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March 19, 2010

THE WEEK THAT WAS: A saviour for Saab

It's been something of an out-and-about time for the just-auto editorial team of late. Places, to go, people (and cars) to see, you know how it goes.

It’s been something of an out-and-about time for the just-auto editorial team of late. Places, to go, people (and cars) to see, you know how it goes.

Our emerging markets specialist Mark ‘Coolbear’ Bursa has been busy, notably collaring new Saab Automobile owner Victor Muller for an extended chat which is well worth a read, fresh coffee to hand, on a Friday afternoon.

I like the quote: “…I thought it was obscene that this brand might go down.” Cover this industry for 25 years for ‘consumer’ and ‘trade’, with the odd side excursion in and out of PR, and you do, despite the best attempts at objectivity, form a bit of a view on the brands that pass through your hands. I haven’t driven a Saab for over five minutes in a decade but I still recall a brand that could (along with Swedish compatriot Volvo whose future is not yet as clear) consistently fit ever car in its range with the auto industry’s most comfortable seats and the quirky touches such as the letterbox-slot view out the windscreen (pre-1993 900), floor mounted ignition switch, volcanic heater, heated seats you could fry eggs on, and so on. And, while not in the BMW or Audi league, the Saab products I once knew well weren’t a bad drive.

But the brand’s individuality and character appeared doomed as soon as the GM bean counters took control, sliding the bland new 900 onto a Opel Vectra platform. Later, there came the hideous, cynical ‘Saabaru’ and the 9-7X SUV on a lightly reworked GM North American SUV architecture. What true Saab aficionado would buy something like that?

And all the while, the 9000, not a bad car at its mid-1980s launch (turbo lag apart) morphed into the 9-5 and thence through a few ‘facelifts’ till it looked so obsolete it was almost a joke. And then, sales and profitability down the drain after years of cynical disinterest and poor management, GM almost pulled the plug on Saab when all that money had been spent developing the first genuine all-new model (the next 9-5) in years.

Now, having put together a deal acceptable to GM, and having scraped up $1bn to finance it all, itself no mean feat in these credit crunched times, it appears Muller is Saab ‘s best hope in years. As Bursa points out, British motor noters have seen it all before – MG Rover, the infamous Phoenix Four – but Muller does appear realistic. Just 40,000 Saabs sold in 2009 – a very long way short of Muller’s break-even target of 100,000 cars a year.

“Now the work starts. Everything we’ve done so far is nothing compared to what we’ll have to do in the next two or three years.”

Best of British, sir.

Meanwhile, our resident analyst and man-about-The-City, Rob Golding Esq, has been running his practised eye over the ambitions of British luxury sportscar maker McLaren . That firm has fascinating form and Golding’s take is also well worth a look at the end of a long week.

Regular contributor Tristan Young has been looking at the problems the euro v pound situation has been causing automakers in the UK, particularly those selling in price-sensitive volume sectors. Today, in an exclusive, he tells us what Ford is planning.

Not that long ago, Nissan was something of a me-too marketer here in Europe, peddling perfectly acceptable B-, C- and D-segment sedans and hatchbacks to a relatively small and loyal customer base, with not a hope of achieving the volume, or profits, the big boys can manage. Then someone had a Bright Idea called the Qashqai crossover and the company has been on a roll ever since. David Miles is the historian.

In a year or two, with the Leaf in production at Sunderland (and the conventional Micra hatchback shifted to the BRIC zone ) will we be writing something similarly positive about Nissan’s move into EVs? Wouldn’t rule it out.

After years of apparently caring less if our auto industry tanks, the British government this week kicked in some help for Ford. OK, pedants, it’s foreign-owned, but what isn’t in UK industry these days, and the giant automaker employs hundreds of people in two plants building diesel (Dagenham) and petrol engines (Bridgend) for global sale, and also has a large R&D operation, which is what that grant is about. And auto R&D is what a growing number of British firms increasingly do very well, often somewhat below the radar.

Although a comparison caveat applied, there was good news on the production front with UK February car output up. And good tidings today, too, from across the pond, as both JD Power and Edmunds were bullish on the year’s US sales prospects. JDP predicted March new vehicle retail sales would rise 25% year on year with March new vehicle retail sales expected to come in at 883,300 units, a SAAR of 9.9m units. This reflects a retail SAAR increase of nearly 2m units, compared with February 2010. Can’t be all bad.

Have a nice weekend.

Graeme RobertsDeputy/News Editorjust-auto.com

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