When Saab felt a need to expand its product line, it looked to General Motors’ global alliance office for help. GM was interested in leveraging relationships among its partners, and Saab’s desire to add a premium sport compact appeared to mesh nicely with available additional capacity for Subaru’s compact Impreza and turbocharged WRX component set. GM owns Saab and a 20 percent stake in Subaru parent company FHI (Fuji Heavy Industries).
“We saw this emerging segment already occupied by Acura RSX and Volvo S40,” says Saab Brand Manager, Future Vehicles, Chip Wilkerson, “plus the coming Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class. We felt the need to be there quickly. Looking across the GM corporate landscape for where we could fill this gap, FHI was a natural partner.”
The proposal was approved by GM’s Global Strategy Board, which includes CEO Rick Wagoner, Product Development Chairman Bob Lutz and North American President Gary Cowger as well as top GM Europe and Saab management. “Our role at GM is to help enable Saab to grow its product range,” Lutz said. “When Saab requested to work with FHI, we were very supportive as the Saab and Subaru working relationship is a very natural one.”
Both companies have backgrounds in aircraft manufacturing and success in European-style rally competition as well as reputations for technical innovation and unconventional automotive thinking. Both also share extensive experience with turbocharged gasoline engines, for which Saab is GM’s global center of expertise. As a result of the deal, Saab broadens its line with a pair of premium all-wheel-drive 5-door 9-2Xs (standard Linear and turbocharged Aero) to appeal to new, younger customers and grow in North America while gaining knowledge and experience with FHI’s wellrespected awd technology. FHI, currently working to move the Subaru brand upscale, gains global visibility and credibility plus insight into Saab’s design and marketing methods while maximizing its architecture and manufacturing capacity utilization.
|Lead Designer Ola Granlund made sure the interior looked and felt like a Saab.|
Wilkerson was part of the vehicle team that traveled to Japan roughly once a month for a week or more at a time to work with their FHI counterparts. Led by Vehicle Executive Director Kjell-Ake Eriksson, its primary responsibilities were the areas that would successfully “Saabify” the 9-2X to give it strong Saab character and separate it from its Subaru siblings: exterior and interior design, chassis development (ride/handling) and quality. Other members included Platform Manager Peter Dorrich, Chassis Integration Engineer Per Jansson, Advanced Design Chief Anthony Lo, Lead Designer Ola Granlund and Chief of Quality Bengt Persson. “Peter, Per, Bengt and Ola spent several months living over there,” Wilkerson adds. “In fact, when we did the [March, 2004] contract sign off — reviewed the vehicle and said, okay, it’s ready to go into production — Peter did his presentation in Japanese. So we really got to know the people over there. It’s a good bunch.”
Given the existing platform and structure, Jansson’s responsibility was to make it ride and handle like a Saab, while Granlund’s was to make it look like one. “He was working with their designers to make sure it had a good strong Saab face and both interior and exterior came across as a Saab,” Wilkerson explains. “Peter was working with FHI engineers to make sure that our requirements were built into it. Bengt was making sure that the quality targets were met. I was working with the specification, the pricing and the business case, finding out how we could make this thing fly, while Kjell-Ake was overseeing the project.” Were Saab’s quality standards different from FHI’s? “No, but there are a lot of new components, so we needed to ensure that it met our level of quality. We put in more sound insulation, for example, and did some things to make sure it felt and sounded like a Saab.”
Wilkerson adds that the relationship has been outstanding. “Given the language and cultural barriers,” he says, “I was expecting it to be more difficult. But there was a very strong understanding between our engineers and theirs in the way they approach vehicle development and what the end goal was. I think it’s gone very well. Just the fact that we’ve been able to get this vehicle out as quickly as we have [two years] has been great.” The base Linear model’s 2.5L flat four (“boxer”) engine delivers 165 hp through its standard 5-speed manual transaxle. Besides full-time awd, its standard features include keyless entry and security, air conditioning, power windows/locks, cruise, dual power mirrors, AM/FM/CD, active front head restraints, cargo area lighting and cover, rear wiper and roof spoiler, 16” alloy wheels and no-charge scheduled maintenance.
The uplevel Aero boasts a 227-hp turbocharged 2.0L four plus fog lamps, automatic climate control, leather-covered steering wheel and shifter, aluminum sport pedals, aluminumrimmed dials, upgraded audio with 6-CD indash changer 16” twin-spoke alloy wheels, sport seats, suspension and exhaust.
Why did Saab feel a need for such a vehicle? For starters, it enables the brand to quickly enter the emerging U.S. premium compact segment (sub-$25K) with a competitive entry positioned below the 9-3, which is expected to grow to 125,000-150,000 units by 2006. It arrived in June, ahead of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
“The 9-2X is a milestone in expanding our model range and our customer base,” said Saab Automobile President Peter Augustsson, “especially in the very important North American market. We see a rapidly emerging segment for a premium small car below the 9-3 Sport Sedan. And being one of the first entries, we intend to shape that segment.” “It will help us continue our strong momentum,” added Saab Cars USA President Debra Kelly-Ennis.”
Saab is targeting younger (than its current) buyers — 75 percent college grad, median age 28, income $75K — stepping up from mainstream brands. Unlike traditional Saab owners, the majority are expected to be single apartment dwellers in urban environments. Since they will own only one vehicle, it will have to be versatile enough to combine image, fun and utility. The 9-2X is unlikely to be offered outside North America, at least for now. Swedish-built Saabs are shipped to the U.S. by sea, so the process and ports are already in place to accept Japan-built Saabs. By contrast, European-market Saabs are shipped by rail and truck, so developing an infrastructure to import Japanbuilt vehicles by sea would be expensive.
We asked whether the next-generation 9- 2X might logically be co-developed with FHI’s next-gen Impreza/WRX or derived from some other GM global platform. That decision is still a ways off; but whatever it might be, it will have to have strong Saab character, Wilkerson said. “As we dive into this world of alliances, we have to make sure that a Saab remains a Saab.”
And what of the criticism from some Saabophiles that the brand’s image is being diluted by this “Saabaru” 9-2X and the soonto- come Chevy TrailBlazer-based 9-7X SUV.
“We’ve got to be pragmatic,” he responds. “Our business isn’t long-term viable if we don’t grow, but we can’t grow at the expense of what our brand stands for. That’s why it’s so important that we find partners and build real Saabs off of [other suitable platforms]. At the end of the day, I’d much rather be explaining an FHI-based 9-2X than why Saab went out of business.”
2005 Saab 9-2X
|What is it:||Premium compact sport 5-Door|
|Who’s it for:||Youthful buyers desiring Saab image and driving fun with 5-door ultility|
|Where’s it built:||Ota Gunma, Japan|
|Parent Company:||General Motors|
|Competitors:||Acura RSX, Volvo S40, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, Mercedes-Benz A-Class|
|Engine:||2.5L SOHC alum. flat four; 2.0L DOHC intercooled turbocharged alum. flat four|
|Horsepower:||165 at 5,500 rpm; 227 at 6,000 rpm|
|Torque:||166 lb.ft. at 4,000 rpm; 217 lb.ft. at 4,000 rpm|
|Transmission:||5-speed manual; optional four-speed automatic|
|Layout:||Front-engine, full-time all-wheel drive|
|Wheelbase:||99.4 in. (2525 mm)|
|Curb Weight:||3,070 lb. Linear 5M; 3,179 lb. Aero 5M|
|EPA Economy:||22/29 mpg Linear 5M, 23/29 4A; 20/26 5M, 19/25 4A|
|Base Price:||$22,990 Linear; $26,950 Aero|
|What we think:||Looks good, goes well, handles great; a real Saab from a fun Subaru.|