The Saabs of yesterday still tug deep

A couple of weeks ago, after I contributed some reporting to a colleague's story on Saab's latest woes, a friend wrote to ask a good question: Why were Saab's travails getting so much media coverage?

My friend had a point -- lots of column inches have been devoted to the struggles of Saab, way out of proportion to the company's microscopic sales. Perhaps coverage of Victor Muller's increasingly desperate efforts to save the company has been overblown, but Saab tugs at something deeper than mere unit volume and market share.

I never owned a Saab, but I always had a soft spot for the cars from Trollhattan.

Years ago, I drove a Saab 9000 Turbo Aero test car on a weekend cross-country skiing trip to northern Michigan and came away awestruck by the car's capabilities. This was before computer-operated electronic controls monitored a car's every move.

Nimble and light-footed, the Saab never put a wrong foot on the treacherous, icy roads. With seats folded down, the hatchback swallowed up my ski gear. I swear there was room for a refrigerator back there.

The turbocharged, four-cylinder engine delivered rocket-sled acceleration. At 80 mph, the engine barely panted and returned superb fuel economy. If this wasn't a sport utility vehicle in the truest sense, I've never driven one. I mourned when I had to hand back the keys.

I loved the aircraft-style instrument panel. When Saab had its "Born from Jets" campaign, it wasn't just an advertising slogan. Saab is, after all, an acronym standing for Svenska AeroplanAB. Translated into English it means Swedish Airplane Company Ltd. Saab engineered breakthrough planes long before it made cars.

I had a queasy feeling when Saab fell into the hands of General Motors. There has never been anything "general" about Saab cars. They were always peculiar, quirky machines built for individuals who wanted to drive something very different from the herd.

Sure enough, GM began casting aside Saab's core hatchbacks in favor of more generic sedans. The 9-7X SUV and the infamous "Saabaru" (9-2X) might have been OK vehicles, but they weren't true Saabs.

Predictably, Saab didn't fare well under GM's stewardship and it has been all downhill since GM cut Saab loose in 2009.

These days, economies of scale mandate million-unit global platforms. Designs are dictated by committees, computers, segment requirements and focus groups.

Saab is a relic of another era: a small company based in a small country, a distinctive culture that delivered cars with real personality and soul.

Saab's extinction will make barely a ripple in the industry's global calculus. But the soul of the enterprise and the special machines it made will be sorely missed.

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