So these two Swedes, Volvo and Saab, walk into a bar. Long story short: Plenty of crazy stuff happens before they depart, worse for wear and unable to walk out under their own steam. But, praise Thor and the other Norse gods, they’re still with us now.
Originally an aircraft manufacturer, Saab got into the car business in 1946. An early adopter of front-wheel drive and turbocharging, it has always been known for its uniquely freewheeling ways. For example, in vehicles equipped with its earliest two-stroke engines, the driveshafts were disengaged at speed to save fuel and, more important, to spare the engines from gre-nading. Volvo, for its part, was grounded in more stolid engineering from the time it started building cars back in 1927 (Volvos were rear-wheel drive until the early 1990s, for instance).
By the time they bellied up to the American market during the foreign-car explosion of the 1950s, both Saab and Volvo were focused on safety and efficiency — the purest form of idiosyncrasy for midcentury America. Despite their cars’ homely virtues, each automaker, in its own way, traded on an offbeat sportiness borne of Sweden’s rally mind-set rather than America’s drag-strip mentality. By the 1960s, both had established firm toeholds with this country’s left-of-center enthusiasts, making the United States their biggest export market.
That’s where the Kitman family came in. My parents scored a Volvo 122S (identical to the one I own now) in 1966, and we held on to it until the late 1970s, when I wrecked it. A Saab 99LE, which seemed to better embody the iconoclast spirit than did early-’70s Volvo 140s, was up next, followed by a 99EMS, a 900, and, finally, a 9000.
But as time went on, Saab and Volvo had come in so far from the cold, we Kitmans were less interested. While their cars grew in size and speed and their market penetration expanded, comparatively modest sales volumes limited resources and product development. Ultimately, their resolve — and their reserves — wavered. By the late 1980s, growing consolidation in the auto industry saw both plucky Swedes fearing for their corporate lives, a panic that eventually sent them running into the arms of strong American suitors. Or so the Yanks seemed then.
General Motors swallowed Saab in 1990 amid great hoopla and then cut it off at the knees. It sucked the life out of the boutique operation, which perpetually lost money, before eventually sucking out its brains entirely by laying off engineers wholesale.
It made its Swedish charge share platforms with its American and German divisions, along with its short-lived partners at Subaru. In the most heinous betrayal of brand values known to modern man, GM rebadged the wildly un-Saab-like Chevrolet Trailblazer and sold it as the Saab 9-7x. And then, around the time it declared its own bankruptcy and its newfound reliance on the U.S. taxpayer, GM pulled the plug entirely. With the near-implosion of the world financial system, all attempts to sell Saab failed until the twenty-third hour, when a single hand went up. Tiny Dutch supercar maker Spyker was willing, with significant assistance from the Swedish government, to carry Saab from the bar. Saab’s model lineup for the next few years was guaranteed from GM’s development pipeline, and against all odds, the first of these, the new 9-5, is with us now.
Volvo had a less bumpy ride when it was bought by Ford — inarguably, a more sensitive parent — for $6.45 billion, but wrenching change was also inevitable. The American giant’s investment helped bankroll a new generation of modern Volvos, and while the Swedish company managed to lose bags of money on paper, it enabled Ford to make some of its own best current models (the Taurus and the Flex, for instance, both have large amounts of Volvo S80 DNA). But as Ford shed extraneous brands during its Mulally makeover, Volvo was inevitably put on the block. China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd., was the winning bidder. With Volvo’s excellent engineering and design capability still intact — the S60 we’re sampling now is one of the Ford gifts that will keep on giving — its challenges are perhaps less daunting than smaller Saab’s. But how will its new Chinese overlords manage its portfolio and considerable talent?
It’s been a long, sometimes ugly night. But Saab and Volvo can still be counted among the living. We’ll drink to that. Skål!
If you’ve taken ten years to introduce the second generation of your volume entry-luxury sedan, and if you’re a brand that’s synonymous with safety, as Volvo obviously is, you had better show up at the auto-show debut with a pretty cool piece of safety equipment. Volvo obliged last March at the Geneva salon when it unveiled its all-new S60. An optional new system can detect pedestrians in front of or near the car, warn the driver if one of them walks out into the car’s path, and then automatically activate the S60’s full braking power if the driver fails to respond in time.
So, the new S60 can stop, but can it go? Well, besides the predictable panoply of safety systems, the S60 comes with something that was noticeably in short supply in its predecessor: sporty driving dynamics. It doesn’t hurt that the launch engine in the U.S. market is an even more powerful version of the turbocharged, 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder that’s in the XC60 crossover; in the S60, it produces 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque and comes standard with all-wheel drive. Smooth, progressive, seamless power and torque are on tap, and the six-speed automatic works well, although it’s sometimes just a tad slow to respond to manual-mode upshifts. There are no shift paddles. Mileage figures haven’t been finalized, but Volvo expects to achieve a 17/26 mpg city/highway fuel economy rating.
As before, Volvo hedges its bets when it comes to the S60’s suspension, offering no fewer than three setups. A cushy Touring suspension is a no-cost option, but Volvo Cars of North America wisely specified as standard the Dynamic calibration, which has stiffer springs and bushings and allows more wheel travel. The third available setup is the electronically controlled FOUR-C Active system, a $750 option that allows the driver to choose between Comfort, Sport, and Advanced settings. As before, it seems like a dubious choice. Our test S60 was equipped with the Dynamic suspension and 235/40WR-18 Continental ContiSportContact 3 summer tires, and the car had a supple ride yet excellent grip.
Volvo uses a torque-vectoring system at the S60’s rear axle to send more torque to the outside wheel in corners. Is this the same technology that BMW and Acura use? Not quite, explains Roger Wallgren, team leader for large-car vehicle dynamics. “BMW and Acura are [sending more torque to] the outer wheel through a mechanical device,” explains the former Saab engineer, “whereas ours is a brake system [via the stability control electronics].” He claims that it is a different way of achieving the same thing. That may be wishful thinking, but the S60 confidently carved through corners on a freshly paved former rally road in the mountains above Lisbon. In fact, the S60 moves with a grace and sense of purpose that has eluded Volvos for years even though, at 3901 pounds, it’s not exactly a lightweight.
Early next year, a less expensive, front-wheel-drive S60 will debut, presumably powered by the 200-hp, direct-injected 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that Volvo is offering in the S60 in Europe and mated to a dual-clutch automatic transmission. For now, the all-wheel-drive S60 T6 is a relative bargain at $38,550, although the pedestrian-protection system is part of a $2100 package. Still, eighteen-inch wheels, leather sport seats, and a five-year/60,000-mile warranty that includes all scheduled maintenance are all standard. The S60 interior hits all the right notes, too, especially if it’s outfitted with one of two available two-tone color schemes: black and beige or black and beechwood brown, a hue lifted from the Volvo vaults that is sure to evoke memories in former owners of the 1960s 1800S and the 1970s 164.
Beechwood brown is about the only way that the S60 looks backward. Sure, this car pays homage to the core Volvo brand value of safety, and it oozes understated Swedish style, per recent Volvo tradition. But the 2011 S60 is also, as its developers like to point out, the sportiest Volvo ever made. And that makes it not only a nice dowry for Volvo to bring to its new Chinese owners but also a welcome addition to the overcrowded field of entry-luxury sedans.
On sale: Now
Base Price: $38,550
Engine: 3.0L turbocharged I-6, 300hp, 325 lb-ft
The new 9-5 is Saab’s miracle baby. Labor and delivery dragged on for years, the parent company almost died, and for a while it looked as if the 9-5 would be stillborn. At the car’s public debut last fall, Saab had just been taken through a Chapter 11 reorganization, and Saab’s parent, General Motors, had itself declared bankruptcy and was actively seeking to sell off the Swedish brand. The 9-5 wasn’t born under a cloud, it was born during a hurricane.
But the skies in Saab’s hometown of Trollhättan, Sweden, were almost preternaturally blue and the sunshine was intense when we finally were able to drive the new 9-5 in June. Saab, which had begun the process of liquidation in the dark days of January (see sidebar), had been saved, purchased by the tiny Dutch exotic carmaker Spyker. Production had restarted, and Saab’s new flagship sedan was on the road.
Where the old 9-5 was uncomfortably close to the 9-3 in size, price, and purpose, the new one creates some separation between the two. It’s considerably larger-by 6.8 inches in length, 2.8 inches in width, and 5.3 inches in wheelbase. It’s a big sedan, with a roomy back seat and a sizable trunk. It’s also more expensive: $49,990 for the V-6-powered, all-wheel-drive Aero, which is the only version being imported for the new 9-5’s abbreviated 2010 model year. For the 2011 model year, which starts this fall, the 2.0T joins the Aero and brings the entry price down to less than $40,000. But even so, this new 9-5 is notably more expensive than the model it replaces.
Because it was developed during the GM era, the new 9-5 uses common GM components and is built on the Epsilon architecture, making it kin to the Opel Insignia and the Buick LaCrosse, among others. We all know how badly General Motors mismanaged and neglected its Swedish ward, but what’s ironic is that GM was forced to sell it off just when the first successfully GM/Saab joint-engineered offering was complete.
The new 9-5 really does have a distinct identity, starting with the exterior styling. No one will mistake this car for a Buick or an Opel. Instead, we see the influence of the Aero X show car from 2006, with a hint of the old 900 hatchbacks in the long, sweeping C-pillar. Inside, too, the 9-5 is convincingly Saab. The cockpitlike dash is very familiar and features characteristic details like the egg-crate air vents and a “night panel” button (which shuts down all the instrument-panel lights and gauges save the speedometer). The available head-up display; the multifunction, circular screen at the center of the speedometer; and the column stalks are all GM items, but they work fine here. The touch points are soft, but the dark metallic trim does little to enliven the interior. The Aero comes with sport seats that are very firm, while the 2.0T has softer buckets. Rear-seat riders sit high up on a tall seat cushion, and a DVD entertainment system with dual screens is available.
Both 9-5 engines are turbocharged, and both see duty in other General Motors applications. The Aero’s 2.8-liter V-6, with 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, is paired exclusively with a six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive-the latter keeps torque steer from being an issue. The V-6 is quiet and responsive. Saab quotes a 0-to-62-mph time of 6.9 seconds and estimates fuel economy at 17/27 mpg city/highway.
The 2.0T comes with either the automatic or a six-speed manual and is front-wheel drive only. This 2.0-liter turbo four is not the same one used in the 9-3; this version uses a twin-scroll turbo and direct injection. (Look for this engine to replace the current 2.0-liter in the 9-3 in mid-2011.) Compared with the 9-3’s version, this turbo four has better initial response and more seamless integration of boost. It also has a pronounced turbo whistle. With 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, this engine needs 7.9 seconds to get the 9-5 to 62 mph, according to Saab, although it felt plenty lively on our drive. (It is encumbered with 900 fewer pounds than the all-wheel-drive V-6 Aero, which weighs a rather portly 4365 pounds.) In fact, we came away preferring the 2.0T, although that might have been due in part to the manual transmission in our test car. Free of the rubbery shift action that has plagued previous Saab manuals, the gearbox is a great companion to the 2.0-liter, with easy clutch take-up and progressive throttle tip-in, the only downside being occasional reluctance engaging the 1-2 gate.
With the 9-5, Saab joins the march to driver-adjustable chassis. Here called DriveSense, the system is standard on the Aero but not offered on the 2.0T. It has three settings: comfort, intelligent (which adapts to your driving style), and sport. The system controls damper firmness, steering effort, throttle mapping, automatic-transmission shift points, and all-wheel-drive torque allocation. The sport mode nicely firms up the steering efforts; the steering is otherwise very pleasant at straight-ahead, but the buildup of effort as you move off-center is artificial. The effect of the sport mode on the dampers is less pronounced. Even in the stiffer mode, the 9-5 doesn’t display the ultratight body control that often characterizes German cars.
The Saab is more of a relaxed cruiser. On a short handling track, we had the opportunity to push it harder, and we found that although the suspension allows small body motions, it effectively resists larger ones, making the 9-5 ultimately more responsive than you might expect. The Aero’s all-wheel-drive system also helps in this environment; this is Saab’s so-called Cross Wheel Drive system, which uses a Haldex clutch to apportion torque front-to-rear and also features a torque-vectoring rear differential to mitigate understeer.
The 9-5 is an example of what GM did right with the Swedish brand. The car is a convincing Saab and, despite its genesis, makes a fitting new entry for the re-emergent brand. It won’t be an easy road, but you can’t help but get the sense that the sun is shining on Saab once again.
On sale: now (aero)
Base price: $49.990
Engine: 2.8-liter turbocharged V-6, 300hp, 295 lb-ft
Clueless Objects Ahead
The Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake system is the latest evolution of Volvo’s existing Collision Warning with Auto Brake technology, which itself is related to the City Safety package. All of which means that the S60 does its darnedest to avoid hitting things and people regardless of how distracted the driver may be.
Pedestrian Detection consists of a newly developed radar unit integrated into the S60’s grille, a camera mounted in front of the inside rearview mirror, and a central control unit. The radar detects any object in front of the car and measures the distance to it while the camera determines what type of object it is. The system can avoid a collision with a pedestrian at speeds up to 22 mph if the driver does not react in time. At higher speeds, the focus is on reducing the car’s speed as much as possible prior to impact in order to lessen its severity. The radar’s field of view is about 60 degrees, but the camera’s field of view is only about 45 degrees, “so the limiting factor is the camera,” explains Tomas Andersson, senior manager for Volvo’s active safety electronics. Pedestrian Detection operates at up to 80 kph (50 mph) but does not work at night or in other low-light conditions.
In a test that Volvo set up for us in Portugal, we drove a 2011 S60 at about 15 to 20 mph toward a stationary dummy to mimic low-speed driving in a crowded urban area. As we got closer to the dummy, the S60 sounded an urgent tone and warning lights in the instrument cluster flashed at us. Just as it seemed that the dummy’s days were over, the car took the reins from us and slammed on the brakes. The S60 stopped in its tracks, and the dummy remained upright and unharmed.
Beyond and Back; Saab’s Near-Death Experience
During the nearly two decades that General Motors controlled Saab, it seemed not to know quite what to do with the brand. But even as Saab bled red ink, GM executives always denied any plans to off-load it. As late as the summer of 2008, GM CEO Rick “better-days-are-just-around-the-corner” Wagoner reiterated GM’s commitment to Saab. But that fall brought the Wall Street crisis, and GM’s financial day of reckoning suddenly was not someday but right now. GM could no longer afford to nurse its Swedish patient back to health; Saab would have to find its own road.
Wagoner and friends find themselves hat-in-hand begging for cash in Washington. When the feds demand GM show them a viability plan, the “strategic review” (read: sale) of Saab is part of it.
Saab goes through the Swedish equivalent of a Chapter 11 reorganization-and it turns out that General Motors is the largest creditor. The launches of the new 9-5 and the 9-4X are pushed back indefinitely. Work on the 9-3 replacement and the 9-1 small car are suspended.
As General Motors skids toward bankruptcy, it continues to seek a buyer for Saab (and Hummer and Saturn), but with all the major carmakers hunkered down in survival mode, there are few interested parties.
General Motors enters bankruptcy. Koenigsegg, Swedish maker of ultraexclusive sports cars, emerges as a potential buyer for Saab.
On November 24, the Koenigsegg deal collapses, and Spyker’s Victor Muller begins to assemble a team to work on a possible Saab acquisition.
At the same December 1 board meeting where GM fires eight-month CEO Fritz Henderson, it agrees to go forward in negotiations with Spyker. But talks end in an impasse less than three weeks later.
GM begins the liquidation of Saab, and Saab’s board is disbanded. New GM CEO Ed Whitacre is quoted as saying: “It’s real easy. Just show up with the money and you can have it, and nobody’s showing up with the money. I think we’ve done everything humanly possible.” Spyker prepares a new offer, and Bernie Ecclestone is also said to be an interested buyer.
Spyker’s offer for Saab is accepted, and Spyker Cars NV officially becomes the new owner on February 23. The deal includes a €400 million loan from the European Investment Bank, guaranteed by the Swedish government.
After a seven-week hiatus, Saab production resumes on March 22.
Spyker CEO and Saab chairman Victor Muller and Jan Åke Jonsson, Saab president and CEO, celebrate Saab’s resurrection by driving the Mille Miglia in Saab 93s.
The Plan Going Foward
Saab has begun selling the all-wheel-drive 9-3X, which was announced last year but never delivered. GMAC is back on board to finance customers. The new 9-5 went on sale this summer in limited quantities (500 units) as an Aero only. The 9-5 2.0T arrives this fall. In the spring of 2011, we’ll get the 9-4X, which is based on the Cadillac SRX and is being built for Saab by GM in Mexico (and is the only Saab not built in Trollhättan). The 9-5 SportCombi (wagon) is due in late spring, and a new 9-3 (based on a shortened GM Epsilon platform) is promised for 2012. At that point, Saab’s oldest car will be the 9-5 sedan, a level of product freshness Saab has never had before.
And after that? Magnus Hansson, manager of Saab global product, says, “There is no doubt about it-we have to do something smaller than the 9-3.” Muller concurs: “We all agree that the missing link is the 9-2-the small Saab, the premium Saab, the teardrop-shaped Saab-which is not retro.”
But can the company stay viable? Saab expects to sell 100,000 cars in 2011 (25,000 in the U.S.) and claims its break-even point is 85,000 units. “There are 1.8 million Saab owners,” says Muller, “and if one in eight buy a new Saab, we are profitable.”
Design Analysis – Saab 9-5 and Volvo S60
Where Volvo’s S60 looks small, agile, and aerodynamic, Saab’s 9-5 looks big, heavy, and rather blunt, as one might expect from General Motors. After all, GM simply restyled Opels (and Subarus and Chevrolets) into ill-fitting Saab suits. But the Saab’s drag coefficient is likely better than the more coupelike Volvo’s.
These latest models are curiously alike in concept and execution: front corners beveled off in plan view, windowsills rising to the rear, quite similar lower openings in the front fascias. Their door handles even look interchangeable, although they’re (probably) not. Both are handsome in generic, non-marque-specific ways, and both should do well in the marketplace, although not necessarily with their traditional buyers. – Robert Cumberford
1: Seen from the same angle, the Saab’s taillight triangle points up, the Volvo’s down.
2: Complete blackout of front and side glass surround on the Saab contrasts with chrome outline and simple pillar blackout on the S60.
3: A major difference is the almost-flat Volvo windshield against the very rounded in plan view Saab, much like old 99 through 900 models.
4: Both meet European pedestrian-strike safety standards, but with different solutions. The Saab is high and flatter on top, the Volvo lower with a bulging centerline profile.
5: The front corners of both cars are cut back for better aerodynamics, a tighter turning circle between walls, and to give some visual thrust to their short front ends.
6: Same side crease line for door stiffening, but the Saab’s is negative below, Volvo’s above.
7a: A subtle crease on the 9-5 runs from taillight to front wheelhouse bulge, washes out, and is barely picked up again at rear of headlamp.
7b: The Volvo’s crease is continuous, more pronounced, and has a sinuous curve that recalls the Audi A5.
8: Another very different treatment is the driving light in the air inlet on the 9-5 and on the side of the grille-shell molding on the Volvo.
9: The trapezoidal lower center opening on both cars is much the same. The Saab is more elaborately worked, with a crossbar, but there is a difference in size for outer air inlets