Television viewers and car geeks of a certain age may remember a 1970s-era Saab commercial that pitched the car's safety attributes by having a stuntman (we presume) flip the sedan half a dozen times across a road before it lands right-side up. He then restarts the battered vehicle and drives off.
Less than a year after the Swedish car brand was given up for dead when then-owner General Motors couldn't find a buyer, and five months after it was acquired by Dutch automaker Spyker Cars, a small but vocal group of loyalists are hoping that the 73-year-old company shows similar resilience.
Saab this month will start selling its new 9-5 luxury sedan in U.S. showrooms, after outlining plans last month to debut three additional new models over the next two years. Three of the four models will be built in Sweden, with almost three-quarters of the parts in the 9-5 being produced specifically for Saab, according to Victor Muller, chairman of Saab and CEO of Saab parent Spyker.
"We Want It Back"
"It's a true Saab's Saab," said Muller of the 9-5 at a presentation in New York late last month. "Saab as an independent company is going to cherish and build on its heritage much more than it ever did before."
It's encouraging news to the relatively small but vocal group of Saab owners (full disclosure: the author owns a Saab) that's been committed to a brand known for its idiosyncratic looks, early commitment to front-wheel drive, hatchbacks and turbocharged engines and the aforementioned structural durability.
"We remember what Saab was and what they turned into," says Bruce Turk, president of Vintage Saab Club of North America. "We want it back, and it's worth fighting for."
Saab: A History in Pictures – Click below for an image gallery from Autoblog.
Founded as an aircraft company in 1937, Saab debuted its first car -- the teardrop-shaped two-stroke-engine-powered 92 -- in 1949, and has since broadened its popularity with such eye-catching models as the 99, 900 and the 9-3. In 1990, General Motors acquired half of Saab, which has sold about 25% of its cars to U.S. customers, and bought the remaining shares a decade later.
Fears of a Dead Brand
The brand languished in recent years, however, as GM went into bankruptcy and shed unprofitable brands. Saab, whose production plummeted from 125,000 units in 2007 to 21,000 last year, was put up for sale, along with GM brands Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer. GM nearly reached a deal with Swedish high-end car maker Koenigsegg.
That agreement fell apart last year, spurring both fears of a dead car brand for the owners of the 1.5 million Saabs on the road worldwide and close to 60 "Save Saab" rallies in about 30 countries.
Ultimately, Spyker acquired Saab from GM for $400 million -- most of which was in the form of Saab shares GM was allowed to keep under its bankruptcy agreement, and secured a $550 million loan from the European Investment Bank to restart operations and develop new models. Spyker also brought on former Ferrari and Pininfarina designer Jason Castriota to lead its design efforts.
"The community felt very strongly that the company was viable," says Drew Price of the Los Angeles Saab Club. "We didn't want to see the company join the ranks of other memorable marquees that dissolved for whatever reason, like Austin-Healey or Sunbeam."
Jousting With Audi and BMW
Whether Spyker's efforts and such loyalty are enough to reestablish the brand remains in question. With its flagship 9-5 sedan having not been updated in 13 years, many Saab customers defected to German brands such as Audi and BMW. The new version, which has a $47,000 sticker price and 300-horsepower engine, is slightly more powerful and slightly more expensive than Audi's A6, and is comparable in price and power to BMW's 535i.
It's also odd-looking, according to CNET. "The car, in profile especially, looks slightly wrong, although we suspect it'll appeal to anyone who likes a touch of quirkiness," CNET reported in a road-test preview earlier this month.
Still, Muller says the company will use its 9-5 relaunch and other new models, including a 9-4 crossover and a new 9-3 the following year, to ramp back up to 125,000 units -- or about one-tenth of BMW's annual production -- by 2012, and will be profitable by then.
"My gut says it will be very difficult to turn a profit, but Victor Muller says it can be done, so we have to take his word for it," says Turk. "I wish him luck."