More stories related to Geneva Motor Show CHAMONIX, France – As the decision nears on the fate of Saab Automobile operations in Sweden, Christopher McKinnon, Saab 9-3 brand manager, smiles and plugs ahead with his job of making sure customers know just what a Saab is.

McKinnon lives and works in Trollhattan, Sweden, which is awaiting the March decision by parent General Motors Corp. as to whether the next-generation Epsilon platform (Saab 9-3, Opel Vectra, Cadillac BLS) will be built in Trollhattan or in Russelsheim, Germany.

Trollhattan makes 110,000 of the 130,000 vehicles Saab sells annually. About 20,000 9-3 convertibles are built in Graz, Austria, by Magna Steyr Fahrzeugtechnik AG & Co. KG. And last year, Saab received 1,788 9-2X models via Fuji Heavy Industry Ltd. (Subaru) in Japan.

McKinnon is convinced of the need to have some manufacturing in Sweden and recognizes the business prudence of building in many countries as a way to deal with foreign exchange fluctuations.

Saab 9-3 SportCombi

But because plant-sourcing decisions are out of his control, he is focused on what he can: getting the message out that Saab is a distinct premium brand.

The brand is about making a statement within the premium segment, McKinnon says here at a preview of the 9-3 SportCombi hatchback that will be unveiled officially this week at the Geneva auto show.

McKinnon admits Saab may not be truly premium yet, but that is the ambition. While the actual quality of the 9-3 family is where it needs to be, the perceived quality is “not quite there,” notably in interiors. That, he says, and the level of technology, put Saab a notch below the competition.

McKinnon is aiming to eliminate the gap within three to four years. Primary competitors are Audi and Volvo vehicles, followed by BMW and Mercedes as secondary targets and, finally, Alfa Romeo.

Saab may never lead engineering of any future vehicles, as the current direction is expansion based on architecture from other brands within the GM family.

But McKinnon does not see that as a real concern.

New products now come from a primary pool of General Motors Europe engineers. “It will be harder to tell who led it; it will be more of an engineering factory,” he says.

Once the basic engineering is done, and a prototype has been created, Saab sends in the integration team to evaluate it and decide where resources should be spent to ensure it meets the criteria of a true Swedish Saab.

Saab can leverage GME resources. “We can put forward business cases on the same level as (Adam Opel AG), which we couldn’t do before,” McKinnon says.

There is a clear blueprint, known as the Saab Product Profile, that all future vehicles must adhere to. He points to the differentiation of the 9-3 from the Opel Vectra as a success story. He acknowledges the 9-2X was spun off the Subaru WRX too quickly and was not as well executed. He says the 9-7X SUV will be very distinct from the Chevrolet TrailBlazer upon which it is based.

Future vehicles must satisfy the three brand pillars: distinct design, fun to drive and emotional functionality, McKinnon says. The criteria represent a whittling down of five tenets (safety, driving control, design, performance and versatility) Saab held in the past, when it was trying to be too much and “getting a bit all over the place.”

In trying to be great in all five areas, the brand was not excelling in any given one, McKinnon says. “We needed to focus the brand.”

It doesn’t mean the car maker has abandoned things such as safety, he explains. But safety now is considered a price of entry in the luxury segment and not a distinguishing feature, he says.

“Volvo owns that,” he adds.

Saabs will undergo more testing than ever before, but extra resources will not be funneled into this area. For example, the 9-3 used to have two sensors to lock the rear-seat armrest upright in the event of a crash. Today’s models have one sensor to do the job.

In terms of performance, Saab has to keep up, McKinnon says. The vehicles don’t need to be the most powerful in the segment, but they must be the most fun to drive.

A combination of the three more focused brand pillars in a single vehicle is what makes a vehicle a Saab, he says, adding the new SportCombi is the poster child of that vision, with distinct rear design, the versatility of a hatch or wagon and the ride of a 9-3 sedan.

apriddle@primediabusiness.com