What Is GM Doing To Saab? And Why?
By Kevin Miller
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.
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