Special Coverage

Auto Show

General Motors Corp. unveils an impressive array of global brands at the annual Geneva auto show today, led by a concept car from Saab Automobile that demonstrates its intention to produce a premium compact car.

The Detroit auto maker shows a 3-door Chevrolet Aveo, which signals GM’s intent to grow the model’s range beyond 4- and 5-door variants, while Cadillac, Chevrolet and Hummer brands offer European premiers of previously shown products. Additionally, GM says it will make a major hybrid technology announcement tomorrow.

The 3-door Aveo arrives in Europe in June from the Warsaw-based joint-venture plant of Polish auto maker Fabryka Samochodow Osobowych S.A. and GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co.

GM says the model makes a bolder design statement, upgrades its interior and offers more efficient 4-cyl. gasoline engines. Motivation comes via a 1.2L mill rated at 84 hp or a 1.4L generating 101 hp.

Meanwhile, GM’s German unit, Adam Opel GmbH, shows an Opel Meriva concept that demonstrates future potential for the monocab segment; a refreshed Opel Zafira 7-seater with new engine choices; and the Agila monocab that launches shortly after the show.

But the Saab 9-X BioHybrid concept arguably represents the highlight for GM in Geneva and is a signal the Swedish brand soon will offer a sporty compact hatchback to answer the BMW 1-Series, Volvo C30 and Mini Cooper.

A timetable for its production, likely at the auto maker’s Trollhattan, Sweden, plant, was not offered prior to its unveiling. But the launch likely is about one year away, coinciding with an update to GM’s Delta global compact platform for the next-generation Opel and Saturn Astra.

Powertrain possibilities also remain sketchy ahead of today’s event, but speculation centers on 1.6L and 2.0L mills using Saab’s trademark turbocharger technology. As a concept, the 9-X at the show boasts a 200-hp, 1.4L BioPower turbo engine backed by GM’s next-generation hybrid system.

The system, which GM will detail to the public tomorrow, builds on the auto maker’s current belt-alternator-starter setup, which shuts the engine down at stops and provides some battery-power assistance. On a vehicle such as the 9-X concept, GM says the system will emit a combined-cycle carbon-dioxide level of 105 g/km with the use of E85 fuel.

That would bring the 9-X concept’s powertrain well within a current mandate from the European Union for an emissions limit of 130 g/km (roughly the equivalent of 45 mpg) in 2012, as well as a proposal to tighten the emissions standard to 125 g/km in 2015.

It also would prove instrumental to GM as it works to raise the fuel economy of its cars and trucks ahead of the new corporate average fuel economy standard of 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) for the U.S. fleet by 2020.

Saab already makes available across its European model range a 1.8L BioPower engine that creates 175 hp and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque, which represents 17% more horsepower and 10% more torque than its gasoline-only counterpart. The Saab 9-5 BioPower, introduced in 2006, ranks as one of Europe’s best-selling flex-fuel vehicles.

GM does not provide photos ahead of the unveiling, but the auto maker says the 9-X styling borrows from the award-winning Aero X and 9X concept cars previously shown by Saab.

For example, its exterior features the “wraparound” window graphic and deep front grille of the Aero X coupe. It also incorporates interior features from the Aero X, such as 3-D instrument panel graphics that appear “frozen” in ice.

The 9-X discards the Aero X concept’s floor-mounted console with angled controls and displays for a main instrument panel that sweeps out from the top of the door moulding, GM says.

“This car is all about efficiency in design and performance,” says Anthony Lo, director-advanced design, GM Europe, in a statement ahead of the unveiling.

“This car shows how our concept work can be carried forward into a compact format,” he adds. “It has a number of features which we will be developing further, such as the new driver-focused design theme; the importance of clean, uncluttered surfaces; and the easy, seamless connectivity inside the car.”

The 9-X concept also boasts an aerodynamic design to reduce drag and fuel consumption, a Saab design element that dates back to the brand’s original compact coupe from 1947, GM says.

Global Insight Inc. analyst Rebecca Lindland says based on images circling the Internet, the 9-X may look a bit too much like an Astra, which could saddle it with the same fate met by the Saab 9-7X SUV and 9-2X compact sport sedan.

The 9-7X shares a platform with GM’s midsize family of GMT 360-based SUVs, the Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, both of which it closely resembles. The Saab version has been a slow seller since its launch in 2005.

The 9-2X leveraged the Subaru Impreza’s underpinnings and launched in 2005. Tepid sales and the dissolution of GM’s stake in Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. combined to kill the car in 2006.

Both vehicles met criticism from Saab loyalists, earning the nicknames “TrollBlazer” and “Saabaru,” respectively, for what was perceived as a superficial approach to their engineering.

“Saab is such a difficult brand,” Lindland says. “It has lost its way a bit with re-branding. It doesn’t re-brand well. It has a very distinctive design and feel and customer.”

Saab has expanded its lineup in recent years, from the 9-3 sedan and convertible and slightly larger 9-5 sedan and wagon, to include the 9-7X SUV, a sport compact and even a 9-3 Sport Combi that recalls its hatchback roots. But sales have fallen short of goal.

Since the brand hit a benchmark 44,818 sales when the 9-3 was last redesigned in 2003, deliveries have deteriorated to a mere 29,069 units in 2007, according to Ward’s data.

That said, Saab’s recent 9-4X BioPower CUV concept drew favorable reviews after it bowed in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Expected to share GM’s midsize CUV architecture with a production-version Cadillac Provoq and the Saturn Vue, the 9-4X reflects authentic Saab styling cues. GM designers pledge it will remain just as distinctive when it hits the market in about 2010.

Lindland says that with the right product Saab can overcome its volume deficiencies. She suggests GM, which acquired a majority stake in the Swedish auto maker in 1990 and bought it outright in 2000, should work more closely with Saab loyalists.

“Get ahold of the people who bought a Saab 10 years ago, when the brand was still pure,” she says.

Some Saab loyalists believe GM is starting to do that, after years of disconnect. “The current regime is really making an effort,” says Linnea Krajewski, an insurance adjuster in Webster, MA, and secretary of the Saab Club of North America.

Krajewski owns eight classic models, including a 21-year-old Saab SPG 900 with more than 300,000 miles (482,790 km) on the chassis and about 175,000 miles (281,628 km) on its current powertrain.

A self-confessed gearhead, Krajewski says when she joined the Saab fold in the early 1990s, GM seemed bent on turning the red Griffin into a “Swedish Buick.”

“But these guys really care now,” she says. “They go out there to connect with the average Saab owner, whether it’s a ‘93 Saab owner or a Saab 9-3 owner. That didn’t happen before.”

Krajewski likes the 9-4X, as well as iterations she’s seen of the next 9-5, and says if the 9-X arrives in the states with a 2.0L turbocharged powertrain she might consider buying one. “But my driveway is full right now.”

Stephen Goldberger, a member of the SCNA board of directors, retired mechanical engineer and former editor and publisher of Nines, The Saab Club Magazine, says Saab has gone too far up-market for many loyalists. From Saab’s introduction to the U.S in the 1950s through the 1970s, the brand was seen as a “Swedish Volkswagen,” a small, economical and modestly powered vehicle, he says.

“What we learned when we began driving these cars, especially in the winter, was their fantastic driving characteristics back in the days when the Citroen was about the only other front-wheel-drive car in the U.S.,” says Goldberger, who divides his time between homes in Apollo Beach, FL, and North Canton, OH.

In the 1980s, Saab cars became larger, more luxurious and more expensive. But now that Saab has been fully integrated into GM – the brand’s final assumption came in 2004 when its U.S. operations moved from Atlanta to Detroit – the possibility for the brand to return to its roots is exciting, Goldberger says.

“If done right, longtime Saab enthusiasts will enthusiastically embrace a vehicle that, from what little we have seen, will recreate what were the Saabs of the 1950s and 1960s: small, versatile, well-finished, well-performing and uniquely styled,” he tells Ward’s.

Krajewski also hopes the new spate of cars will help the brand achieve consistent profitability, which would keep enthusiasts flush with parts and service options. But she still has reservations.

“Saab needs to get back to its roots, and I don’t know if it can do it within the GM hierarchy,” Krajewski says.

“The new cars have no soul, no connection with the driver. Driving the classic 900 is like wearing a favorite sweater, or sharing a cup of tea with a close friend. I don’t know if Saab can ever get back to that.”