. It's also notable that there's still an engineering staff in Sweden numbering almost 1,700.

'Anyway, as the Saab faithful will tell you, it's too late to worry about the brand's identity.'

A little presumptuous, I think. If General Motors doesn't remain faithful to the Saab brand's identity, the market will tell them. Slow sales of the Subaru-based Saab 9-2x show GM where they got it wrong. The success of the 9-3 SportCombi and the 9-5 Biopower [in Sweden] illustrates the brand's continuing popularity amongst "the faithful," and its potential future.

'…the Opel Vectra-based Saabs drive remarkably like… Opel Vectras.'

This statement is based on a popular misconception. The Epsilon platform underpinning both cars was first used by Saab in the '03 Saab 9-3. Because the platform was used in concurrence with the '03 Vectra, ill-informed enthusiasts conclude that the Saab was built on an Opel platform.

Not so. Saab uses a modified "Epsilon" rather than "Opel" platform. In fact, Saab modified the Epsilon platform so heavily that the 9-3 can't be built anywhere else. This is one of the main reasons GM stepped-in to take budgetary control of the company. As for the driving comparison, other than the fact that both cars can get you from A to B, the driving experience is fundamentally different. The 9-3 is a faster and safer car than the Vectra. Subjectively, it's also more comfortable and fun to drive.

Farago seems to enjoy tap dancing on Saab's perceived grave because it suits his anti-GM agenda. At the same time, he hints at a twinge of sadness about the loss of a previously independent-thinking automaker. Saab certainly isn't as independent and innovative as it once was. At this point, it can't be. Is that because of GM's corporate ownership stifling the creativity of the Saab engineers etc? Only partly.

The main reason Saab can't be the Saab its supporters desire is simple: they gotta pay their bills. The type of R&D Saab needed for true distinctiveness is only possible with either bottomless pockets or decent profits. GM can't provide Saab the former without the latter. Meanwhile, I don't subscribe to the belief that GM's ownership of Saab has been the death of the company. Nor do I believe that GM's platform-sharing program will rob Saab of its unique character. Saying so is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

[Steven Wade is a finance professional who runs www.trollhattansaab.net]

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