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Michael Mauer seen here eyeing the 9-X while it was under construction, believes computers are great for burning through iterations, but useless for picking a final design. What would you expect from a man who thinks washing a car is the best way to "see" how well its surfaces flow and join?
The 9-X is a beacon for Saab's future as a "no compromises" car company. Unlike most other sports cars, the 9-X can haul large objects, lots of luggage, or…well, it also goes very fast.
As we speak, Michael Mauer, chief designer for Saab, stands between Saab’s latest concept vehicles, the 9-X and 93-X, describing the designs and their importance to the future of the marque. A tall, thin man of not quite 40 years, Mauer doesn’t need to stand in the limelight to be satisfied. It’s readily apparent that the designs created under his watchful eye do that.
Born in Germany, where he studied transportation design in a program sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, Mauer joined Mercedes upon his graduation in 1986. “I did a little bit of everything there,” he says quietly. The truth of the matter is this: Mauer produced some of the original sketches and design themes for the SLK during his tenure as project leader, then was named head of the design group responsible for the SL, SLK and A-Class. From there he moved to Tokyo, where he oversaw the initial designs for the Maybach ultra-luxury sedan before returning to Stuttgart, where he was named the design chief for Smart, and produced the mid-engined Coupe and Roadster concepts. “That was one of the toughest assignments,” he says, “because–as a designer–I was in total control of the image of that brand. Smart was new, fresh, unknown. There were no expectations. These had to be created.”
After such a varied career at Mercedes, what could possibly pry him away from Stuttgart and send him to Trollhättan, Sweden? “Peter Augustsson,”–Saab chairman–“approached me about joining him in what he described as, ‘a very interesting journey in which I want you to be a co-pilot and help set the destination.’ Being a co-pilot, and not just someone who puts a form to the wishes of others, was very appealing to me. Plus,” Mauer says with a smile, “I love nature, and Sweden is much better in this respect than Tokyo. In Sweden cars are sporting. In Tokyo they are static sculptures stuck in traffic.”
For Mauer, rejuvenating Saab means more than referring to the past or adding sporting design cues to a bland vehicle. “Retro styling can quickly become a cliché and make you a prisoner to your past,” he states emphatically. “You must look forward while still incorporating those elements that are part of your company tradition.” He sees Saab as a maker of vehicles in which the driver is in control. So telematics and navigation systems are secondary to the focus on driving pleasure. (“A very Scandinavian approach,” he adds.) Surfaces are simple, free of complication, and the functional aspects of elements like lights are hidden when not in use. Plus, surface tension is created without resorting to lines and chamfers. “This makes stance and proportion very important to the design of the vehicle,” he says.
Yet soon Saab and Alfa Romeo will be drawing from the same mechanical toy box in coming generations, and both are sporting brands. Won’t this create friction, if not redundancy, in GM’s entries in the sports/luxury segment? “No,” says Mauer quickly. “Both brands have a sporting heritage, but Alfa is traditional and emotional–it uses very sculpted, sensuous shapes with distinct lines of definition–while Saab is cooler and more futuristic.”
The 9-X and 93-X concepts provide a road map for where Mauer wants to take Saab design. Three intakes dominate the grille area, the headlamps are integrated without also being separate design elements, and the windshield wraps around the A-pillar in recognition of Saab’s aerospace roots. Overhangs are kept short, though the changing radii of the curved sections between the fenders and bumper faces make them look shorter still. The beltlines crisply delineate the upper and lower body sections, and combine with the panel curvature to add tension to the surprisingly plain sides. Inside, instrumentation is kept to a minimum, and the shape of the steering wheel, gear lever, and secondary controls are integrated, accessible, and weighted according to function. Based on these concept vehicles, the next generation of Saabs should be quite interesting.
“These vehicles show engineering and marketing where we want the company to go, and what we want its vehicles to stand for,” says Mauer. “They have made a lot people inside the company nervous, but no one has said they weren’t Saabs, which means we’re on track.” Convincing the buying public of this may take a little more time, however.
“For most buyers, Saab has no brand heritage,” he states, “and we don’t want to confuse them. So we have to take them on the journey with us.” That includes finding a balance of what people expect from Saab, and also having products that attract more people to the brand. “Saabs have to be different, not mainstream,” Mauer begins, “and they can’t cover every segment of the market–no vehicle brand can. Our vehicles must be an acceptable alternative that makes a personal statement about the driver without resorting to clichés scavenged from established premium brands. We must be unique, different, and exciting–especially exciting. Without excitement you are lost.” And lost is a word you never associate with Michael Mauer.