Saab has been in the news in the past couple of weeks with a number of technology announcements. While not particularly enlightening when considered in isolation, looking at the announcements together tells us much more, and offers a good prediction of what we will see in the next-generation 9-3, which can be expected in 2012.
We first saw the pre-Paris revelation of the all-electric 9-3 ePower, which uses high density energy storage in lithium-ion battery cells with 35.5 kWh capacity, to drive the front wheels with a 184 hp electric motor through a single-speed transmission. Instant torque enables zero to 62 MPH acceleration in just 8.5 seconds, together with a top speed of 93 MPH. Now on the Saab stand at the Paris Auto Show, the working example of the all-electric 9-3 SportCombi is great to see. Of course, the 9-3 chassis (or any existing ICE chassis, for that matter) is not the most efficient or lightweight starting point for an EV (which is why, for example, Nissan and Mitsubishi have created new platforms for their Leaf and iMIEV vehicles).
The 9-3 ePower is actually a development mule for a purpose-built, electric Saab vehicle. The meat of the 9-3 ePower story is the announcement of battery and electric powertrain partnerships; the ePower is the first electric vehicle from Saab and is a result of a co-operation between Saab Automobile, Boston Power (batteries), Electroengine in Sweden AB (electric power trains), Innovatum (project management) and Power Circle (Sweden’s electric power industry trade organization). With the 9-3 ePower, Saab and their partners are looking to verify performance benchmarks such as projected driving range (with a goal of approximately 200 km/124 mi). In the press release for the 9-3 ePower, Jan Åke Jonsson, Saab Automobile’s CEO JAJ is quoted as saying: “By 2015, annual global sales of electric vehicles are expected to reach 500,000 units and Saab is determined to be represented in this important, growing segment.”
Next came the announcement of a new company called e-AAM Driveline Systems, jointly owned by Saab and American Axle Manufacturing in a one-third/two-thirds split. The new company will be working on the engineering, development and marketing of innovative electric all-wheel drive systems which can be easily integrated into existing platforms, minimizing vehicle architecture changes; the technology can also be used in electric and hybrid driveline systems. The e-AAM announcement indicated that the company will be a supplier to several global automakers, and specifically stated that Saab will become a client of e-AAM Driveline Systems, purchasing components to be used in next-generation Saab vehicles from 2012. That timeline matches the one stated for introduction of the next-generation Saab 9-3, so hints at the fact that the next 9-3 will employ the first application of the hardware, likely in hybrid AWD guise.
Finally comes this week’s official news that Saab has entered into an agreement with BMW for the supply of BMW group 1.6 liter turbocharged gasoline engines for use in future Saab models. The engines will be adapted to meet Saab’s specific requirements. According to notes from the press conference (thanks to Saabs United) we know that the 1.6 liter engine is expected to deliver around 200 HP. Again, the 2012 timeframe was given, meaning that this engine is destined for use in the new 9-3. Because Saab’s volumes don’t make it feasible to develop and manufacture their own engines right now, this agreement gets them a modern, efficient powertrain and allows Saab to free themselves somewhat from the tentacles of the GM organization. BMW Group will assemble this motor, shared with MINI vehicles, at a of theirs factory in UK.
Pulling all of this together, we have a good idea of the new 9-3 taking shape in Trollhättan. It should employ the 200 HP, 1.6 liter turbo 4, with available hybrid AWD, and possibly plug-in electric hybrid capacity further down the road. With smaller displacement for similar power rating, the new 9-3 will be markedly more fuel efficient than the current one, especially when comparing AWD variants.
Throughout its history, Saab has been known to use technology to produce intelligently-designed vehicles with fuel-efficient drivetrains; the combination of these new technologies in the upcoming 9-3 series, (as well as in a rumored smaller 9-2 series- which is not yet confirmed for production), will keep the Swedish automaker relevant in the automotive marketplace. While the recently-launched 9-5 sedan is the first vehicle launched by newly-independent Saab, the next 9-3 will be the first vehicle actually designed in the company’s independence. The reality is that the 9-5, the largest-ever Saab, will have a difficult time achieving the sales volumes needed to generate significant profit; the smaller 9-3 will be the proverbial engine of profitability. The recently-announced powertrain technology will be a crucial part of the 9-3’s success.