TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Saab Automobiles AB is in close negotiations with a potential European partner that could bring a premium A-segment Saab to the market in 2013.
“We are looking for partners for it,” Saab Chairman Victor Muller says. “It will be my finest hour.”
Saab began as an auto maker producing the small 92 model in 1949, and the new A-segment car will be its spiritual successor, says Muller, who bought the brand fromCo. in February. “Saab gave it up, now we have to recoup it.”
If it arrives in 2013, the A-car would be the fourth vehicle in the Saab lineup. The first of the new 9-5 models will reach American dealerships this month, and the Saab 9-4X crossover will go into production at a GM plant in Mexico in April.
A new 9-3 using a Saab platform derived from the GM Epsilon I will arrive in 2012, designed by Jason Castriota, a former Pininfarina SpA and Stile Bertone SpA designer hired earlier this year.
In 2012, Muller says, Saab will earn money, with the company’s breakeven dropping to 85,000 vehicles by then, down from 125,000 under GM ownership.
Muller, the CEO and founder of the Dutch sportscar makerN.V., says as soon as GM’s efforts to sell the Saab brand to Koenigsegg Group AB and its partner Beijing Automotive Industry Corp. in November 2009 failed, he sent an email to Bob Lutz expressing interest in the brand. The deal was closed Feb. 23.
“People thought we lost our minds,” Muller says in recounting the event at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here. But the drama of the economic recession and GM’s collapse meant “a minute player likecould actually buy Saab. In this perfect storm, when brands had to be disposed, the usual suspects were not interested in a niche player.”
Spkyer made about 45 cars last year, he says, and Saab produced only 21,000 as it was going into receivership in Sweden, wiping out nearly $1 billion in debt.
Saab has a unique heritage, driven by aerodynamic technology, safety, durability and success in rally driving, Muller says. “We felt it was worth saving. We think we should be able to pull that one off.
“The recession brought a message home to every boardroom: How can we bring our break-even point down? The quickest fix is to sell your technology to get money for development. In this industry, everybody will exchange technology with everyone.”
When Spyker took over, the factory was empty. Production restarted March 22 and now is at 1,200 cars a week. “It will go up further, particularly with all-new Saab 9-5,” Muller says.
Saab doesn’t need new customers, he contends, it just needs its old ones back, including the 1.5 million who own Saabs and the 4.5 million who used to own them.
The new 9-5 “is our answer to the Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class and5-Series,” he says.
Former Saab owners mostly switched to Audis, Muller says. He admires Audi’s engineering-based ascension over the past 20 years as a premium brand and believes Saab can do the same.
The 9-4X will be particularly important, Muller says, as it will give Saab families a reason to stay with the brand when a sedan or station wagon becomes too small. Production in Mexico provides some protection against exchange fluctuations with the Swedish krona.
Saab will work with partners in its future development, including plans for hybrids and electric cars. In partnership with battery-maker Boston Power Inc., it will launch a test fleet of 100 electric 9-3 models late this year. Some will be in the U.S., which is Saab’s most important overseas market. Later, a 9-3 hybrid will be offered.
GM had treated Saab like a princess, Muller says, spending E750 million ($987 million) on the plant over 10 years, “and the factory is brand spanking new.”
However, failure to renew Saab’s lineup hurt sales, he says, although GM did approve the AeroX prototype that became the brand’s new design DNA.
The new 9-5 is a result of development under GM, says Muller. “Spyker’s only contribution is the fact that it exists.”