Meet Victor Muller, 50, the new owner of Saab. The founder of Spyker Cars is tall, fit, fashion-conscious, outspoken, and, quite obviously, rather rich.
"In 2008, our ex-Jordan F1 team hit rock bottom and I quit top-league racing. In 2009, I tried to acquire Brawn GP and failed. But then the opportunity arose to purchase Saab. When the proposed deal with Koenigsegg fell through, I stepped in," he says.
Initially, General Motors was hesitant on the deal because Muller was sponsored by Vladimir Antonov, a somewhat mysterious 35 year-old Russian magnate and Spyker owner. But when Muller founded -- with Antonov's money -- an interim holding company, all was suddenly fine for GM to sell off the company for a paltry $75 million. To put that sum in perspective, consider that Saab's brand new wind tunnel alone is worth three times as much. Also included in the package are a refurbished factory, a working research and development department, the paid brand-new 9-5 (sedan and combi-coupe), access to the GM parts bin until 2024 and a 400 million Euro loan guaranteed by the Swedish government. Not bad for a bloke who lost money on every one of the 250 Spyker sports cars built so far.
Muller hosts the press conference wearing an off-white linen suit and a striped designer shirt with the top four buttons undone. His sole topic is "the perfect storm" which drove Saab into liquidation by January 8, 2010. Less than two months later, Vic had his deal. Eight minutes after he had proposed to Bob Lutz to commence formal take-over talks, the car czar from motown mailed back: "Wonderful that you are interested." Now that fresh money has begun to flow, the Muller-Antonov show is keeping the 3300 workers busy to increase the inventory from 5000 to 15,000 vehicles. There is no doubt about it: after a long dark depressing winter, the spirits are flying high again in Trollhättan.
"Not a single member of the top management team has defected during the crisis," claims CEO Jan Ake Jonson, adding: "And we have only lost a handful of dealers. The company is back in gear with a new business plan, the old 9-5 has been sold to Bejing Automotive, cooperation talks are under way for the proposed new small car, and we are about to create 200 fresh jobs. Believe me: the 9-5 is only the beginning. Saab has the potential to grow beyond GM's wildest dreams..."
Next 9-3 to remain on current platform
For the most part, the new Saab will be sticking to the short-term game plan laid out at GM. That includes the about-to-go-on-sale 9-5 and the rather stylish CombiCoupe derived from it, as well as next year's 9-4X -- basically a Mexican-built Cadillac SRX derivative powered by Saab's 2.8-liter turbo V-6 (which also powers the uplevel SRX).
Already by the 2012 9-3, though, the trolls are looking to strike out on their own. Rather than move to the next generation, "Epsilon II" platform that underpins the Buick LaCrosse and Regal, the new 9-3, known internally as project Phoenix, will stick with its current, mostly Saab-developed underpinnings. Why? Because that's the fastest, cheapest and most efficient way to reposition the bread-and-butter product.
"It's not a carryover vehicle," emphasizes Victor Muller. "It does look like a new car, and there will be substantial engineering upgrades in all departments." In addition to the five-door hatch, the wagon and the cabriolet, Saab is said to be looking at a sleek, pillarless 9-3 coupe.
Saab 92 and the search for a new partner
Saab hopes its new GM-based products and a restocked dealer network will quickly recover from the doldrums of 2009, when the brand's seemingly imminent death and a production halt sent its global sales spiraling down by some 60 percent. But to get the Trollhattan plant running at full capacity and even add to its workforce, as management expects, Saab needs a fourth product. That critical offering, codenamed 92 after its iconic predecessor from the 1960s, could push Saab's total output to 150,000 or even 175,000 units, Muller claims. But surely Saab does not have the money to develop a brand-new low-volume offering?
"Exactly right," quips the boss. "That's why sharing technology is the way forward for us. The plan is to team up with a European player and to buy know-how as well as componentry."
Rumor has it that Saab may collaborate with BMW-Mini, but so far there is no official confirmation. According to the sketches Muller has loaded onto his iPhone, there will only be one body style, a low-drag torpedo shaped hatchback that looks very modern while incorporating some classic aircraft-style overtones. Predictably, turbocharged engines feature prominently in the future project program. Expect low- and high-pressure turbos, fours and sixes, gas and diesel versions, cylinder deactivation and freewheeling (coasting), plus additional biopower editions. In terms of hybrids, Saab seems to prefer an electric plug-in range extender that can briefly boost the output and silently run on its own for about five miles.