Wrested from the clutches of General Motors, the Swedish car-maker is back in business – and playing to its traditional strengths
Sunday 13 June 2010
Never has a new car been so important to a car-maker. Saab depends on the new 9-5 for its survival: if the car fails, so does the company. Cast adrift by General Motors, its owner since 1990, Saab was in the process of liquidation and wind-down as part of GM's own survival and restructuring plan.
The popular view is that GM never really understood Saab, its strange Swedish outpost with the unusual solutions to common design problems, and it relied on the name alone to impart the required premium aura. Starved of investment, sidelined in its influence, Saab withered as its products aged.
The truth is less harsh than that, although once loyal customers did defect to other brands as the Saabishness of Saabs evaporated. GM had tried to broaden Saab's appeal, which meant watering it down. Out with the bathwater went the baby.
However, GM had invested handsomely in the Trollhattan factory. In the end, though, GM in its disarray took a schizophrenic approach to Saab. While winding the factory down, it simultaneously invited bids for the business. Several players emerged, but in the end Victor Muller, whose business interests include Dutch supercar maker Spyker, took control. GM has retained a few non-voting preference shares and the European Investment Bank has made a loan.
So Saab is back in business, with new models planned, freedom to deal with partners of its choosing (including GM for existing technology), and a pledge to regain the customers it lost by making "proper" Saabs again.
The relief and enthusiasm at Trollhattan are tangible. Worldwide "Save Saab" rallies showed great goodwill for the brand and Mr Muller says they helped seal its future. He and Saab CEO Jan-Ake Jonsson both took part in the prestigious Mille Miglia historic rally in two-stroke Saab 93s, to tumultuous encouragement. The signs are good.
Now the acid test: the new 9-5. It was designed during GM's last throes of Saab ownership and uses a stretched version of the new, sophisticated platform that underpins the Vauxhall Insignia, but it shows that in the end, GM was finally starting to understand Saab. The look is streamlined and futuristic but unmistakably Saab. Inside, as well as ample space we find a refreshingly clean, simple take on interior design, some typical Saabisms including joystick-controlled air vents made up of multi-layered grids, some beautifully-constructed dials and displays with green needles and, on one setting, an on-screen rendering of a "rotating drum" speedometer.
Wood is absent, textures and finishes are sumptuous. Engines? The range (£26,695 to £37,795) starts with a 180bhp, 1.6-litre petrol turbo, and is topped by a 2.8-litre, twin-turbo V6 with a healthy 300bhp. This version, fitted with four-wheel drive, was used to demonstrate the disdainful ease with which the 9-5 can dispatch twists, turns, crests and dips on a very scenic Swedish test track. Playing with its DriveSense controls, which alter damping, steering weight, engine response and (in a 4wd 9-5) the way the torque is distributed between front and rear axles, I could turn the 9-5 from a languid but confident boulevardier to a proper sports saloon, or somewhere in between.
This 2.8T is an unflustered but very rapid machine. Many more buyers, however, will go for the 2.0-litre TiD diesel, in either 160bhp or 190bhp forms. I tried the latter; it was lively enough but it never really shed its gruffness. Core of the range, and the most true to the way Saabs have been over the past quarter-century, is the 2.0T whose 220bhp is enough for plentiful pace. It pulls well from low speeds, thanks to a twin-scroll turbo and direct fuel injection which together minimise the response lag found in older turbo engines, and it suits the 9-5 very well. That said, the manual-transmission example had a mushy gearchange, while the automatic example made the engine seem smoother but suffered from a rumble at 1,850rpm (a "fix" is in hand).
These 2.0T cars had front-wheel drive and handled sweetly. All these 9-5s also proved adept at smothering bumps but, as ever, the larger-wheels option is best avoided for broken British roads. These are good cars.
As good as the German rivals? The Saab is certainly a lot more interesting and, to my eyes, rather better looking. I also like the idea of supporting the underdog at this vital time. (Don't worry, the dealer chain is fully intact.) Given a choice of an A6, a 5-series, an E-class or a Saab 9-5, I'd take the Saab and enjoy the difference.
Audi A6 2.0 TFSI 211: from £26,270.
Good-looking, well-made, but not very exciting. Sells on quality and image; Audi is where disaffected Saab buyers most often turned.
BMW 523i SE: £31,360.
Actually a 3.0-litre, 204bhp straight-six despite the misleading name, but the cheapest petrol-fuelled 5-series. Not the "driving machine" it once was.
Mercedes-Benz E200 CGI: from £28,360.
A 1,796cc, four-cylinder, supercharged engine with 184bhp powers this frugal Mercedes. Infused with traditional Benz values.
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