Saab had an aviation history, which it exploited in ads. (Saab photo)
Is there a Saab in your driveway? Consider yourself a member of an exclusive club. As I write this, the fate of the Swedish carmaker is totally in limbo. A tiny Dutch company named Spyker, with a handful of employees and an output of 50 supercars a year, is making a last-ditch effort to save the brand (after first being turned down by owner General Motors). The likelihood is still that Saab, a 70-year old nameplate, will soon disappear.
Steve Rossi, with Model T. At Saab, he designed the convertible top for the 900. (courtesy of Steve Rossi)
The conventional wisdom is that Saab is a venerable brand with an aircraft heritage and a record of making precision automobiles that can be turned around with just the right hand on the tiller. But that wisdom is wrong, according to Steven Rossi, a marketing manager and engineer who has the distinction of having worked at both Saab in its heyday and General Motors (specifically Chevrolet) right after that.
Rossi, who helped launch the celebrated and very popular 900 convertible at a time when few four-seat ragtops were available, doesn't think there's much left to Saab, and it's very unlikely a white knight will be able to turn it around. In his telling, there are too many brands on the market and not enough customers. For Saab to succeed, he said, it would have to build a strong, passionate following among the type of people who are willing to pay premium prices for, say, Rolex watches.
Spyker's Aerilon: A tiny operation. (Spyker photo)
"The only way a company like Saab could ever prosper is if it became a boutique brand," Rossi said. But Saab is not a boutique brand. After 20 years under GM's wing, it not only doesn't have much identity, it is basically an empty vessel, Rossi said. "It is stripped out, a shell of a functioning enterprise. Warranty claims, for example, were handled by a GM employee on Friday afternoons."
Legal and human resources were also handled by GM, which treated the company as a dumping ground for its parts bin. Two newer cars were Saabs in name only: the 9-2 ("Saab-aru") was Subaru-based, and the 9-7 ("Troll-Blazer") a spinoff of the Chevy Trailblazer. A freshening of the 9-5 is likely to be stillborn. Older tooling is being sold off to the Chinese.
Consumers have all but abandoned Saab. The name that once stood for engineering excellence is now dead-last in the J.D. Power and Associates Customer Retention Study, with just nine percent loyalty. The next-worst brand name is Suzuki, and even that has 24 percent loyalty.
According to Jim Henry in BNET Autos, "Rehabilitating Saab would take deep pockets and a lot of time something GM was unable to accomplish, even when it had deep pockets, and seemingly all the time in the world to tinker with Saab."
Even if Spyker Cars somehow manages to rescue Saab at the last minute, it's uncertain how it could be turned around anytime soon. As Rossi points out, it takes five years to get a new model out the door. The only way to shorten that is to build Saab-arus and Troll-Blazers, and the savvy car consumer sees through that stratagem.
GM, which earlier said it would wind down Saab's affairs, is not commenting on the latest negotiations.
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