As 2008 comes to an end, the future of Saab remains unresolved. Its owner, General Motors, has announced it is examining “all the possible options” for the money-losing Swedish automaker.
One option is a sale. The list of potential buyers sounds like a roundup of the usual suspects who might benefit from a damaged European sub-luxury brand in need of significant investment: a Korean, Chinese, or Indian automaker.
If they can’t be induced into making a purchase, then a liquidation seems likely. Saab has been struggling for a way to sustain itself for more than a decade. But its limited product line, high-cost Swedish manufacturing base, and lack of any brand identity that broadens it beyond the invariable description of “quirky,” has doomed it to a marginal existence.
Sadly, the 2009 9-3 Aero Sport that I drove in December isn’t likely to change that. Amazingly, this is the first made-in-Sweden Saab to come equipped with all-wheel-drive. That in itself tells you a lot about Saab’s ability to react to the market. Over in Germany, Audi, which once competed with Saab in the sub-luxury market, has made a name for itself with its own Quattro all-wheel-drive system (and has of course since become a true luxury competitor to BMW and Mercedes Benz.)
The rest of my Saab was well equipped with a 2.8 liter, 6-cylinder, 24-valve, dual overhead cam engine putting out 280 horsepower. The only drawback was the six-speed manual transmission, which didn’t add enough fun-factor to make up for the inconvenience of shifting.
The sophisticated all-wheel drive system, which Saab calls XWD, continuously distributes torque between the front and rear wheels up to 100% in either direction. Despite several hundred miles of driving, I never got a chance to test its full potential.
And despite a panoply of standard equipment, ranging from headlamp washers to front and rear fog lights, nothing in my Saab felt special enough to justify the as-tested sticker price of $45,355. Saab owners are renowned for their lack of pretense, but for that amount of money, I want to feel slightly indulged, not as though I’m wearing a hair shirt. The carbon fiber in the Saab interior is not a substitute for wood grain.
With worthy competitors like the Audi A4 and BMW’s 328xi, investing in a Saab at this moment in its history is making a big leap of faith. Any car brand is worth preserving if it can continue to deliver on its original promise, but that is unclear with Saab. I wish it well, but I can’t be optimistic about its future.