Image: Saab
Saab uses the vast and frozen Swedish north to winter test its future products. With a slate of new products in the pipeline, Saab is looking to come in from the cold and rebuild its reputation.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 2/24/2011 7:41:26 AM ET 2011-02-24T12:41:26

A bitter wind blows across the frozen lake, the mercury dipping to a finger, toe and mind-numbing 40 degrees below zero. But the members of the Saab Performance Team barely notice as they put the Swedish carmaker’s latest offerings through their paces.

The days are short, here 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, so everyone works quickly. It helps them ignore the cold. Like many automakers, Saab uses the vast and frozen Swedish north to winter test its future products, although this particular morning the team has welcomed a handful of visitors that has come to see how products like the new 9-3 SportCombi wagon can handle temperatures cold enough to turn antifreeze into slush.

It’s a challenge Saab President Jan Ake Jonsson knows is critical to rebuilding the reputation of a brand that has all but dropped off the radar for the typical car buyer. In fact, just one year ago the Saab brand nearly vanished entirely.

Based in Trollhattan, Sweden, Saab was one of four nameplates that General Motors agreed to abandon as part of its emergence from bankruptcy in 2009, along with domestic brands Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer. Even as potential buyers tried to negotiate a deal, GM began to wind down Saab’s operations, dismissing its board and shuttering its sprawling assembly plant.

With the assistance of a loan from the European Investment Bank, the Dutch-based supercar maker Spyker emerged, at the 11th hour, as Saab’s white knight. But it still took nearly two months, once the fragile deal was completed, to ramp operations back up, leaving Saab dealers around the world struggling for product to sell for most of last year.

Global sales more than doubled during the final quarter, but still totaled just 31,696 for all of 2010. Sluggish demand in the critical U.S. market led Saab to dismiss American chief executive Mike Colleran just after the new year.

Nonetheless, Saab’s Jonsson insists he’s not worried, describing the period from 2010 to 2012 as “our build-up years.”

Saab fans — of which there are still many — were doubly disappointed by the carmaker’s near collapse because it occurred just as the company was ready to roll out an all-new version of its flagship 9-5 sedan, after more than a dozen years waiting.

Saab is also putting the final touches on the new 9-4X, the maker’s first crossover, which went into production earlier this month. It replaces the much-maligned 9-7X — a thinly-disguised GMC sport-ute that never lived up to sales expectations.

On the frozen lake in Sweden, in Kiruna, the performance team showed off Saab’s new cross-wheel-drive, or XWD, system. The new alternative to classic all-wheel-drive — which will be offered on the 9-4X, as well as the 9-3 SportCombi and 9-5 — not only shifts power from front to back, depending on where torque is needed, but also from left to right. That helps power a car through a corner, and it underscores Saab’s sporty ambitions.

But the critical piece in the Saab comeback puzzle is still more than a year away — a replacement for the brand’s top-seller, the midsize 9-3, that could help to push Saab back into the black. Hefty cost-cutting — and a well-negotiated sales agreement — mean the company could make money on sales of as little as 85,000 units a year, according to Victor Muller, the founder of Spyker and chairman of the combined Saab-Spyker.

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To keep costs down, the company has also been working up plans to partner with more established manufacturers, such as BMW. The German carmaker has agreed to provide Saab with powertrains for future models. A similar strategy could help Saab pull together plans for a rumored 9-2, a downsized sports sedan that would be pitted against competitors like the BMW 3-Series and Audi’s A4.

Saab’s plan is “do-able,” suggested Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst with the consulting firm IHS, but there are plenty of skeptics.

Indeed, even Saab officials admit their first challenge is to simply build consumer awareness — no easy task in such a crowded and competitive market.

But despite calling the job of rebuilding Saab “a self-inflicted hell,” Muller, a successful Dutch entrepreneur,” contends that there is a niche for the Swedish brand, which has always appealed to those who don’t want to buy a “me-too” luxury car.

The company’s budget is tight, with far less money available for conventional marketing than its more mainstream competitors. Saab did invest in a fairly costly TV campaign designed to tell buyers it’s back, but it’s now taking a viral approach to marketing, trying to reach the sort of non-traditional customers who get its pitch.

Instead of occupying a spot on the floor of the Cobo Center during the Detroit auto show last January, something that could have cost the company several million dollars, Saab instead set up the “Saab Ice House” on the grounds of an abandoned hotel right across the street.

It was a fitting showcase for a Swedish brand, but eventually, Saab — and its performance team — has to come in out of the cold. And new models like the 9-4X and 9-3 SportsCombi won’t have much time to heat up the market.

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Explainer: Ten leaps forward in car technology

  • Image: Three-point seatbelt
    Volvo’s Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959.

    English physicist, mathematician and astronomer Sir Isaac Newton once famously wrote — with perhaps a touch of false modesty — that “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Thus has the car industry incrementally improved from its primordial horseless carriage beginnings to the magic carpet ride of today’s almost incomprehensibly complex machines with their raft of safety, environmental and convenience devices adding to the basic transportation function.

    Here are 10 of the car industry’s most important technological changes.

  • 1886 Benz

    Daimler AG

    It all began with Karl Benz and his construction of a self-propelled, three-wheel vehicle powered by a single-cylinder 0.75-horsepower engine using a leather belt and two bicycle chains to transmit power to the rear wheels.

    However modest this beginning, with its exposed engine parts and whirling bits menacing anyone who examines it too closely, the 1886 Benz launched the industry and was the foundation of today esteemed Mercedes-Benz brand. (Maybe the leather upholstery was an early clue to the company’s luxury intent?)

  • 1912 Cadillac with electric starter


    The electric starter — invented by Charles Kettering at his Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco) in 1911 — became standard equipment on Cadillacs in 1912, paving the way for all cars to feature electric starters. This accelerated the industry standardization of gasoline internal combustion engines over steam and electric designs. It also put more women behind the wheels of cars because prior to the electric starter they tended to avoid using difficult-to-start, hand-cranked cars.

  • 1914 Ford Model T

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Introduced in 1908, the Model T was just another low-end car from the multitude of regional manufacturers in this country. In 1914 Ford separated itself from its rivals and became (for a while) the world’s largest industrial concern as the result of the Model T’s assembly switching from small teams of craftsmen assembling each car to a moving assembly line of unskilled workers each contributing the same small bit to every car on the line. Construction time to build each car plunged from 12 hours and 30 minutes to 93 minutes, and the car’s price fell from $690 to $360, while annual sales mushroomed almost ten-fold and Ford doubled workers’ salaries to $5 a day.

  • 1930 Motorola car radio


    Next time a boom car rattles your windows at a stop light, think back to the days before Paul and Joseph Galvin developed the first commercially available car radio in 1930.

    The Motorola car radio overcame a host of challenges, including electrical interference, finding space in the car for the bulky radio components and making the radio durable enough to survive the pounding of primitive roads. The popular 5T71 radio debuted at the Radio Manufacturers Association convention in Atlantic City, N.J., following a demonstration drive from Chicago to prove its durability.

  • 1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission


    Today few new cars are sold in the U.S. with a manual transmission and a dwindling portion of the population even knows how to use one. We can credit this dismal state of affairs to the invention of the automatic transmission and its debut in the 1940 Oldsmobile.

    The original Hydra-Matic automatic transmission offered benefits in terms of efficiency that surpassed subsequent designs, but that approach was abandoned in pursuit of smoother gear changes, which were more important to drivers. The company touted the ability to navigate stop and go traffic and to park without stalling the engine as the automatic’s primary benefits, and those features continue to drive the technology’s appeal today.

  • 1946 Michelin radial tire


    Until Michelin developed the radial, tire design had evolved little from the dawn of the car industry. The radial moniker refers to the direction of the reinforcing belts, which are turned perpendicular rather than running parallel to the direction of travel as in bias-ply designs.

    The benefits include a more stable footprint, reduced fuel consumption, longer tread life and better handling. The near-absence of any kind of maintenance or attention required led the government to mandate tire pressure monitors in cars because drivers had long since stopped checking the condition of their tires.

  • 1959 Volvo three-point seat belt


    Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. The belt appeared in the automaker’s cars that year, and within a decade the belts were mandatory equipment in all cars sold in the United States.

    Bohlin’s background was in aviation, where he developed ejection seats, so he understood the necessity of securing the torso and not just the pelvis as the lap belt had done. The elegant simplicity of his solution is confirmed by the inability of newer seat belt designs to displace the three-point seatbelt 50 years on.

  • 1972 General Motors air bag


    While air bags didn’t become commonplace in cars until the 1990s, GM conducted a large field test of 1,000 1972 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with experimental air bags. Between 1974 and 1976, the company offered the world’s first production air bags in its cars, with the first appearing in a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado. Though the company was prepared to build 100,000 air bag-equipped cars a year, only 10,321 were sold over three years despite a reasonable price of between $180 and $300 for the option.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirmed the robust construction of the early system by testing two of the old cars in the 1990s. Neither car ran and even the radio and clock didn’t work in one, but the air bags still deployed perfectly in the institute’s crash lab.

    “What’s important to remember at this point is that the air bags GM put into those early cars worked fine,” wrote IIHS president Brian O’Neill in a 1993 letter to the New York Times.

  • 1995 BMW and Mercedes-Benz electronic stability control

    Mercedes-Benz USA

    These premium carmakers battled to be the first to introduce an electronic stability control system that automatically stabilizes a car in the event of a slide. Though these expensive V-12 models were the first to feature stability control, they quickly verified the technology’s value with significant reductions in crashes. Subsequent studies showed that stability control-equipped cars are about one-third less likely to suffer a fatal crash, a result that encouraged the U.S. government to mandate stability control for all cars starting in model year 2012. The real safety advantage of stability control is that in contrast to seat belts and air bags, which mitigate the damage that occurs in a crash, stability control prevents many crashes from happening in the first place.

  • 1996 OnStar telematics

    GM  /  Wieck

    In our increasingly connected wireless world, the notion that the car should connect to a network over which it can share information may seem like an obvious development. But it was less obvious in 1996 when GM’s OnStar division was launched, using analog cellular telephone technology to send information to drivers and to automatically report crashes.

    Today other carmakers have their own telematics services and each month OnStar is now responding to 2,300 crashes, 10,000 requests for emergency assistance and nearly 30,000 requests for roadside assistance.


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