PARIS -- Saab Cars will not go retro as long as Michael Mauer is the chief designer. "With the Beetle, it might work because there are millions of the old Beetles out there, and people have positive thoughts connected to them," says Mauer.

"If we were to do a retro design of the first Saab Aero, there might be a few Saab enthusiasts who would remember. All the rest would look at this and be mystified. I think (retro) has a lack of creativity. If I look at the new Ford Thunderbird or the GT40, I ask myself, ‘what is the message?’ I mean, a big company should be forward looking, creating new things, and not looking in the rear-view mirror."

Mauer, who penned the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Smart before coming to Saab a year and a half ago, gave Saab its first and second concept cars in 15 years with the 9X in Frankfurt last fall and the 9-3X in Detroit in January. The sporty, masculine look of the 9X is an indication of where Saab wants to go, Mauer says.

“That was the task of the 9X, externally and internally,” he says. “In the design department, it's quite hard to convince engineers. It's much easier to take them to the 9X and say that's what we are taking about."

Mauer oversees 85 people in his department, as well as about 30 contract designers. He has hired more than a dozen people since he arrived at Saab. "I always want more people," he says. "It's quite hard for a designer to

argue, ‘if I have additional designers, the future car will be 15% better.’ Still, I believe the more people you have, capable people, the more creativity you have."

Saab has budgeted E3.6 billion ($3.1 billion) to be spent between 2000-2004 for the modernization of its factories and development of five to eight new models that it hopes will double its annual sales to 260,000 units.

The auto maker will introduce a 9-3 sedan this summer, plus two cross/utility vehicles, a wagon and a roadster -- a number of them off General Motor Corp.’s Epsilon and Sigma platforms.

Mauer declines to confirm future product details. “There will be each year either a concept car or a production car,” he says. “Next year, we won't show any concept car, and the year after next year we won't show a concept car."

Although he used some of their design elements in the 9-3X concept, Mauer had little to do with the coming vehicles. That’s because by the time he arrived at Saab’s Swedish design studios in late 2000, work on the 9-3 models was close to completion.

"You could say that on the last derivative to come from the new 9-3, I had maybe 10% input," he says. "With the concept car, the 9-3X, you might get a taste of this derivative, but I can't claim that it's my design.”

The successor of the 9-5 will be the first project where he is fully engaged from the very beginning. “Hopefully, if somebody decides to do the 9X as a production car, then I could say, ‘Well, OK, that's my baby.’”

The 9-5 successor is due around 2006 and will use enough Epsilon architecture to permit it to be manufactured in Saab's Gotenburg, Sweden, plant.

Mauer says the purpose of the 9-3X concept shown at this year’s Detroit Auto Show was threefold: "To confirm that the design language of the Saab 9X is something that we are seriously thinking about; to visualize that if Saab goes into the SUV segment, then we do it in a more on-road style, a sportier style than many of our competitors; and to be a teaser for design cues of the whole 9-3 lineup."

But Saab's approach to an SUV is to be more European than American. "Just take the big Tonka (Ford Motor Co.’s F350 concept pickup truck) and compare it to the 9-3X. I think the 9-3X is perceived more as a toy in the U.S. King brands in America are these huge trucks.”

Looking across the SUV spectrum, Mauer says there are “real” SUVs, such as Toyota Land Cruisers, DaimlerChrysler Corp. Jeeps, and General Motors Corp. Hummers. “And then you have more civilized versions,” he says, such as Ford Range Rovers and the BMW X5.

"I think a company has to live on its brand promise,” he says. “We claim we deliver sporty, dynamic cars, so we are definitely not on the Jeep side. What do customers say they like about SUVs? It's mainly the command view. You sit a little higher, and you have a less fragile-looking exterior.

“The command view is the main feature we would like to adopt. So the Saab 9-3X has a slightly raised ground clearance in order to have a higher command view, but it is an on-road type of car. If we would do a kind of Land Cruiser, I think nobody would buy into it."

Mauer also believes cars tend to have national characteristics. "Only a French company could do a Renault Avantime or Vel Satis,” he says. “They are different…less sporty, more comfortable. That for me is typically French. If Mercedes did an Avantime, I'm sure that they would fail,” he continues. "German cars…look Teutonic, heavy, strong. Swedish cars are in that respect quite similar to German cars. Both Volvo and Saab (models) look like they have thick skins for safety.”

Italian cars, such as Alfa Romeos, have form, sporty style and performance, he says, while the American look is big, with less attention to detail. If you look at (North America-made vehicles), you don't think quality,” he says. “The cars are big but with no attention to detail; a little bit stale on the surface.”

But in the auto makers’ defense, Mauer says this: “We drive quite often from the (Detroit Metropolitan) airport to Warren (MI), where the GM Tech Center is. That's the most horrible highway I can imagine. A couple of months ago, we had a Saab 9-5 Aero with low-profile tires. I could not imagine owning a car (like that in Detroit). Most likely, I would drive a big truck to protect my back from shaking apart.”

Nevertheless, he believes it would be a mistake for U.S. car companies to copy European cars. Instead, Mauer says, they should fix their problems, with more attention to detail but keeping the American spirit. “Then, I think that even in Europe, people would be willing to buy American cars."