As the new SUV rounds the corner, there’s no mistaking its distinctive, three-slot grille. But if you’re a little bit confused by the rest of Saab’s new 9-7X, you’re not alone.
The latest entry into the Swedish automaker’s expanding luxury lineup shares most of its components with some decidedly more mainstream General Motors sport-utility vehicles, such as the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Saab has added some distinctive styling cues and a variety of upscale features, but it’s anyone’s guess whether consumers will see the differences — and be willing to pay for them.
Yet there was little choice but to get Saab into the SUV segment, argues the GM subsidiary’s new general manager, Jay Spenchian. Overall, light trucks now account for about 54 percent of the
So while Saab was long known for sporty, if eccentric, hatchbacks, it’s now making a major foray into SUVs and crossovers. The 9-7X is actually little more than a bridge strategy, company officials admit, with limited sales expectations and a relatively short shelf life. The real test comes in another year, with the launch of the car-based 9-6X.
And TheCarConnection.com has learned a third crossover/ute, which insiders refer to as 9-4X, will debut by 2009.
Big times coming
“This is a pretty important time for Saab,” said Spenchian, a former marketing executive at Cadillac, during the
There’s no question Saab needs some changes. There was a time a player of its size could sustain itself, but no more, and with sales of just 130,000 last year, it’s losing parent General Motors a fair chunk of cash — though GM officials won’t reveal precisely how much.
Analyst J Ferron, of PriceWaterhouse Coopers, suggested GM only has itself to blame. It’s becoming “absolutely harder” for niche brands like Saab, selling only a couple of products in low-volume segments.
GM has been too stingy with the resources Saab has needed, analysts like Ferron complain, and too slow to expand the lineup. By comparison, Ford Motor Co. has been more than generous with its own Swedish brand, turning Volvo Cars into a serious cash cow.
GM officials don’t deny the need to increase their support of Saab. “I honestly do believe GM is finally committed to making Saab a success, and my moving here right now tells you how serious GM is,” explained Spenchian, who helped steer the turnaround at Cadillac.
Saab has plenty of potential for GM, he contended. For one thing it has “the highest import conquest rate” of any GM brand. And it is the only European-style luxury brand in all GM’s portfolio.
Unfortunately, even in Europe, it is not especially well known. And in the U.S., the vast bulk of Saab’s volume comes from a narrow slice of the country. “We’ve got these loyal customers,” explained Spenchian, but we’re basically an (East Coast) brand. We’ve got to expand out to places like Miami and Los Angeles.”
In a market where SUVs have become much more popular than the hatchbacks that used to dominate Saab’s lineup, GM is betting they can kick-start the Swedish automaker’s growth.
The 9-7X is actually the third effort Saab has made to bring a viable SUV to market — a previous attempt was based on Cadillac’s big Sigma platform (think SRX). Whether the mid-size ute succeeds could depend on definition. Expectations are modest, company insiders looking for volumes of just 5000 to 7000 sales annually.
Meanwhile, with development work on the TrailBlazer replacement well underway, the 9-7X isn’t likely to be around long. Saab officials acknowledged they’re not involved in the next-generation program, with no current plans to get a version.
Some observers think that’s good news for Saab.
“They probably should have skipped the 9-7X,” contended Sue Jacobs, of the New Jersey consulting firm, Jacobs & Associates. Jacobs believes the Saab nose and instrument panel won’t fool anyone. And, “In a crowded luxury market, any product that confuses customers about what Saab stands for is going to hurt the brand.”
Jacobs feels the same way about the 9-2X, a compact sport wagon added to the lineup last year. It’s a rebadged WRX, built in Japan by GM affiliate Subaru. Sales have fallen well short of expectations, Spenchian admitted, though they have been picking up in recent months.
Subaru’s parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, will produce the three-row 9-6X, as well. It will share many of its components with the new Subaru Tribeca, though with Saab involved earlier in the project, the 9-6X should be more distinctly Saab-like.
“There are common platforms everywhere,” Spenchian asserted, adding it is critical, from the customer standpoint, that individual products maintain strong and distinctive brand attributes, such as styling, performance and handling.
There have been reports the 9-6X is delayed due to problems mounting the diesel engine that will be offered in Europe. When the question was posed to Spenchian, he said, “The official answer is, ‘no,’ but we’re evaluating ways to make it as distinctive as we can, and any delay would be to make it a stronger entry.”
At this point, look for the 9-6X to launch late in the 2006 model year, or early 2007, “if delayed.”
As to the next crossover, it has not gotten an official name yet, though it would appear likely to be dubbed 9-4X. It will be smaller than the 9-6X, based off the Premium Global Epsilon all-wheel drive platform, Spenchian revealed, and shared with a new Cadillac crossover. Production should begin in 2009.
Product isn’t the only thing needed to turn Saab around, Spenchian stressed. The automaker is looking to upgrade its dealer network, and as part of that, it hopes to have more of its showrooms dualed with Cadillac.
With new products, stronger dealers, and the support of parent GM, Spenchian insisted he’s confident sales will finally begin to grow. He wouldn’t discuss global targets, but in the U.S., Saab is looking to double volume, from 35,000 to 70,000, by the end of the decade.