A Car Czar Too Far: Why Bad Things Happen to Good Saabs

Gunnar Heinrich
by Gunnar Heinrich

Leave it to the Germans. When it comes to resurrecting, producing and managing foreign niche marques, the Aktiengesellschaft do the job right. While German ownership is not without its faults (think BMW’s troubled relations with MG Rover), their batting average is league leading. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pile… Not to put too fine a point on it, GM does European automobiles as convincingly as Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin sang O Sole Mio in karaoke; the results are muddled, embarrassing and on view for an international audience.

Yes, Ford’s been farting around with foreigners as well. But you can almost forgive The Blue Oval’s lazy and misguided stewardship of the venerable Jaguar brand when balanced against the fine products coming from their Volvo, Aston and Land Rover subsidiaries. In contrast, GM’s husbandry of Saab is cynical, invasive and, ultimately, unpardonable.

Whenever I hear Vice Chairman of Global Development Maximum Bob Lutz talk about Saab, my skin crawls. In fact, his comments about the brand’s products often reveal willful contempt. In GM’s FastLane blog, Maximum Bob “playfully” commented on the Swedish design elements incorporated into the Saab 9-7X, an Ohio-built SUV based on GM’s 2005 GMT360 chassis (better known as ye olde Chevrolet Trailblazer). “The center console is not only 100% Saab in design and execution, but also features the famed ignition in the area where the Golden Retriever can turn it off.”

Obvious SUV – dog jokes aside, Maxi Bob’s flippant description of a characteristic Saab safety feature leads me to believe that if GM owned MINI, Bob’d be pushing a Chevrolet Aveo with faux aluminum rocker switches, lauding how it succeeds in maintaining MINI’s mojo (if MB knew what a mojo was). Why, he would proclaim, we even painted a Union Jack on the roof! That kind of heritage costs money you know. It sure does Mr. Lutz. As does your $1.8m annual salary.

If GM had the same respect for Saab as the Germans have for their foreign brands, the picture would be a lot rosier. The General would understand that a Saab shouldn’t be badge engineered anything. While the [Bimmer funded] Rolls Royce Phantom was hardly a runaway sales success, at least it preserves the marque’s elite heritage, and affords Rolls a chance to try again. The 9-7X is a bad joke that makes Saab into a bad joke. GM would also know not to pitch the resulting products to Audi or Volvo buyers; just as BMW realized that the new MINI and Rolls-Royce should be marketed to their own, singular clientele (they don’t call ‘em niche markets for nothin’).

Clearly, GM’s flair for cutting edge design and brand management is long gone. It’s as though The General has turned from an affable old geezer into a cantankerous son of a bitch who’s obsessed with the bottom line, but refuses to cough-up the dough for new product. “Goddammit, use watchya got!” Wait! It gets worse. Now the same badge engineering that sunk Oldsmobile and continues to threaten Pontiac and wounds Saab’s credibility and could bland Saturn to death is being exported to Johnny Foreigner.

GM Europe (and now South Africa) have recently introduced a Cadillac built on the same Epsilon chassis as the Saab 9-3 and Opel Vectra. Remove the “L” from the Cadillac BLS and the acronym is more indicative of what GM has accomplished with this "new" car. What happened to the magnificent Eldorado convertible in La Dolce Vita that paraded down the cobbled streets of Rome oozing the chromium of rich, victorious, post war Americana? Gone. While the STS is busy not selling abroad as well, European buyers now think of a Cadillac as mid-sized motor that can be ordered with an “economical” four cylinder diesel.

Even more bizarrely, GM’s thinking about importing the unholy Caddy– a foreign-built badge-engineered Cadillac– into the US. If you need proof that GM knows everything about bean counting and nothing about selling automobiles, well, there it is. Again. The fact that GM green-lighted the exact same mistake that nearly killed Caddy in the US some thirty years ago eliminates any hope that Bob Lutz’ enthusiasm for global platform sharing, for Opel-izing Saturn and Holdenating Pontiac, will create a coherent model line-up. GM is far more likely to import more penny-pinching half-breeds, mutants and unlovable bastards.

Obviously, shared engineering is not in and of itself a liability. Seat, Audi, Lamborghini and Bugatti all benefit from corporate parent VW's technological resources. No, the real enemy is willful ignorance. Niche brands require careful nurturing. More than anything, niche consumers demand products that display brand-faithful individuality. Anything less is a new 9-3. So now The General is faced with two solutions to its money-draining mismanagement of Saab: either embrace the German model of ownership or set it free before it faces an ignominious death. Needless to say, they’ll do neither.

Gunnar Heinrich
Gunnar Heinrich

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  • Jthorner Jthorner on Oct 20, 2006

    Remember the Schwab ad of a few years ago, the one CBS refused to air? Here is a quote: "OK, kids, here's today's magic stock. We've got big incentives on this one, so get on the phones -- we got a lot of stock to move. Tell your customers it's red hot -- this one is en fuego. Just don't mention the fundamentals; they stink. There are a couple of courtside playoff tickets for today's winner. Let's put some lipstick on this pig. Get to work, people." Well, that character is alive and well and working at the top levels of General Motors. If ever there were cars which qualify as Lipstick on Pigs it would have to be the Saab 9-7, Cadillac BLS and all of the junk Suzuki-Daewoo is putting onto the US market. The Saturn Relay gets a special mention as well. YUCK!

  • JoftheBx JoftheBx on Oct 25, 2006

    Alot of comments on this one... it must mean that somehow there are still some fans of SAAB. Seems to me - the downfall began when GM decided to change the beloved 2 or 4-door hatchback 9-3 into a 4-door sedan only. In one move they successfully alienated the core believers without giving them an alternate option within the brand. Why did it take 3+ years to get the wagon version to market. Why no hatchback? The funny thing is GM made this brillant move right when the 'crossover' movement was just getting started; they were perfectly positioned to pick up customers fleeing their SUVs but still looking for some utility. I guess they were supposed to buy the Malibu Maxx. Yeah right - ugly is not unique or fun. So... GM recognizes their mistake (i guess) and instead of immediatly grafting a hatch onto the 9-3 they spend time and money to rebadge an aging Subaru. If GM needs SAAB to have a more full model lineup why not focus on the 9-3 and a new 9-5 and offer sedans, hatchbacks, coupes, convertibles and wagons of each base model. Stop wasting time on badge engineering and make the core models great. If they really want more model names (numbers?) they could call the coupes/ convertibles 9-4 and 9-6 (similar to audi's new naming scheme) i want my SAAB hatch back! (sorry - pun intended)

  • ToolGuy "and leaves auto dealers feeling troubled" ...well this is terrible. Won't someone think of the privileged swindlers??
  • ToolGuy "Selling as I got a new car and don't need an extra." ...Well that depends on what new car you chose, doesn't it? 😉
  • El scotto The days of "Be American, buy America" are long gone. Then there's the mental gymnastics of "is a Subaru made in Lafayette, IN more American than something from gm or Ford made in Mexico?" Lastly, it gets down to people's wallets; something cheap on Amazon or Temu will outsell its costlier American-made item. Price not Patriotism sells most items. One caveat: any US candidate should have all of his/her goods made in the USA.
  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.