General Motors has pledged to revive Saab's flagging fortunes, but in kidnapping the Swedes' creative culture, it could be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. John Simister looks at a marque under threat

A couple of weeks ago, I drove the latest version of Saab's 9-3. It has a 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine from Fiat (linked to Saab's General Motors owner), and it feels very pleasant indeed.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove the latest version of Saab's 9-3. It has a 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine from Fiat (linked to Saab's General Motors owner), and it feels very pleasant indeed.

Saab's Swedish engineers have modified some of the engine's characteristics to make it feel different from its Fiat Stilo and Alfa Romeo applications. To make it feel more Saab-ish. Saab-ish. Marque-specific. Saabism is a precious commodity, a brand identity as individual as that of Alfa Romeo or Citroën, for example. But what has happened, both good and bad, to those marques illustrates well the problems that Saab faces.

Saab is a company based on innovation, on doing things differently from others because the different way might be better. Or if not better, then at least an alternative to the obvious, the better to attract an independent- minded buyer.

Saab's independence of approach, however, is under threat. The company has been in dire financial straits for years, and a major shareholding followed by total ownership by General Motors has failed to turn it round. But what should GM do? It has its plans, but they could as easily kill Saab as cure it. Crucial to all this is how GM sees the Saab brand, and how close that vision is to reality.

To set the scene, consider how Saab began. It was a post-war offshoot of the Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, or Swedish Aeroplane Company, and the first car was a highly aerodynamic, two-cylinder, two-stroke saloon called the 92. It was designed by Sixten Sason, a highly original designer given to science-fiction fantasy and reportedly a terrible driver, who also designed subsequent Saabs up to 1967's 99.

Later versions, the three-cylinder 93, 95 and 96, became successful rally cars and gained a strong following among East Coast US professionals and academics -- a significant legacy, as we shall see.

Emissions rules and public distaste killed off the two-strokes, and Saab turned to proprietary engines -- a Ford V4 for the 95 and 96, a Triumph Dolomite unit for the 99. That engine evolved into Saab's own unit, including the first viable production turbo engine, and the 99 grew into the 900. Many of those 900s are still to be found in that East Coast US heartland, far outnumbering BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes: that car virtually defines the Saab ethos, and the loyalty remains.

And it is this that GM today, with its inevitably US-based viewpoint, takes as its barometer. In order to give the Saab brand some "critical mass", and to give its network of dealers more cars to sell, it is developing US-friendly cars based on other products within GM's orbit: the 9-2X, a Saab-fronted variant of the Subaru Impreza five-door, and the 9-7X, a 4x4 based on GM's "360" architecture (Chevrolet Trailblazer, Cadillac Escalade, GMC Jimmy and Envoy, Isuzu Ascender, now-dead Oldsmobile Bravada).

These will not be sold in Europe, where the credibility cannot be stretched so far, but a more subtle programme of GM corporatisation is under way here. Saab's design capability has been taken away from Trollhattan and centralised at Opel's Russelsheim power base, and former design chief Michael Mauer has not been replaced. Mauer's deputy, Anthony Lo, retains a Saab bias but there is to be no more Saab-specific creative environment; the cars' creators, engineers as well as designers will no longer be steeped in a Saab-centric, Sweden-based culture.

Does this matter? After a few minutes' reflective thought, worried he may incriminate himself, GM designer Mark Adams thinks not: "There is no reason why a designer can't move from one brand to another, and think in terms of each brand as needed," he says. But what made the brand what it is? Where is the continuity of philosophy now?

The current 9-3 illustrates the problem well. It is based on a Vauxhall Vectra's underpinnings, but has its own, and rather good, rear suspension design which makes it a more invigorating drive. This is a genuine engineering differentiation, such as Alfa Romeos have relative to Fiats or Jaguars have relative to Fords (brands which all have their own design and engineering centres), but it is held up within GM as a classic example of how not to do things.

Of course it is sensible to rationalise components such as electronic systems, currently different in Saabs and Vauxhalls/Opels, but parts which materially affect the way a car feels should be kept separate. Otherwise brand characteristics become a charade. The planned 9-6 model, based on a widened Signum platform (which itself is merelya lengthened Vectra) will keep the Vauxhall/Opel suspension and will merely have the looks of a Saab -- plus, of course, a Saab-ised turbocharger installation on its GM engines. This is what it has come down to: Saab's own turbo designs, and an ignition key near the gear lever which it no longer locks (it locks the steering, electronically).

All this makes sound financial sense, but the buying public -- especially in Europe, in which the UK is Saab's second-biggest market outside Sweden -- may not swallow the charade, despite GM's solemn pledge to "focus on Saab and ensure Saab DNA is in everything we do".

True, Saab's various concept cars under GM's direction have looked convincing enough, but the Saab culture is under serious threat. In the UK, Saab executives are now answerable to Vauxhall; make of that what you will.

General Motors' intentions appear good, and it clearly values the Saab brand, but it is overlooking the obvious. A high-image car company with a history of individuality, whose products are aimed at more-than-averagely intelligent buyers, must be seen to be driven by self-contained, independent thought. GM should look at how Ford has handled Jaguar, and think again.

TRENDS SET FROM TROLLHATTAN

Saab has a fine history of original thought, beginning with the aerodynamic prowess of its early two-stroke cars. They had flat floors and fully-enclosed engine compartments. Saab has also pioneered heated front seats, dual-circuit brake systems, halogen headlights, side-impact bars, CFC-free air-conditioning and headlamp washers.

Recent innovations include seats ventilated by internal fans and "active head restraints", which move forward in a rear-end crash to reduce whiplash injuries. Many carmakers now use these.

Most significant, however, is its prolific use of turbochargers, thanks to its past link with the Scania truck company. Turbos had been used before Saab launched the 99 Turbo in 1978, but that car signalled the forced-induction system's wide availability.

Today, every Saab is turbocharged -- but it will take more than a turbo to keep that "brand DNA" intact.

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