Special Coverage

Geneva
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GENEVA – Borrowing from its aviation heritage, Saab Automobile AB finds a soft landing in the hands of new owner Spyker Cars NV.

But Saab will not be grounded for long, as the Netherlands-based niche auto maker is eager to see the former General Motors Co. brand soar once again. The deal closed Feb. 23.

“Saab is an iconic brand; it was worth saving,” Spyker CEO Victor Muller says at a press conference during the auto show here. “Now the real work starts. The honeymoon is over, and now we have to get to work. Spyker is not a presumptuous company. We don’t think we will run Saab.” Instead, Saab’s current management, led by CEO Jan Ake Jonsson, will remain in place. Muller describes Jonsson’s leadership team as “very capable, very competent and, believe me, passionate about the journey we’re about to set out on.”

Although Saab is considered small by industry standards, Spyker is miniscule by comparison, having sold 50 C8 Aileron coupes since launching one year ago, priced at $215,000 in the U.S.

“How can a small company like Spyker aquire a relative giant like Saab?” Muller says.

“The only reason it happens is because of the perfect storm in the industry, the storm that caused giants to fall down and small companies to take opportunities nobody ever thought possible. We were there at the right time at the right place, and we simply moved in to save Saab.”

For Jonsson, Saab’s separation from GM is bittersweet. He knows the auto maker benefited from GM’s vast product-development and manufacturing resources, and he appreciates GM’s support throughout negotiations to sell the brand.

But Saab “suffered from a very narrow product focus” under GM’s reign, he says, reinforced by 13 years without re-engineering the 9-5 sedan and an 8-year development lag for the top-selling 9-3 sedan.

Muller also offers a back-handed compliment to GM. “Saab is an innovative company, always in the forefront of technology and it will be again. It’s known for its quirkiness and design. All these elements are still there, given to us on a platter by General Motors.

“We should be grateful to GM. They have invested a tremendous amount of money in Saab. But maybe along the line somewhere, Saab lost a bit of its DNA, its typical Swedish origin, its wonderful aviation heritage, of its independent thinking.

“As an independent manufacturer, that independent thinking will come in very handy to determine where to move next.”

Jonsson is grateful for the chance to hatch a new fully funded business plan and consolidate most manufacturing and product-development activities at Saab’s company headquarters in Trollhattan, Sweden.

“That will help us drive down our break-even level,” he says. “At typical Saab volumes of 100,000 to 120,000 vehicles per year, we will have a good return” for investors.

Within the next two weeks, Jonsson says Trollhattan will begin production of the current 9-3 convertible. For several years, Magna International Inc.’s Steyr assembly plant in Graz, Austria, had produced the cabrio. He says the switch represents cost-savings to Saab.

The primary mission is to give new products the top priority. That cadence includes a new 9-5 sedan, launching later this year; new 9-4x cross/utility vehicle, arriving in 2011 and sharing its architecture with the Cadillac SRX; and a new 9-3 sedan, slated for 2012. GM’s role in the next-generation 9-3’s launch remains hazy.

Jonsson tells Ward’s GM will not be involved “from a development point of view. This (9-3) will be developed exclusively by Saab. The question is (whether) we will use certain components or powertrains from GM. We haven’t made those decisions yet.”

However, he is open to partnerships with other auto makers or suppliers for core technologies, such as engines, transmissions or all-wheel drive.

“The benefit we have now is we are independent. We decide who we work with and decide what technology we want to use,” Jonsson says. “I think you’ll see lots of alliances and cooperation of various scales between us and many different companies.”

Then again, Muller suggests the separation from GM will not be abrupt. “GM will be a supplier of technology (to Saab) for many, many moons to come,” he tells Ward’s.

Jonsson bristles at the suggestion the 9-4x is a rebadged Cadillac. “They were co-developed and are very different in their characteristics and design,” he says. “Put them side by side, and you’ll see for yourself. It has all the characteristics we need as a Saab.”

Production will remain in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, at GM’s plant, which will help limit Saab’s exposure to unfavorable currency-exchange rates. There is no plan to move 9-4x production to Trollhattan.

Spyker makes product news of its own at the show here with the European premier of the C8 Aileron Spyder. The convertible is expected to go on sale at the end of 2010, and Muller says he hopes his company can produce 20 vehicles in the fourth quarter, most for the U.S. market.

Pricing for the convertible is expected to be $235,000. Optional in chrome letters on the body is the Latin inscription, Nulla tenaci invia est via, which translates into “For the tenacious, no road is impassable.”

The convertible Aileron will be assembled alongside the coupe at a new plant in Coventry, U.K. Spyker also assembles smaller C8 Laviolette sports cars, with a wheelbase 6 ins. (15.2 cm) shorter than that of the Aileron, at its plant in Netherlands. But the future of that assembly site appears tenuous.

“We will continue to make them for as long as there is demand,” Muller says of the Laviolette. “Having car production in the Netherlands is still feasible. But sometime in the near future, we will probably continue to produce just (the) Aileron” at the U.K. plant.

Muller says Spyker will make up “about 0.5%” of the new combined entity with Saab. “But it doesn’t mean the focus will not be on Spyker. On the contrary, Spyker will be flourishing in the new combination. It will have access to resources it would have never had otherwise.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com