Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The problem with Saab

Saab (from Wikipedia - SAAB (originally an acronym for "Svenska Aeroplan AB," where "AB" stands for "aktiebolaget" ("corporation")) AB was founded as a Swedish aircraft concern in 1937 in the city of Linköping, in Sweden...Saab produced its first automobile on June 10, 1947.) is a wholly owned division of General Motors.

They are, historically, considered a 'quirky' automobile company with a strong technology focus (they have a long history of pioneering safety, much like Volvo, as well as research into powertrains).

However, they have had a hard time reaching the sorts of sales numbers that GM has wanted for them. So, what exactly is wrong with Saab?

First, I think we should deal with what Saab is and isn't and how that relates to GM's goals for the brand.

Saab is, as I mentioned before a quirky brand. It's buyers like the way Saab does things (ignition between the front seats, aircraft inspired interior features like the night-panel that blacks out all but the essential readouts until a function needs your attention, engines that are as small as possible yet still plenty powerful - no matter what the luxury poseurs might _think_ they need (like a V-6 when a turbo 4 is both more flexible, more efficient, and just as reliable).

GM saw Saab as a way to easily enter the Euro-luxury fray when Cadillac was nothing but a Lincoln competitor. They saw the small form factor, technological image, etc. as a way to tap this buyer base that Cadillac didn't/couldn't/wouldn't address.

What they didn't realize is that the Saab-ness of the brand also kept it from being a high-volume brand like the BMW, Mercedes, and Audi's of the world. All the so-called 'problems' with Saab have stemmed from this single difference in understanding.

No amount of rebadging Opels and Chevrolets, turning the 9-3 from it hatchback roots into a sedan and wagon, and introducing SUV's (like the 9-7x shown here) is going to 'save' a company that really didn't need saving. It was doing just fine being Saab before. Now, we have a muddled brand image (oh, how GM) to go with marginally higher sales and talk of jettisoning the brand that has absorbed so much money.

Let's hope that whoever ultimately owns Saab doesn't buy into the hype that Saab is a broken brand. All they really need at this point is an owner that understands what Saab is and isn't and can refocus the product mix to re-appeal to the Saab core. If the products are true to this brand image and good, the Saab faithful will stay and the folks looking for something just a little different will buy as well. I'm not confident that GM is that company.

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