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Saab's Best Bet: Going Electric

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You want a real long shot? Bet on long-struggling, barely fogging-the-mirror Saab to once again become a player in the international auto market. There was a glimmer of hope last week when National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS) briefly restarted production of the 9-3 (two cars, but it’s a start).

Then Saab designer Jason Castriota with the PhoeniX concept at the 2011 New York Auto Show. (Jim Motavalli photo)With new Japanese and Chinese owners, the concept is two-fold: to once again build a turbocharged 9-3 on the assembly line in Trollhattan, Sweden, and to build a production car based on the sexy PhoeniX concept styled by Jason Castriota—shown at the New York Auto Show just as Saab was dying in 2011.

Here are three solid reasons why it won’t work (and three ways it just might). Electricity is the key:

Thumbs Down:
  • The 9-3 is hopelessly outdated. It’s like asking people to buy—for a new car price—a 2010 BMW 3-Series. A modern engine transplant might help, but it’s still going to look like yesterday’s car. NEVS projection of 120,000 annual 9-3 sales by 2016 is hopelessly unrealistic. It rarely sold that many when the company was healthy.
  • Saab’s remaining intellectual property is still closely interwoven with General Motors, and will be hard to separate. Later Saabs achieved economy of scale by raiding the GM parts bin, and to market the new/old 9-3 NEVS will have to surgically remove everything connected to the company.
  • The gullwing-doored PhoeniX was a styling concept, and Saab will have to expensively engineer a sophisticated drivetrain to match its cutting-edge looks if it goes with gas power.
The Saab E-Power, engineered with battery supplier Boston-Power, could help get the company started with electrics. (Saab photo)Thumbs Up:
  • NEVS wants to build electric Saabs, which were actually engineered in the latter days of the company through a partnership with battery supplier Boston-Power. If Saab still has access to that engineering, it could have a head start on getting a plug-in vehicle to market. There is also a long list of Chinese suppliers that Saab/NEVS could work with. There aren’t many European EVs (outside the large Renault stable), so maybe a rebranded Saab could have a fighting chance.
  • The PhoeniX would make a very cool Tesla fighter in battery form. The car could be engineered from the ground up as an electric car, as the Tesla Model S was.
  • Saab left a trail of burned parts suppliers, probably in no mood to extend credit today. Retooling as an electric car company would align the company with an entirely new set of suppliers eager to partner with a (onetime and maybe once again) major OEM automaker.
The hurdles to be overcome in relaunching Saab are huge. It’s great that they restarted the production line, however symbolically, but this Saab story still lacks an ending.
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