Anatomy of a Murder: How Saab Was Sent to an Early Grave
An examination of the quirky Swedish automaker's demise.
"Negligent homicide." Pluck the term from the criminal code, and it can be frequently applied to shortsighted corporations who manage to grind once-proud brands to dust by focusing more on near-term profits than long-term investment. Indeed, automotive history is littered with such examples, but perhaps the most egregious is the case of General Motors and Saab. At one time a proudly independent maker of quirky Swedish cars, Saab itself made a series of poorly considered financial decisions that combined with market realities to pull it into the General's orbit in 1989. By the end of the 1990s, it had become a fully captive subsidiary of GM, its future entirely dependent on Detroit-based bean counters, and by the 2010s, it was all but completely gone. Here are the product milestones that put the final nails in 60 years of Saab history.
The 9-3 Rots on The Vine
GM's initial 50 percent investment in 1989 saw the business behemoth make a crucial first step toward Saab's demise when it made it a Soviet-style client state. Rather than allow Saab to develop an in-house replacement for its ancient—but still popular—900 coupe/sedan/convertible, the Swedish firm's engineering team was required to port over as much of the brand's design language as possible to the GM2900 platform.
Although the new Saab 900 debuted in 1994 (and was renamed the 9-3 four years later), the GM2900 bones were already themselves aging, having served under various underwhelming Opels since 1988. This put Saab in the awkward position of trying to sell a technological classic alongside significantly more modern offerings from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and other leading luxury brands that ruled the market that General Motors was determined to push Saab into.
It is true that Saab was in such financial straits at the time of the GM takeover that it couldn't muster the resources for a ground-up redesign of its strongest seller, and this helps explain the rushed timeline and corporate compromise (as well as also forcing the mid-size 9-5 onto a modified 2900 platform). This doesn't excuse, however, the decision to launch the next version of the 9-3 on the GM Epsilon platform in 2002—better known for serving under such distinctly pedestrian fare as the Chevrolet Malibu and the Pontiac G6—and then letting it twist in the wind until Saab's death in 2010.
Not only did General Motors, which had purchased the rest of Saab in 2000, expect the Euro-Bu to do battle with the excellent E46 BMW 3 Series, but it also refused to even least feign an interest in the model's future by making almost no updates to the vehicle, save the addition of AWD in 2008. Needless to say, this did an excellent job of alienating a once-loyal group of owners. Incredibly, the 9-3 would soldier on like this for nearly a decade.
Badge-Engineering to the Extreme
With almost all of the Scandinavian character ironed out of the 9-3, GM's next move was to expand the bland by servicing the idea that the boutique marque needed a full-service lineup. How better to bury Saab's identity than by lightly reskinning an array of other manufacturers' models and trying to pass them off as a renaissance?
In 2005 the 9-3 was joined by the Saab 9-2X, a blatant copy of the contemporary Subaru Impreza hatchback that featured nipped-and-tucked front and rear fascias backed by the most minimal of cabin redressing. This bizarre corporate synergy (made possible by GM's fleeting involvement with the Japanese automaker) would even see the 9-2X Aero hoodwink a handful buyers into purchasing a significantly more expensive version of the Impreza WRX.
The 9-2X was merely the first of multiple stab wounds aimed directly at the Trollhättan-based company's heart from overseas. The 2005 model year would also bring the 9-7X, which despite its cleaner styling was fully recognizable as a Chevrolet TrailBlazer behind its grinning Saab visage. The price tag for the 9-7X was enormous—surpassed only by the Cadillac Escalade in the GM catalog—and not even an Aero version sporting a 6.0-liter LS V-8 could atone for its sins or win back disheartened Saab loyalists.
Too Little, Too Late
Yet by the time of its own impending bankruptcy, GM had become aware of just how much damage it had done to Saab, and was actively seeking a way out of the brand's quagmire of total anonymity and near-irrelevance on the premium scene. The evidence? The final-generation Saab 9-5.
Although still using Epsilon II mechanicals and possessed of some demerits, the modernized 9-5 was perhaps the first model from Saab under the General's watch that could legitimately make a claim to command the attention of luxury-car fans. Eye-catching in either sedan or wagon form, and offering the option of a throaty turbocharged V-6 paired with an advanced all-wheel-drive system, the 9-5 had unmistakable mojo and it combined with the forward-looking and handsome 9-4X luxury crossover that followed to point a way forward for the company.
Until, of course, its unveiling toward the end of 2009 was unceremoniously eclipsed by GM's 2010 announcement that Saab would be sold to Spyker, a Dutch supercar builder that pledged to keep building the vehicle, somehow, while walking the tight-rope between its need for access to American parts suppliers and engineering expertise and the predatory IP habits of its Chinese financiers. It was a mix that would prove fatal to the 9-5's continued existence, with very few examples ever making it onto American roads, essentially killing Saab's brightest hope while still in the crib.
Life After Death, Sort of
Escaping from GM's orbit neither guaranteed Saab's future survival nor afforded it the dignity of a proper burial. After Spyker's brief stewardship, which ended in bankruptcy at the end of 2011, the company's assets were purchased by National Electric Vehicle Sweden. Despite the name, NEVS was actually a front for a group of Chinese investors intent on capitalizing on the long-in-the-tooth 9-3 by installing an electric drivetrain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, not much has gone according to plan. NEVS was repeatedly rebuffed by GM (which continued to resist any technology-sharing) as well as Scania AB, the legal guardians of Saab's griffin logo, with the end result being wordmarked Saab EVs joining a handful of gas-powered examples in the Swedish market shortly before yet another bankruptcy in 2014 caused Scania to revoke the rights to the Saab name altogether.
The saga continues. NEVS recently received a fairly large infusion of cash from Evergrande Group, a name associated most recently with Faraday Future, and the company plans to hawk its battery-powered 9-3-esque sedans exclusively in China. A series of false starts have largely defined the NEVS effort, and the decision to cling to the almost 20-year-old 9-3 would seem to be counterproductive to success in the modern EV market.
One day, perhaps, Saab will get its epitaph. But not until all of the marrow has been sucked from every last bone.