In Defense of: Saab

Steven Wade
by Steven Wade

If one word describes Saab’s recent past, it’s underinvestment. Back when the Swedish brand was self-sustaining, they operated their R&D department on a sko sträng. Despite the limitations, Saab created distinctively styled, innovatively engineered automobiles. Then, in 1990, GM bought half of Saab. Ten years later they bought the rest. Since that time, Saab has faced the same financial limitations as before, but without the managerial freedom to overcome them. Late in 2007, it looks like Saab is finally getting the money– and respect– they need.

This nascent renaissance began last year, when GM began spruiking a newfound commitment to Saab. That’s when Saab unveiled the stunning Aero-X concept car. Launched at the Geneva Auto Show, equipped (at least theoretically) with a 2.8-liter BioPower V6 twin-turbo engine, the 400hp prototype gave Saab the kind of techno and style cred it hasn’t enjoyed since flowers had power. Suddenly, no one was talking about rebadged Opels, not even Saab.

"This concept shows the exciting possibilities that are open to us as we evolve a more progressive design language for the Saab brand," said Jan Åke Jonsson, Saab's Managing Director. "Our designers, engineers and marketers in Sweden are ideally placed to nurture and communicate the unique DNA of the Saab brand.”

That newfound commitment has finally begun to take shape in the 2008 model year, with the refreshed Saab 9-3. The improved model is more physically aggressive, but it’s not just another facelift. It’s much quieter, more surefooted and incorporates a couple of genuine mechanical innovations: the twin-turbo diesel engine (TTiD) and Haldex’s all-new Cross-Wheel Drive system (XWD).

XWD is a box fresh all-wheel-drive (AWD) system; Saab is the first company to use it. (Remember when Saab was all about innovation?) Like most modern AWD systems, XWD can split power between the front and rear wheels, as one or the other loses traction. But it’s also capable of splitting power to the rear wheels from side to side, via a new electronic limited slip differential. The end result: Saab’s own testers put an XWD-equipped model through slalom tests quicker, and with greater control, than several premium German and Japanese AWD competitors-– including the Porsche 911 Turbo.

The brilliant new TTiD engine is an oil-burner that delivers a heretofore unseen combination of performance, economy and smoothness. It’s a 180-horse, in-line common rail diesel, with direct and multiple injection, turbocharged and intercooled. While US consumers won’t get a shot at purchasing this engine– GM reckons it can’t be made compliant with U.S. emissions regulations and remain competitively priced– European customers will.

In the medium term, Saab is busy creating an expanded range to boost sales to finally rid the brand of all that annual red ink. To that end, Saab’s crafting an all-new 9-3, an all-new and bigger 9-5 flagship, a midsize 9-4x SUV (a ground-up replacement for the TWAT-winning 9-7x), and a new smaller Saab (called 9-1, for now). All these models are set to hit the streets by 2011.

Saab’s value to GM isn’t just about what it can contribute to the bottom line through additional sales. Saab also brings to GM’s table a varied and valuable technological contribution; one which The General can use to benefit cars right across its brand portfolio, right across the world.

Recently, Saab has begun to expand their areas of technological expertise. With an outlook toward cellulosic ethanol, Saab have been given the lead role in developing GM’s future E85 capability. GM’s previous E85 efforts have been an exercise in CAFE dodging, resulting in low-mileage utes that rarely use the fuel. Saab’s E85 technology uses turbocharging to take advantage of ethanol’s high octane rating. The end result? Around 20 percent more power and torque when running on E85.

Saab served as a “test bed” for XWD technology– debuting in the 2008 Saab 9-3– and will handle the roll out for this technology to all of GM’s FWD-based offerings. And, lest we forget, Saab has been offering turbocharged cars for 30 years. They’re already GM’s leader on the technology, which is key to helping the General create desirable products in these CO2-conscious times.

Saab didn’t build its heritage and cult following based on doing things differently for the sake of difference. They have a noble history and loyal customers because their innovations made sense. Make no mistake: that same spirit of innovation is still alive at Saab– even if it’s somewhat muffled by being part of GM’s bigger picture. Saab are still GM’s only global premium brand, and it looks like they’re finally starting to make the contribution that a premium player needs to make.

All that said, it remains to be seen if the “new” Saab is GM’s latest flavor-of the-month– or a company finally ready to capitalize on GM’s patronage.

[Steven Wade publishes ]

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  • Bill h. Bill h. on Oct 25, 2007

    P. J. McCombs, Message received and understood. Thanks.

  • SAAB95JD SAAB95JD on Oct 27, 2007

    I have to say that the best part of this thread is that it brings the Saab enthusiasts out of the woodwork. This has been a great read, thanks everyone.

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...