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Rooting for the underdog

April 22, 2010

I have a serious weak spot for underdogs, especially in the auto industry. Always have, probably always will.

Why?

First, because the underdogs are smaller, they can be a lot more nimble, and because they’re always under pressure from the big players, they have to be scrappy in order to survive. And I happen to really like scrappy cars.

Second, because the underdogs keep everyone on their toes. Look at Honda and Toyota and Nissan in the 70s and 80s. Look at Mini and Hyundai and Subaru and Mazda over the past decade. They’re the forces of renewal. The provide a hedge against complacency.

And if there’s one underdog that’s, er, underdoggier than the rest, it has to be Saab.

Once upon a time, Saab enjoyed a solid reputation and a small but very rabid fanbase. It was kind of like the obscure indie rock band of the automotive world. Then it got gobbled up by GM and…languished. Product lifecycles got stretched into infinity and badge engineering became the norm. A lot of people back on the short-lived 9-2X, which was basically a Subaru Impreza with a Saab nose, but for me the low point was the 9-7X, a Saab-ified Chevy Trailblazer.

The Saab 9-7X. Ugh.

Rather than trying to revive Saab with a product renaissance, GM did what GM does best. It tried to gloss over mediocrity with slick advertising. Hence Saabs were suddenly “born from jets”. Which was true during, oh, the COLD WAR.

Over the last decade, Saab’s sales dropped precipitously. By the time the recession came in and trashed the whole industry, I don’t think anybody was actually buying Saabs. At all. Then GM went bankrupt and tried to sell Saab. Then they couldn’t, and announced they were going to shut it down. And then ended up selling the brand at the eleventh hour to a small Dutch supercar maker, Spyker.

So that’s where things stand today. A lapsed near-luxury brand with no reputation, no sales, and no compelling products, owned by a supercar maker with limited resources and distribution. Right.

No doubt about it, Saab has a hard road ahead. But it does have some very promising things going for it. For instance, an owner that remembers what Saab used to be, and that wants to get it back to that happy place. And the freedom to build the cars they want to build, rather than the cars a large, disinterested owner allows them to build. Those two things alone make me very excited for the future.

2010 Saab 9-5

In fact, the first new Saab in what seems like forever, the redesigned 9-5, looks like a pretty good start. And from what I’ve read, the forthcoming 93 (they’re dropping the idiotic hypen) is supposed to be an absolute stunner. God I hope so. I’m getting kind of tired of the existing luxury hierarchy. Some new blood will be welcome.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 6:41 am

    I’ve got a special place in my heart for Saabs as well. Growing up, we had a navy blue Saab 99 two-door hatch—whose unibody construction saved my mom in a wreck, but totaled the car—forever becoming our family’s “Saab-Story.” Pun intended.

    But get this, in high school, a classmate of mine’s dad bought this gorgeous, black Saab 900 Turbo. You know the one with the leveled shades over the back window and yellow fogs that hang down from the front bumper. Anyways, about a month after buying this car, his dad won the NY Lotto, bought a Merc and gave the brand new Saab to his fa-reaking son. Who then proceeded to pass me in it while I waited at my bus stop every morning. Amazing car. Underserving punk.

    I’d love to see good things happen for Saab—a return to a low-slung, two-door sport hatch is a must. Stop knockin’ off WRX’s and make sweet European cars again.

  2. Doogs permalink*
    April 29, 2010 10:14 am

    Funny – your comment made me realize something.

    I think I’m drawn to cars that wouldn’t look out of place sporting rally lights.

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