Goodbye SAAB

Our friend Joe Simpson over at The Movement Design Bureau wrote this up yesterday for their blog and I thought it was quite good.  I have asked for and received permission to repost it here.  Enjoy!


Saab tears 
We’re not going to act like it is a surprise, but we’re still shedding a tear or two this afternoon after confirmation from GM that it is to shut its Swedish sub-division SAAB. After years of new product starvation and the collapse of talks with Koenigsegg and now Spyker, the brand from Trollhattan – beloved of sensible professionals the land over – will shortly close its doors.

The death of SAAB saddens me in a way that – I’m sorry to say – the demise of MG Rover didn’t. I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but perhaps it’s a personal thing. My piano tutor throughout my formative years had a fabulous green 900 that I regularly used to ride in. I’ve known many architects who drove, and raved about, SAABs. Sarah’s dad used to have a 9000 as a company car, and her mum runs a current generation 9-3 convertible, which to me is much cooler than its competitors from BMW, Audi or Merc, even if by any objective measure it’s somehow ‘less good’.

How it’s come to this is well documented, and not worth raking over again – but what happened is a good example of why mergers and takeovers can be a bad thing. Prior to GM’s investment, SAAB made sub-cool, idiosyncratic cars, which while rarely regarded as class leaders, were at least different. The aforementioned 900 run by my piano teach was bought in 1990 – largely thanks to it having a vast boot, needed for transporting her husband’s paintings across Europe to their native Hungary for exhibitions. Back then – to the 9 year old me – a car whose ignition barrel was on the transmission tunnel, which wouldn’t let you turn the car off unless you locked it in reverse, and which had a turbo boost gauge, was the height of excitement. 

SAAB 900

A real SAAB – in Detroit. Oh the irony.

It’s testament to what SAABs were then that she still drives that very car to this day, and that as far as I know it’s still running as sweet as a nut. Its qualities – safety, solidity, spaciousness, ergonomic intelligence and an image that was resolutely different to BMW, Mercedes or Volvo, was what attracted so many of the professional classes to the brand. Nice, smart people – doctors, architects and teachers, drove SAABs. In my view, it’s to GM’s eternal shame that they couldn’t capitalise on this. They kept the looks, the funny ignition barrel and the good dashboard ergonomic, but started basing the cars on platforms that were far from in their first flushes of youth. The 90s 900 based on the 80s Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Vectra being the classic example. That was fine for a while; the people who bought SAABs weren’t bothered.

Yet the upper echelons of the car industry were changing, and GM starved SAAB of the ability to keep up. While GM were completely failing to get the appeal of SAAB to a predominantly European buyer, BMW and Mercedes were inventing and filling niches left right and centre, that were changing those buyer’s perspectives. What they did was create demand among those very classes who once-upon-a-time had driven SAABs, for small premium hatches (1 series, A-class), SUVs (X5, X3, ML) and small lifestyle wagons (3, 5, C, E, A4, A6). Worse still for SAAB, while GM was dithering, Audi hauled itself out of VW’s shadow, and turned itself into a premium brand that (until very recently) became what you bought if you wouldn’t be seen dead in a Beemer or Merc. All the nice, design-aware people were suddenly driving Audis.

By the time GM admitted defeat, the 9-5, once the mainstay of SAAB’s range, was 13 years old, and had acquired a pair of bizarre Dame-Edna Everage spectacles on its snout. Find another mainstream car in the industry that’s anywhere near that age and I’ll eat my hat. Its age alone sums up where GM went wrong. But there was so much more. The new 9-5 – reputedly signed off years ago, still isn’t here – and probably never will be (at least as a SAAB). It was still running around Millbrook proving ground on final validation tests when I was there in September. A great shame, because even though the new 9-5 was unlikely to ever be a 5 series-beater, it was an impressive enough car, which priced right, might have hit its target quite well. Combine that with the fact that Anthony Lo and team in Russelsheim had knocked out some fantastic-looking, authentically SAAB-feeling concepts over the past few years, and one starts to think that had GM only had big enough balls and deep enough pockets, the story might have been very different.

In the cold light of day, SAAB clearly no longer stacks up. Sales are too low, and it’s a European niche brand. The American’s never really got it – certainly not well enough to own it – and GM needs to save money. So shutting SAAB is the only thing it can reasonably do now.

But stop for a minute and consider these things. The topic du jour in the car world (actually, with Copenhagen, just make that the world – full stop) is green issues. SAAB, thanks to its Swedish roots and early implementation of things like catalytic converters, has long been thought of as a green, clean brand. So when everyone else is busy inventing new faux green ‘sub-brands’, GM is busy killing a fully authentic one. Smart.

Continuing on the green theme, if we look to current and future gasoline engine technologies, today’s talk is largely about turbo-charging. Ask anyone in the industry which company is synonymous with the word ‘turbo charging’, and I guarantee they’ll give you one answer: SAAB. SAAB practically invented the technology, it has for years used it on its cars, and I think I’m right in saying every car it currently sells is turbo-charged. So just when you want to talk turbos, and how you’ve years of knowledge and history building them, you go and kill the world’s most famous turbo-charged brand. Welcome to the world of GM.

Finally, design. In an era when people will pay – frankly – silly prices for an Arne Jacobson chair or table, and have more design ‘literacy’ than ever, Swedish design ought to be a major selling point. SAAB’s design foundations, and design language feels apt for our times. Retrained, sophisticated, clean, pure, and non-showy. There’s depth in SAAB’s design too. The seats in SAAB’s cars have long been regarded as some of the best in the industry, and to this day are still paragons of ergonomic comfort. Likewise the dashboard. Everything is ergonomically right, and falls to hand. And if you’ve ever been to a motorshow on press day, you’ll usually find us folks from Car Design News down the SAAB stand, bathing in the cool white lighting and Swedish chairs, partaking in the best lunches and cappuccinos at the show. Cars like the Aero-X concept show that there are people working for SAAB/Opel who understand what good, Swedish, SAAB design is about too, and how it could be used as a selling point. And I haven’t even touched on safety. Yet now it’s all academic. 

Saab 9XThe 9-X concept. Which people like me would have automatically bought ahead of the default Audi A3

In years to come, books will doubtless be written about bad management, which will use GM’s handling of SAAB as case studies in how things shouldn’t be done. Such thoughts make us sad, so we’d prefer to remember some happier things about SAAB. Stig Blomqvist flying through a rally stage in a SAAB 99 Turbo, the comedic torque-steering power of various Viggen models, the theatre of the Aero-X concept’s lifting cockpit canopy, and lazy summer afternoons, wind-in-the-hair in the back of a top-down 9-3 convertible. They might not have been perfect, but SAABs had this way of making you feel deeply secure, happy and content. In a world where so much is changing, and so much is uncertain, we still think there’s room for that kind of car. It’s just a pity that GM never saw it. So goodbye SAAB, you will be missed.

Autoline After Hours

Join John McElroy and Co. tonight for the last Live AAH of the year! This time around we invite the legendary spy photographer Jim Dunne and former Detroit Editor of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines. During his 45-year career, Jim has brought us many of our first glimpses at new products in the process of testing and development in the wild. Tonight we’ll get to take a sneak peek at some of Jim’s classic spy shots that he is prepping for a new book. Peter De Lorenzo, the Autoextremist, and David Welch from BusinessWeek join us too as we say farewell to 2009.


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Reviewed The 2010 Ford Mustang GT


In this review we are going to try something a bit different and have you play some selected music as you read through this.  You may see a bit of a bias towards music that comes from Detroit, so, we’d like you to play along at home by playing the clips as you read this.


 *John Lee Hooker – Boogie Chillun

When we finally got the opportunity to spend some time with the 2010 Mustang GT we were excited, if for nothing else to compare and contrast it to the Camaro SS we drove back in July.  While the new Camaro has been very well received, the body refreshing of the Mustang for 2010 was universally praised.  The huzzah’s was near universal, though we weren’t one of them.  


When the S197 came out for 2005 we WERE on board with that redesign as a great improvement, drawing on the heritage of the 1st generation Mustangs without being overtly retro.  It wasn’t one thing about the 2010 rebody that we didn’t like initially, rather, there seemed to be quite a bit of fuss over what didn’t seem like much more than a nose job and some minor restyling of the rear.  Like many other cars, the Mustang plays better in person, than in pictures.  The restyling has made the overall look of the car seem more aggressive.  There are body lines that taper both on the front and in the rear that keep the car from being as slab sided and give it some definition.  At the end of our test we didn’t have any of the reservations that we did previously about the styling, but we still questioned all the noise that was made about it when it debuted.


When it comes to cars like the Camaro and the Mustang, and the people that drive them, they tend to fall into two camps.  You are either a Camaro person, or you are a Mustang person.  Many of the things that we didn’t like as much about the Camaro, it feeling very wide, a bit heavy and such, are just the items that Camaro people look for.  While those same people find that the Mustang feels too narrow and lacks a heavy, substantial feel on the road.  This observation came from several different people, independent of each other, and it explains much.  


*Iggy – I want to be your dog


Now full disclosure here, I have owned two Mustangs in the past.  First was an 83 GT and the other was a 92 five liter LX notchback.  When we first got behind the wheel of the Mustang, the absolute first reaction was, “feels like home”, or to quote Chandler Bing, “it’s the thing that’s been missing from your hand”.  Even thought the last Mustang we drove was a pre-production 05 car, getting behind the wheel of the 2010 car felt much like getting in the 92.  The interior space felt much tighter on the inside than the Camaro, which we liked, there weren’t the massive blind spots in the rear three quarter view that there were in the Camaro, and two minutes into the initial drive, we felt that while the steering was over boosted, the car felt more nimble and much lighter on it’s feet.

The Mustang has evolved from being a bangers car which was only good in a straight line.  That’s not to say that it’s going to be dicing with say a Porsche Boxster or a Lotus Elise as the best handling car on the market, not by a long shot, that said, it’s better than you’d expect.  Much was said by the enthusiast press who’s focus is on Sports Cars about the Mustang continuing to have a straight axle rather than an Independent Rear Suspension, and the fact that memo’s have surfaced how the IRS system would have only added $100 to the cost of the car.  This is really a 1% problem.  Only 1% of the people who buy the car will notice, or even care about the fact that it lacks an independent rear.  Ford has spent some time refining the ride and handling of this car and unless you are a hard core auto crosser or out doing track days, it’s fine.  The enthusiast crowd who has historically been drawn to this car is the drag race community and they are more than happy that the IRS was not the choice as it’s durability in those conditions can be a bit dodgy.  Is it a serious GT car, no, but is it a serviceable GT car, yes.


There has also been some conversation about the lack of a six speed manual for the Mustang.  The only advantage a six speed may offer is a slightly higher overdrive gear in sixth, but at 75-80MPH the engine is turning 2200-2300 RPM’s .  The advantage in MPG would be minimal. We were a bit disappointed in the milage that we did get from the Mustang on the highway. A couple of different efforts where we set set the cruise at 75 and drove for some distance only netted 23 mpg, mixed driving was just shy of 20.

As an every day car it works well. the driver and passenger have plenty of room, the back seat has a surprising amount of space.  With the drivers or passengers seat set in what would be a normal position, there is room enough for a 5’11” person to sit.  That person may not want to ride back there for a couple hours, but for a normal length drive it’s fine.  The trunk has a good amount of room as well.  It swallowed, without a problem our bi-weekly run to Costco, Trader Joe’s and Meijer’s.

The body wasn’t the only thing to get a refresh for the 2010 model year, the interior also got a refresh.  The gages still have a 60’s retro look to them, but are easier to read. The quality of materials, along with their fit and finish also received a major upgrade.  Interiors are one of the areas I’m most critical on.  While the body styling may capture you and be the initial infatuation, it’s the interior that you have to live with.  I have said, and maintain, that if manufacturers spent an extra $100-$200 on the interior they could get $1000 worth of pricing.  The Mustang is no different.  When you get to a $30,000 price point there should be NO hard plastic surfaces, AT ALL!  That said if we are comparing the Camaro interior to the Mustang interior, the materials are much better in the Mustang. 

The Mustang comes with Ford’s SYNC system and it works as advertised, save one issue.  The SYNC system doesn’t particularly like the iPod Touch with the 3.0 operating system.  This is an issue we have experienced in multiple Ford vehicles, and after spending some time in various forums there is a software update that was in beta testing as we finish this and should be available after the first of the year.  The issue is the system is forever trying to index your iPod.  We had a 45 minute drive and it never did.  If it does ever complete it’s indexing, it doesn’t remember it and will have to start all over again the next time you start the car.  This is only a problem with the Touch though, as the iPod Classic worked just fine.


White Stripes – Fell In Love With A Girl

What matters most to people interested in Mustang’s and Pony Cars in general is the lump in the front.  When for the 2005 Ford upgraded the 4.6 SOHC motor to a three valve head, there was a huge sigh of relief from the performance community.  

The two valve, two cam motor while serviceable, compared to the Five Liter pushrod motor it replaced, it was hated and even vilified.  Not because it wasn’t a pushrod motor, more that it wasn’t really any better for horsepower and the torque was missing all together.  Other than the four valve four cam Cobra motor, in naturally aspirated form, it was only in 2005 that the torque levels approached what they were in 1995, the last year for the the 5.0 motor in the Mustang.  In those ten years though the car packed on some three to four hundred pounds and it can be felt.

While the thee valve motor has good torque, it doesn’t quite have that plant your lower back into the seat push that the five liter cars of days past did.  Here the Camaro is worlds better then the Mustang, though it SHOULD BE as it has a just shy of a 97 cubic inch displacement advantage.  The Camaro kicks in 100 more horsepower and torques than the Mustang, AND at a lower rpm which is noticeable when driving on the street. 

Salvation is at hand though.  For 2011 there are two new motors coming for the Mustang, a V6 that will nearly match the three valve V8 in power and an all new Five Liter “Coyote” V8 that will match or exceed the Camaro in power.  We look forward to driving both versions to see if they address our issues.  In fact if you are thinking of buying a new Mustang I would say hold off till the new motors are released.  Not only will they have more power, but they will have better fuel mileage as well.


MC5 – Kick Out The Jams

As much as I liked and was impressed with the Camaro, I like the Mustang better, but I admit I AM a Mustang person.  The Mustang is much like Detroit, it’s raw, it’s much maligned and it’s unapologetic about who and what it is, you will either get it and bond with it, or you won’t.  The best thing you can do with the Mustang GT is to roll down the windows, put your foot to the floor, shift it like you sold it, listen to the siren song that is a Detroit V8, channel your inner MC5 on and yell at the top of your lungs “KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHER FU@KERS!!!!!!

RoundAboutShow #14 “Eye Of The Beholder”

One man’s (Craig Cole, picture to the right) fashionable and functional Russian, rabbit fur hat is another man’s hideous, PETAian nightmare. It’s all a matter of perspective, and of course the same is true in the automotive world.

Dodge’s chunky Challenger is named Consumer Reports’ most satisfying vehicle. A Chinese truck driver’s eye beholds the icy winds of the open road. Hofele melds the best of both worlds in the Audi family to create a truly hideous steed. Plus, our Blind Spot story, the Ford Transit Connect is In the Garage and the internet’s coming to your car in this week’s AutoGadget.

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Autoline After Hours

Tonight on After Hours we’ll be joined by guest panelist Sandy Munro, President of Munro & Associates and one of the smartest design experts in the world. Sandy will be on tap to discuss all the latest news including the ongoing management shake-up at GM. Joining him in the studio will be the AAH regulars, John McElroy, Peter De Lorenzo, the Autoextremist, and David Welch of BusinessWeek.

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Porsche Experience TV

It’s amazing what you can find when you click through a few links.  THIS is pure GOLD.  Now, I’m no Porsche-phile, though I do like early 911’s, LUST after the 550 Spyder and really want a Boxster S, but in just watching a couple of these videos I really like what they are doing, these are well shot and well produced. 

This video is for one of THE MOST desireable 911’s the 1973 2.7 RS, 2150lbs!! and 210 horsepower will make for a great car almost any day.  You can find more of these videos here

Crazy Off Road Rides

Those of you who are into Off Roading will probably look at these two videos and give us a meh!  For the rest of us, this is pretty cool and pretty out there.


Cadillac CTS Wagon 0-60 Run

This is shot with the VholdR ContourHD cam, the 720p model set on the SD mode which is 848×480 @ 60 frames a second.  Converting to flash kills what makes the 60fps so cool.  You can check these camera’s out by clicking the link to the right for, they have a special price on these and the 1080p models through the end of the year.