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A Saab Story

No car person wants to see a nameplate on the brink.

No car person wants to see a nameplate on the brink. Even the most hard-bitten among us harbors a secret desire for a brand’s recovery because its demise is like losing a member of the extended family. However, saving a brand from elimination often takes extraordinary measures, and more than a few unsavory decisions along the way.

Saab chief designer Michael Mauer showed two spot-on concepts—the 9-X (Frankfurt 2001) and 9-3X (Detroit 2002)—that sought to establish a theme and image for Saab, something the brand has lacked for far too long. It was easy to imagine them as part of a family of vehicles built off a common architecture, and aimed at a buyer for whom technology is a tool, not an end in and of itself.

“Saabs have to be different, not mainstream,” Mauer told me, “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.”

You have to wonder how he’s taking the news about the GM-enforced additions to the Saab lineup: a rumored Trailblazer-based SUV, and a Subaru Impreza-based entry-level sporty car, the 9-2. There is no way on God’s green earth a truck-based SUV will ever be accepted as a Saab by true Saabphiles, though there are more than a few pretentious name droppers who will have to have it. And while drawings of the “Saabaru” look OK, there’s nothing to suggest it will be anything other than a Saab nose and tail on someone else’s car. (Note to GM: At least let Mauer spend money on the interiors. Neither vehicle is known for its upmarket, quality cockpit.)

Yet Mauer would be the first to admit that, for most buyers, Saab has no brand heritage, and that it’s in desperate need of more products that can attract buyers to the brand. Adding some mongrels in the short run won’t help the first problem, but it will let the brand make money until more permanent changes can be made. The SUV move smacks of cynical cost and capacity concerns, not long-term brand management. In contrast, the “Saabaru” 9-2 can at least draw on Saab’s sporting heritage and rally successes for support, and would make a better platform for an uniquely Saab SUV.

I’m too much of an iconoclast to believe that you have to have the ignition lock on the floor and put the gearbox in reverse when parking before you can call a vehicle a Saab. Yet I’m not convinced that you can mix and match platforms and models from other divisions in order to fill gaps in a lineup that have been vacant for a long time. I would have more confidence in the plan if GM’s track record in the matter weren’t so abysmal. After all, it wanted Jaguar, but took Saab when Ford walked off with that prize. The Swedish automaker then became, in the minds of GM management, a surrogate for Jaguar, and a potential competitor for Mercedes and BMW. Countless other plans followed after that one fell apart, none coherent.

What didn’t happen was a reevaluation of what Saab really was and could be, and how to use the pieces being assembled in the vast GM empire to create vehicles that met that vision. I’m still not sure that first step has yet been taken—or ever will be—though, for Saab’s sake, I hope I’m wrong.

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