Were Saab and GM doomed to fail?

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It took a while, but it now appears that the axe has finally fallen and Saab really is going to die. For the last twenty years, the Swedish car maker has been part of General Motors; it may seem a strange thing to say under the circumstances, but it's quite difficult to be certain whether that has been a bad thing for Saab or not.

True Saab aficionados will, of course, see the balance entirely in negative terms. Under GM, these distinctive cars lost much of their unique identity and appeal – that's undeniable. On the other hand, an independent Saab without access to the resources of a large parent company could have died even sooner, although that's an outcome some Saab fans might have preferred anyway. In their terms it would, at least, have been a death with honour, with the company going down producing “real” Saabs to the last, rather than the bland GM-era models.

It's certainly true that the models produced by Saab under GM's ownership were, to varying degrees, disappointing, failing either to satisfy established fans of the marque or to win over large numbers of new customers. It's easy too, to blame that on the need for Saabs to borrow parts and platforms from GM's European mass-market Vauxhall/Opel operation.

But this is far too simple an explanation. Even when Saab was proudly independent, pioneering new technologies and carving out a distinctive identity for itself, it often relied on the judicious use of bought-in or jointly-developed parts and platforms. In the 1960s, Saab didn't hesitate to adopt a German Ford V4 when it needed a more modern power unit to replace its own two-stroke engine. Later that decade, it tapped Triumph of the UK for a new overhead-cam four-cylinder engine. Triumph's version went into the Dolomite and died almost three decades ago; Saab's was revamped again and again and is only now finally going out of production with the current 9-5 model. It proved adaptable enough to provide the basis for Saab's adoption of turbocharging in the 1970s as well as for some of its recent bioethanol-capable BioPower models. Saab's 9000 was based on a platform that was shared with the Fiat Croma, the Alfa 164 and the Lancia Thema, but hardly anybody said that meant it wasn't a proper Saab when it was introduced in 1985. The pre-GM Saab even engaged in a bit of straight badge-engineering when it sold a version of the 1979 Lancia Delta in Nordic markets as the Saab-Lancia 600. The fact that after 1989, Saabs would share platforms and engines with GM models didn't, therefore, necessarily mean that these cars had to be less Saab-like or less interesting.

And there are plenty of examples of premium and semi-premium brands operating fairly successfully as part of larger groups. Saab's fellow Swedish car-maker, Volvo, for example, is owned by Ford, a fact that hardly seems to have dented Volvo's identity or reputation at all, even though several current Volvos use Ford platforms; in particular the C30 coupe, S40 saloon and V50 estate are all sister models of the Focus. Ford now wants to divest itself of Volvo but that seems to have more to do with a broader policy of simplifying its operations and concentrating on its core brand than because Volvo is causing it any particular headaches. Audi, too, has thrived under Volkswagen's ownership and nobody cares that an Audi A3 is much the same car under the skin as Volkswagen Golf – or a Skoda Octavia for that matter. On the other hand platform-sharing has produced some unconvincing cars as well, and not just at Saab under General Motors; even Ford, which broadly seems to have got it right in the case of Volvo, messed up with the Mondeo-related Jaguar X-Type.

What seems to have gone wrong at Saab seems to lie in the detail, rather than the fact, of platform-sharing with GM. Nobody minds that the Volvo C30 is based on the Focus or that the Audi A3 is based on the Golf because the Golf and the Focus are both excellent cars. The problem at Saab was that GM's donor cars – successive generations of the mid-sized Vectra – just weren't as good a starting point as the platforms that Volkswagen and Ford provided for Audi and Volvo. Also, while Volkswagen and Ford ensured that their off-shoots had access to their latest technology, Saab was out of step with Vauxhall/Opel's model cycles. That meant that what was standing in a Saab showroom wasn't just a Vectra underneath – it was usually the previous Vectra underneath, which was even less of a recommendation.

But even that might not have mattered too much if Saab had honed its GM-era designs in the way that it had developed its pre-1989 cars, which also had a lot of old bits in them. Saab did do well in some areas of design where it still had enough influence; the instrumentation and seats on the latest models are probably at least as good as those found on the older cars. But the GM/Saab mix was still all wrong – and in particular, it involved just a bit too much GM and not quite enough Saab.

Could Saab have succeeded if GM had shown more patience and persistence? It's tempting to say that if the Saab-GM link couldn't produce results after twenty years it was never going to produce them at all. But success might have been tantalisingly close; Saab had already shown the replacement for its 9-5 saloon at the Frankfurt Motor Show, where its handsome styling was well received. More importantly, the new 9-5 was going to be based on the latest version of GM's Epsilon platform (already used by the current Vauxhall/Opel Insignia) which would at last have provided a far more impressive and up-to-date basis for development than the old Vectra underpinnings donated to previous GM-era Saabs. Would it have been enough to turn Saab around? Sadly we shall probably never know the answer to that question.

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