By on March 2, 2011

Saab’s PhoeniX concept has two very different purposes: Saab’s Chief Designer Jason Castriota claims the point of the concept was to create buzz and draw attention to the fact that Saab is still around, but it also provides the first look at a new platform that will underpin future iterations of the 9-5, 9-3 and 9-4X. Saab’s Jan-Åke Jonsson tells What Car? that flexibility is key to the new platform, and that “though expensive” it will ultimately save Saab money, saying

We will be able to use the same powertrains in all our vehicles and build them in the same plant (Trollhattan in Sweden), so there are lots of benefits

Which makes you wonder where the money is coming from to develop an all-new, flexible platform. But the PhoeniX Concept also forces you to ask another question: how exactly is this thing a Saab, anyway? At least that’s what former BMW designer Chris Bangle wondered. Hit the jump to see Bangle tussle over the issue with Castriota [courtesy: CarDesignNews], before the Saab designer goes over the Phoenix’s design and place in Saab’s future.

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32 Comments on “How Is This A Saab?...”

  • avatar

    Two American automotive designers: one young, promising, and at the top of his game; one old, controversial, and enjoying his semi-retirement; having a hearty but civil debate in the middle of a European car show? Good stuff! I wish their exchange was longer and went into more detail about their philosophies.

  • avatar

    Note to Chris Bangle:  Shut up.  That car is a hell of a lot better looking than anything you ever saddled BMW with.

    • 0 avatar

      Syke, I think you need to not comment until you fully know the reasoning behind this chat.  Once upon a time I went to industrial design school.  CCS to be exact…  and went through part of the auto design program.  I’ve seen this type of dialogue probably a million times.  Bangle is NOT being condescending.  Instead, he is simply trying to get Jason to explain his design.  Jason is excellent at BSing.  Many people at design schools are excellent at BSing, especially the more successful ones.  However, Bangle asks some good questions.  It has nothing to do with what Bangle thinks of the design or Bangle’s designs in general.  He simply is asking the question you should be asking yourself with this car…. does it have enough SAAB in the DNA of the design?  Was Jason inspired by something that can be seen in the design?  I had teachers ask me all the time about why I put a line where I did.  A good design has a purpose for every line.  That’s all Bangle was asking.  Designers MUST be able to defend their design and give good reason for it.  I personally LOVE the look of this car, but I also question if SAAB needs another radical departure from it’s DNA.  I’m quite happy Bangle asked the questions he did.  They were straight and to the point.  Thanks Chris Bangle, I would have asked the same.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. And I love the condescending tone like he’s lord of all automotive design creation. What a tool.

    • 0 avatar

      + a billion. There’s a man who needs to go away. Now and forever.

    • 0 avatar

      What Bangle did was copied by everyone. Don’t dismiss/discredit so readily.

    • 0 avatar

      My sentiments as well.  If there ever were unearned smugness, it’s Bangle.  You’re no Jonathan Ive, Chris.

    • 0 avatar

      I am firmly of the opinion that BMW did so well the past 15 years IN SPITE of Chris Bangle, not because of him. They hit the perfect niche of a roaring economy (for a good while), a sporting brand perception, and expensive (but not TOO expensive when leased). So people FLOCKED to them. And they really are GREAT to drive. It really didn’t matter what they looked like, it was a triumph of branding over execution. As I always say to my BMW Club buddies “imagine how many they would have sold if they were actually good looking”!

      As for Saab (am I am a multiple and current Saab owner too) – Saab has always been all over the place with thier design! They started out as odd little two-door teardrop shaped sedans(92-96), had a 3dr wagon for a while (95), then relatively conventional 2dr and 4dr sedans (early 99). Then they came up with the 3dr and 5dr hatches for the 99 (which did not sell all THAT well, most 99s are 2dr and 4dr sedans). That morphed into the 900, again in 2dr and 4dr sedan form, and 3dr and 5dr hatch, and convertible. And 10000 Sonett sports cars in 4 series. So really, I think Saab can pretty much do whatever, as long as the result is functional. I do think the essence of Saab is small engines though – to me a V6t 9-3 is the anti-Saab. Also note, the closest thing Saab has EVER had to thier own original engine design is the 2.0L Ecotec in the 9-3. Everything else is either completely bought-in or an evolutiion of something that was bought-in. The Ecotec may be stamped “GM”, but the Swedes did all the design work on it.

      My fear is that the functionality is going to get lost in the over-the-top styling for styling’s sake.

    • 0 avatar

      True, except for the E46, the best-looking BMW of all time.
      I wish designers would refrain from a slavish design “language” in any case.  This is what brought us the NG900 and 9-5s, after all, which were forced to look like C900s even though it meant craning one’s neck at every stoplight to see out of the fishbowl windshield.
      The 9000 was the best Saab ever, and it was a TRUE Saab in that it put function before form, just like the 99 and C900 had done (which is why they looked the way they did).

    • 0 avatar

      Do you mean the 2.3L lump in 9-5? Then I agree. (: ’cause in its 9-3CC form is the most UN-SAAB engine, almost a straight pick-n-pull from Opel parts bin.

      From my preferential point the 1st generation 2.0 16 valve turbo (as in late 900OG and pre-facelift 9000) – pre-DI and pre-balancer shaft – was the best, a true million-miler, simple, robust and efficient.

    • 0 avatar

      The 9000 was the best Saab ever


    • 0 avatar


      NO! The 2.3L is a DIRECT descendent of the Ricardo-designed Triumph motor that Saab bought in for the early 99. It was redesigned and improved over the years, but is still a decendent of that original design. The 2.0L Ecotec was a clean-sheet-of-paper best current practices design, and that design effort was lead by the Saab engineers.

      The old 16V C900/NG900 iron-block 2.0L is certainly a rugged piece – after 30+ years of evolution it certainly should have been! But it is heavy, not all that efficient, and the iron block aluminum head design made for head gasket issues, even more so in the 2.1L version. And on the C900 is was bolted on top of two of the worst transmission designs ever in the history of transmissions! Saab had the best of intentions when they did the final re-design for the 9-5 and old 9-3, but unfortunately it did not turn out so well.

      The new 2.0L is a really nice piece of work – very noticably more fuel efficient and powerful than the old iron-block 2.0L. Also nearly immune from head gasket issues due to tha all-aluminum construction. Let’s not even go down the road of talking about the sludge-monster 2.3L. Probably the only real mechanical issue with the 2.0 Ecotec is that changing the waterpump is a PITA, as it is driven from the timing chain. I fully expect these to be million mile motors as well, and with lower fuel and maintenance costs over that million miles.

      The 9000 is a FIAT. :-) Though I do like the space efficiency of them, they always seemed a bit half-baked in execution and I never liked the way they drove. Mom had three of them new back in the 80s and 90s, all three were reliability disasters. My ’08 9-3SC has been nearly flawless.

    • 0 avatar

      “Many people at design schools are excellent at BSing”

      Absolutely true…

      “He simply is asking the question you should be asking yourself with this car…. does it have enough SAAB in the DNA of the design? “

    • 0 avatar

      “NO! The 2.3L is a DIRECT descendent of the Ricardo-designed Triumph motor”

      No it’s not. Ricardo had little if anything to do with the triumph slant 4. It was a Harry Webster motor ie completely in-house, although a blow in from Rover designed the 16 valve head version (Spen King!)

  • avatar

    Watching car designers give each other a hard time is like watching dogs sniff each others butts. That said, I hope this post gives us mad web traffic.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sure it’ll get some traffic.  It’s kinda ridiculous how jalopnik is portraying it as some big beat down.  There really is nothing out of the ordinary in this video besides Bangle catching Jason on his heels about what he was thinking when he did the design.  The  “big” deal I suppose would be that it’s the old guard questioning the new.  Apparently, some people feel offended by that on other sites.  I love it.  :)

  • avatar

    so what was Jason’s claim to fame? He did As a designer he took part in the design of production cars such as the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano and Maserati GranTurismo, concept cars like the Maserati Birdcage 75th and the Rolls Royce Hyperion, and, as Head Designer for Special Projects, one-off exclusive cars for particular customers, such as the “Ferrari P4/5 by Pininfarina”, a restyled Enzo Ferrari for American car collector James Glickenhaus, and the Ferrari 612 Kappa, a restyling of the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti for car collector Peter Kalikow.
    so he has a few notable contributions. Not quite made it to the first fiddle yet or quando, quando ,quando.
    This Saab looks like is going up market, similar to Lotus. Being up market u need to have a powerful engine, solid chassis. Or else just bolt the mold /top onto a Toyota.
    Bangle ve no need to say more, rightly or wongly he had made some serious rubies for the Quandt family.

  • avatar

    Is it just my web browser or are the links to bigger pictures defunct?

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    I guess for the general American market, Castriota can make the Saab brand “own” anything he really wants. If he wants to attempt to recall and riff on the original airplane droptank design language from the brand’s inception, I guess he can riff on that theme all he wants.

    Because, when it comes to the American market, it doesn’t matter. Other than the very niche audience of Saabinistas, car consumers in this country cannot tell you a thing about the brand’s inception, famous early models, technolgies, or overarching design language. A few car buffs can recall a few general facts about the brand, and I guess GM’s “Born from Jets” tried to en-Viggen things, historically.

    So if Saab, in an attempt to stay current and relevant, wants to build airfoils into the pillars/roof line, great. Now’s the time to stretch and go far with the design in an attempt to create awareness and desire. It’s now or never.
    I get what Bangle was (condescendingly) trying to draw out: where’s any connection to what’s gone on before in this concept? It’s far departed from anything recent, and really, I think the teardrop airplane tank is a real stretch of an answer. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, at least for the brand to move forward in North America. It’s time, I think, for a design Hail Mary, and hope that it catches on.

  • avatar

    SAAB has been drawing on the ur-SAAB and the 96, which is fine, and this car looks to me like a Sonnet.
    The problem for the US markets is the iconic saab is the 900.
    Since JC is American, his first car was a 900 SPG, and he’s also said at Geneva “no sedan for the new 9-3” I think he gets it.
    The front nose is very good — they’ve moved the wheel forward a bit.  The mechanics are in place:  a MINI engine.  Probably a separate hybrid model for the rear electric axle, but that is also already done.
    And really Bangle bashing on heritage is  a bit rich.

  • avatar

    Now am I the only one who thinks that hideous heavy drugs-induced “design” excersise looks like a Batmobile that was inflated through a straw stuck into its anus?

    It increasingly looks like elegance, good taste and proportions are a forgotten art.

  • avatar

    Saab is a front wheel drive with small blown up engines that goes very well through slippery stuff, has hatchback utility, has original suspension (A-arms were cool) that can carry weight and can go fast.  That Penix concept is none of the above.  Fail!

  • avatar

    Way too busy. Looks more like a replacement for the old Subaru XT. What rock did they find this guy under?

  • avatar

    I think it would make a great next-gen GT-R.
    Overall, too contrived and Asian-looking; aero is important, but so are clean styling, good visibility and efficient packaging, none of which this displays. Need to go back to the drawing board on that one.

  • avatar

    I thought Bangle was just asking design school questions. The place he chose to do this with cameras and recorders running seems a little snotty, but it isn’t the first time. Castriota didn’t seem to expect semi-intense questioning, took a moment to gather his wits, but then got back on design school script. Designers talk this way because their work has to do with taste, fashion. style, personal preference. But defending design choices on those grounds in an industrial setting comes across as lame.  Much better to tie your pitch to a priority theme — aerodynamics! — to get the heads nodding. Good designs are sometimes the expression of personal preference, but it’s problematic to defend them that way. What you’re listening to is the jargon of industrial design, automotive division.

    P.S. The design ain’t Saabish at all imho, though the explanation is artful in attempting to make it so.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Saab lost any “Saabishness” credibility with one decision:
    And Bangle’s junk was for appealing to women, I mean, come on, the 7-series butt?!  Harley Earl you ain’t, Mr. Bangle.  I would much rather have a tuned E38 and an honest independent mechanic.

  • avatar

    If  you watch the video with Castriota doing a walkaround with the guy from Saabsunited, you can get an idea of what he was saying regarding the “Ursaab” and his designerspeak about a teardrop shape on top of a wing. It’s more noticeable from fender level. We can’t post photos here, but if you find images of the Ursaab, and then look at the shaping of the hood and front fenders of the Phoenix I think that you can see a resemblance, at least I can.

  • avatar

    Wasn’t the reason why auto companies did away with huge fins during the early sixties was because of handling problems during high-speed turns? Regardless, as with most concept cars, there’s so much superficial crap thrown around that would never make it production. It’s just a means to get the public excited toward design cues for future development. Quite frankly, I’m not the least bit excited about this concept car.

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