DETROIT – The economic meltdown that nearly reduced the global industry to cinders in 2009 changed the automotive world for the better, Saab Automobiles AB Chairman Victor Muller says.

The crisis killed suppliers, closed dealerships, relegated time-honored car brands to the history books and left thousands jobless. These outcomes were painful, but ultimately beneficial, Muller says on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show here.

There exists now a new openness that fosters innovation.

“(Since) the storm, everybody is willing to share everything with everybody,” he says, specifically referring to Saab’s agreement negotiated last year to acquire some 200,000 4-cyl. engines from BWW AG for the next-generation Saab 9-3 midsize car line.

Just suggesting such an arrangement five years ago would have been “like cursing the church,” Muller says during an impassioned roundtable with journalists.

Similarly implausible was last year’s tie-up between Daimler AG and Renault SA-Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.

Consider also Saab’s joint venture with American Axle Mfg. Holdings Inc., Muller adds. The companies will develop and produce in-wheel electric motors for use in the new 9-3, scheduled to debut in 2012.

“The industry’s changed,” he declares, claiming Saab clearly has changed for the better.

The calamity allowed the auto maker to “drive the break-even point down with a hammer,” Muller says forcefully.

In a slick demonstration of oratory that would humble a televangelist, the Saab executive, promises redemption for the Sweden-based brand that nearly died when discarded in 2009 by the former General Motors Corp., which later declared bankruptcy.

Muller says Saab is blessed with “the most loyal customers in the world. Period.” But he concedes even they may not buy if their peers in the general public believe the brand is on life support. So the auto maker will spend “serious” money on marketing this year.

Skeptics can be forgiven, considering Saab tallied fewer than 32,000 global sales in 2010. However, Muller firmly commits to a forecast of 80,000 deliveries this year and 120,000 in 2012; targets, he says, that are attainable largely because of GM’s legacy.

When Muller’s Spyker Cars took control of Saab last year, development of the brand’s 9-5 flagship sedan was complete and the 9-4x cross/utility vehicle was nearly complete. But by the time the next-generation 9-3 arrives in 2012, Saab’s showroom offerings will be among the freshest in the industry.

Between now and then, however, the auto maker is coping with leadership woes.

Saab’s global marketing position is vacant and Global Sales Director Matthias Seidl is filling in as Saab Cars North America’s chief operating officer, following the sudden departure of Mike Colleran. Saab also lost industry-veteran Adrian Hallmark in 2010.

Against this backdrop comes news from Sweden that Saab will reduce hourly output at its Trollhatten plant to 28 cars from 39. “This is normal for the winter months.When we face early spring, we will go up again,” spokesman Eric Geers tells Reuters.

But the auto maker is sticking to its target of 80,000 sales in 2011.

European-market deliveries likely will get a big boost later in the year with the launch of the 9-5 SportCombi, Muller says. Historically, the wagon-style 9-5 has accounted for 80% of the nameplate’s sales in Europe.

emayne@wardsauto.com