For Saab Cars USA, the future is almost here. Starting with the redesign of the 9-3, coming in fall of 2002 as a 2003 model, Saab will introduce one new model in each of the next six years. “That’s a far cry from when it used to be one new model every nine years,” jokes one Saab official.
The parade of new products is the result of a $3.38 billion product initiative announced last year by Saab’s parent company,Corp. It’s part of GM’s strategy to expand Saab’s appeal.
Known for having a loyal, yet limited core of buyers, the Swedish automaker hopes the new offerings will double its U.S. sales total to about 80,000 units in the next three or four years, according to Dan Chasins, president of Saab Cars U.S.A.
Don’t look for Saab to increase the number of core products, though. The company will stay with the 9-5 and 9-3 Series, introducing redesigns of the two and adding niche vehicles along the way.
One of the niche vehicles being developed for production in an estimated 18 months is an all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle that could become Saab’s first cross/utility vehicle. The AWD is a departure of sorts. Saab has produced only front-wheel drive vehicles in the past.
Mr. Chasins explains, “There is an increasing demand in the market for an AWD. We have to respond to that demand.”
Doubling its sales in the near future certainly are ambitious plans for Saab, especially in an uncertain economy.
“We have worked hard to make it ‘business as usual’ since the Sept. 11 events,” says Mr. Chasins. He admits the dealers are nervous because of the uncertain business environment.
Although Saab officials won’t admit it publicly, they realize the dealership network has not been as strong as it could have been the last few years. Saab has been strengthening the network, reducing the number of dealers to the current number of 212 – a number Mr. Chasins says he is comfortable with.
“We’re concerned about the strength of our dealers, not so much with how many we have,” he explains.
Saab is also two-thirds of the way through a rollout of a dealership facility renovation started last year. Mr. Chasins says the look is designed to give Saab a distinctive look of an airplane hanger, invoking Saab’s airline heritage. One of the flagship stores, Michigan-based Saab of Troy, has increased its sales dramatically since its renovation, Mr. Chasins notes.
There are noplans to establish a luxury group such as ’s Premier Automotive Group, according to Mr. Chasins.
But, he says, “We prefer our dealerships to be partnered Cadillac as opposed to other brands. We think they could be a good fit – although, we don’t have a strategy or a set number. We’ll only do it where it makes sense.”
Saab will have to wait till 2003 and the rollout of the new product before it starts seeing real growth, however. Sales for 2001 will be at the same 39,000-unit level of 2000.
In 2002, Mr. Chasins, expects the enhancements made to the current 9-5 Series will lead to some modest growth. Saab has added three variations to the 9-5,which will provide the basis for future Saab designs.
Both the wagon and the sedan will be available in the Linear, the Arc and the Aero models. Saab is looking to make the Aero the feature vehicle, hoping to double its take of the mix from 15% to 30% in 2002.
Part of Saab's retail strategy includes the use of so-called "Saab Unlimited" brand centers.The Swedish automaker will begin placing in strategic locations these brand centers that will act as information centers for people interested in Saab. Each center will be manned by one or two Saab customer service employees on hand to answer questions about the Saab product, direct customers to dealerships, and collect customer information that will be provided to the dealership located in that customer’s geographic location.
Also in the brand centers, will be kiosks with 42-inch screens that use a 3-D digital technology developed by Opticore. Using the kiosks, customers can configure the Saab vehicles and view them with available colors and trim packages. The images are of photographic quality and can be rotated 360 degrees and viewed from any angle.
Several brand centers are already in place in Europe, and while Saab officials admit it’s difficult to quantify actual sales numbers, they say the centers have generated a lot of interest as well as providing several “hot” leads to dealerships.
The centers are part of a global program designed by the Swedish automaker to bolster a weak brand image. The first center in the United States will be at a Wall Street location in December. Other centers are slated for early 2002 in the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport and the JFK Airport in New York.