What Is GM Doing To Saab? And Why?

By Kevin Miller

09.09.2008

Over the weekend I attended a fairly large gathering of Saab enthusiasts in Washington State. The group consisted of a diverse cross-section of Saab owners, who showed up in an array of vehicles ranging from a 1976 99 GL to a 2008 9-5 sedan, with plenty of classic 900s and 9-3 Viggens between. During our low-key car show and drive, a number of us were chatting about the current state of Saab, in terms of its existing model lineup, upcoming vehicles, and marketing. Saab enthusiasts, in general, are concerned about the state of the company and about GM’s stewardship of the marque (or lack thereof).

Throughout its history, Saab has been an innovator of vehicle safety. Beginning in the 1970s, Saab became a leader in economical vehicle performance through the use of turbocharging, which supplemented vehicle performance while maintaining fuel economy. Saab is still making incredibly safe cars, and they are among the most fuel- efficient near-luxury vehicles on the market. So why aren’t either of those facts highlighted in Saab’s current marketing?

In 1958, Saab was the first automaker to equip their vehicles with seatbelts as standard equipment. Saab pioneered the first foam-filled, self-restoring bumpers and the first headlamp washer/wipers in the early 1970s, and went on to introduce the first heated seats, the first dual-circuit braking system, the first interior air filter, the first doors with side impact protection, the first collapsible steering column, the first anti-whiplash active head restraints, and the first ventilated seats. The 9-3 Sport Sedan was the first car to ever earn a double “best pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In the late 1970s, Saab pioneered the use of turbochargers in volume-produced passenger cars. The turbocharger supplemented the four-cylinder engine to boost performance when needed, allowing the Saab 99 Turbo and the Saab 900 Turbo to have the performance of contemporary 6-cylinder cars while achieving better fuel economy. Continuing their technical innovation, Saab later introduced Saab Direct Ignition which eliminated engines’ distributor and cables, Sensonic (one of the first clutch-less manual transmissions) in the mid-1990s, and went on to develop a (non-production) variable-compression engine in 2000, which produced 225 HP from a 1.6 liter 5-cylinder engine.

Saab is uniquely positioned to tout their vehicles’ safety and efficiency in today’s automotive marketplace. While Volvos have become well-known for their safety records, the formerly-boxy Swedes are not particularly fuel efficient. While some Audi models return fuel economy on par with Saab models, Audi is known more for style than for safety. In today’s marketplace, where efficiency is high on peoples’ shopping lists, but often not at the sacrifice of safety, Saab should be advertising those key values.

Let’s look at Saab’s two passenger cars, the Swedish-built 9-3 and 9-5. Each has earned multiple safety awards. The 9-5 is a very spacious car, on par (size-wise) with a BMW 5-series, Volvo S80, Mercedes E-class, or Audi A6. While the 9-5 is regrettably ten years old, and it’s current Dame Edna facelifted appearance is still a year away from replacement by an all-new vehicle, it carries passengers with equivalent safety and comfort to those European competitors, now making 260 HP from its venerable 2.3 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine while realistically returning over 30 MPG on the freeway. The smaller 9-3 with its more-modern 2.0 liter turbo can even better. So why can’t GM figure out that these cars’ combination of efficiency and safety would sell more cars, if only consumers knew about them?

For 2008, the 9-3 sedan is rated 19/29 MPG by the US EPA. That rating is beaten only by the front-wheel-drive Audi A4 among compact luxury vehicles, and matched by no others. The 9-5 is rated 18/28 MPG by the EPA, which is matched in the mid-sized luxury car class only by the Lincoln MKZ fwd and the BMW 528i, and is not beaten by any vehicles in that class. The 9-5 had a 30 MPG highway rating under the 2007 EPA ratings, and owners regularly report 31-33 MPG on highway trips. Both the 9-3 and the 9-5 are at the top of their respective classes, then, for fuel economy.

The next-generation 9-5, which is a platform-mate of the upcoming Opel Insignia, is rumored to be available with a 1.6 liter turbocharged four cylinder. If that engine isn’t over-worked (that is, if the engineers can keep the weight down while keeping the vehicle’s safety and luxury content high), it should be able to return highway fuel economy numbers in the upper 30s (MPG), since the existing 9-5 with its older 2.3 liter can get highway economy in the low 30s.

Thirty years after Saab introduced turbocharging , GM and Ford are introducing “groundbreaking” new technology with their small-displacement, turbocharged engines for volume passenger cars and light trucks. The technology is being touted as all-new, as if those automakers have re-invented the proverbial wheel.

In this time of heightened focus on fuel economy, Saab should be shining, and highlighted as a jewel of efficiency and dynamics in GM’s crown. This is a time for Saab to tout its heritage and its strengths: safety and economical performance. In the recent crush of news about Employee Pricing and the dull roar of Born from Jets advertising, I’ve seen no emphasis on Saab’s fuel economy, nor on its vehicles’ safety. And that is a shame.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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7 Comments

  1. It’s a testament that GM not only has a problem with its overall reputation, but also that its marketing isn’t so great either. I’m an owner of 07 Saab 9-3, and it’s a wonderful car that easily gets 30 mpg on the highway. Combined driving nets around 24-25 mpg (manual tranny). Yet in this time of high gas prices, Saab 9-3 sales are suffering. It makes no sense…1500 units 9-3’s sold last month in the USA. It should be out of stock, not languishing on dealer lots.

  2. While Ford was offering seatbelts as optional equipment as early as 1955, and as a part of the optional Lifeguard package in 1956, Saab was the first automaker to make seatbelts STANDARD equipment, in 1958.

    I didn’t touch on Saab’s biofuel vehicles. Saab has been an innovator in that arena, and they sell large numbers of BioPower cars in Sweden, where the cars are more powerful on ethanol fuel than on gasoline alone.

  3. Your comments echo what many Saab enthusiasts, me included, having been crying for many years. Fuel efficiency and safety were paramount in my decision to purchase a 9-5 in 2001. The other attributes were comfort and practicality. No other car on the market had all those attributes in 2001. On the other hand, aging (!) cars and poor reliability don’t help to sell cars.

  4. Boy, if I was GM’s marketing dept, I’d be mad about you badmouthing their advertising strategy. Maybe they just can’t afford to sell so many cars

  5. These comments on Saab advertsing messaging are actually completely off base. To set the record straight on these two points: The vast majority of Saab advertising in the past few years has, in fact, been focused on these two exact messages…Fuel Economy and Safety. Both themes have been consistent across all types of media(newspaper, print, TV, digital) since 2006. Saab has stongly communicated the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety pick award for the 9-3 Family the past few years while continuing to have a strong focus on turbo-charging/fuel economy. These comments are simply wrong- these messages continue in various media today and any type of investigation will confirm it.

  6. I was reminded by Saab USA’s communications manager Jan-Willem Vester that this year is when Saab celebrates 30 years of turbocharging. The launch of the limited-edition Turbo X we reviewed in July (http://www.autosavant.com/2008/07/15/2008-saab-turbo-x-sportcombi-review/) is a part of that celebration, as is the XWD all-wheel drive system which is becoming available for 2009 9-3 Sport Sedan and SportCombi models.

    Saab USA’s General Manager, Steve Shannon, addressed loyal Saab owners at last month’s Saab Owners Convention, saying “At Saab, turbocharging not only makes for impressive heritage but also for a model year 2009 portfolio with no less than 7 individual models that deliver 27 mpg EPA highway or better. Not many of our competitors are doing better in the premium segment. ” In fact, I would contend that none of his competitors are doing better in the premium segment; I pointed out that fact above in my article.

    Our previous commenter SH states that Saab’s advertising has emphasized safety and fuel economy. Yet the overall message that stands out is BORN FROM JETS. It is as though the volume needs to be turned up on the economy and safety messages. As a Saab driver and a self-proclaimed Saab enthusiast, I’m looking for those messages in the advertising, but I’m just not seeing them. I’ve heard rumors that upcoming ads will focus more directly on Saab’s turbocharging and safety leadership and heritage; I’m looking forward to seeing those ads.

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