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New Small Saab, Crossover Coming



In a bid to build up its global presence, the Swedish automaker, Saab, plans to expand its lineup over the next few years, while also launching a new all-wheel-drive system that could make it more competitive against better-known luxury marques.

Despite ongoing concerns about the financial health of General Motors’ Swedish luxury brand, things are looking better than ever, asserted Steve Shannon, the GM “lifer” who has been running Saab operations in theU.S.– its largest market – for the last six months.


Saab faces a variety of challenges, Shannon acknowledged. For one thing, it is hard to gain traction in a market dominated by better known European and Asian brands, such as BMW and Lexus, especially with such a small lineup. But getting more product is itself a challenge when you’re such a small part of the GM empire.


“It’s not easy, when you’re a company that makes 9 million cars a year to figure out how to steward a company that makes 130,000,” acknowledged Shannon, though he quickly insisted, “We’re getting better at it.”


Saab has a major update of the 9-3, currently its smallest and lowest-cost model, rolling into dealerships for 2008. And it is finishing up work on a new version of the bigger 9-5 line, which has gone far too long without significant revision.


The real test of the brand will come in little more than a year, when it launches its first crossover vehicle, which some sources have dubbed the 9-4X, though that name is far from official.


The crossover is being designed with the U.S. in mind, though Saab hopes to break into the fast-growing global demand for crossovers. While some makers have experimented with radical alternatives to conventional SUV designs such as the Nissan Murano, Saab’s offering will take a conservative approach.


“We will not make the mistake of some other manufacturers,” explained Shannon, “trying to make a ‘tweener,’ somewhere between a car and a truck. We will not take any risks with this.”


The planned crossover will make use of a new all-wheel-drive system. Dubbed Cross-Wheel Drive , or XWD, it will make its debut next year on the 9-3 line. GM has appointed Saab its center of excellence for future all-wheel-drive technology for use on all transverse-mounted vehicle programs.



New entry-level car coming


A year or so after the launch of the crossover, Saab will bring to market a new entry-level model, a replacement for the short-lived 9-2X, which was produced in a now-abandoned partnership with the Japanese automaker, Subaru. Expect a more stylish and distinctive vehicle, hinted Shannon.


“We learned a lesson from the 9-2,” he said, during an interview in Washington, D.C. “We need to add a design that’s really a breakthrough. There are a lot of very pedestrian, over-priced players in that segment right now.”


Except for vehicles equipped with the XWD system, all future Saab products will remain front-drive, asserted Kurt Simonsson, the automaker’s global marketing chief. While conventional wisdom might suggest that rear-drive is better for performance, the Swedish executive argued that it’s really “all about execution,” and indeed, as reports in its review of the 2008 9-3, Saab has eliminated two of the most common complaints about its older, front-drive models: turbo lag and torque steer.


Saab also plans to remain loyal to its turbocharged in-line fours and V-6s, meanwhile, rather than adopt the big engines favored by many other imports (with the exception of the V-8 in the huge Saab SUV, the 9-7X). If anything, “It’s crystal clear,” said Simonsson, that the market is shifting from “big engines to more efficient engines.”


But for the moment, there are no hard plans to adopt some of the hybrid technology starting to show up in other GM brands. That will likely change in the next decade, but as a small brand, Saab has to wait its turn.


How much the brand can grow is unclear. Sales nudged 35,000 sales in the U.S. last year, and will slip slightly due in part to the changeover from old to the new 9-3. Globally, the figures have been improving, and are now running around 130,000 annually.


That may be little more than a rounding error for GM, but it’s more than acceptable for Saab, argued Simonsson. How much larger does the brand need to go? “One hundred percent, we can be sustainable at 200,000” sales annually, even 180,000, said Simonsson, and with the planned new offerings, Saab is betting it can reach those numbers.

Related Articles


2008 Saab 9-3 Road Test by TCC Team (9/3/2007)
Re-channeling the inner Swede.


Saab Turbo X Bows in Frankfurt by Richard Yarrow (8/12/2007)
Flagship 9-3 is “black turbo” version.


Luxury Cars Flunk Bumper Test by Bengt Halvorson (8/5/2007)
Pricey damage at low speed across the board.


2008 Saab 9-3 SportCombi Preview by Marty Padgett (6/14/2007)
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