TROLLHATTAN, Sweden - It is no secret that the 9-5 is the make-it or break-it automobile for Saab Cars.
The Swedish maker that is half-owned by General Motors needs the 9-5 to expand its appeal in North America and other markets because Saab must increase worldwide sales about 50 percent to the 150,000 level to survive and succeed as part of its business plan through 2000.
That means retaining traditional Saab buyers and appealing to new ones.
To do that, Saab must:
1. Strengthen the Saab brand image.
2. Convince dealers and customers that the 9-5 is a worthy competitor to the Audi A6, BMW 5 series, Mercedes-Benz E class and Volvo S70.
3. Avoid the quality problems that plagued the launch of the 900 in 1993.
When the 9-5 goes on sale in the United States this fall, the base model will have a standard 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a price near - perhaps even a little below - $30,000. High-end models, with more appointments and a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6 engine, likely will nose past $40,000.
THE BRAND IMAGE
The unfocused, almost existential 'Find your own road' ad campaign is gone, and the new campaign that starts this fall will focus on the product, said Joel Manby, president of Saab Cars USA.
One of Saab's strengths has been its cult-like appeal to a small group of owners who appreciated the unique, almost quirky, attributes of the car - from its highly recognizable shape, to the early two-stroke engines that hardly had enough energy to get out of their own way - and even the floor-mounted ignition switch of the old 900.
Saab officials at a press preview here said those attributes do not entirely define 'Saabness,' which is more correctly defined by the 'cockpit' feeling that everything is built around the driver, front-wheel drive plus a practical concern for safety. The 9-5 ignition may not be on the floor, but it is on the center console.
Manby, who came to Saab via Saturn Corp., said the 9-5 can expand the cult of traditional Saab buyers.
'We need dealers and owners who are enthused about the product,' Manby said.
Saab engineers and designers worked to incorporate that ethereal Saabness into a product that plays on some of GM's strengths.
The 9-5 is built on the Opel Vectra platform, although Saab engineers lengthened, widened and stiffened the chassis and used a different suspension to give the new Saab a personality quite different from the Vectra. The 9-5 ride has a more solid feel, which allows the car to be driven very aggressively and very comfortably.
The heart of the 9-5 is the new 200-hp V-6 engine.
Saab is one of the few automakers that still uses turbochargers, and the new asymmetrical turbocharging system is unique among turbochargers. The asymmetrical system uses exhaust gases from just the front bank of cylinders in the transversely mounted engine to blow into all six cylinders.
It provides very smooth boost and quick acceleration right up through the gears, as proved on a test drive under a variety of highway conditions in Sweden. Boost is almost instantaneous, with virtually no turbo lag, which is that annoying pause between pressing the accelerator and feeling the power.
Other product features that seem to fit the Saab image are ventilated seats, and shock-absorbing head restraints that 'catch' the head before whiplash can occur in a rear-end crash.
HOW GM HAS HELPED
As Saab seeks to maintain its brand image, there are areas in which GM has helped.
In addition to sharing the Vectra platform, GM personnel have helped modify procedures to cut costs.
Michael Cubbin, director of manufacturing, said Saab now follows GM's bill of process for assembly that specifies the order and manner in which components are installed, and Saab has adopted best practices from places like Opel's Eisenach, Germany, plant and GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
'Common process is what's driving the thing,' said Cubbin.
Saab also got a hand from GM in its relationship with suppliers, who sometimes gave the Swedish automaker short shrift because of its low volume. As part of GM's global purchasing initiative, Saab gets better prices, and any supplier that fouls up at Saab will be off the list of approved sources for all GM units.
Cubbin, a 30-year GM veteran, said the low-key Swedish culture that is built on a flat social structure eventually may be able to teach GM's North American Operations about teamwork, just as Saturn and Eisenach did.
'We have a lot less hassle with skilled and unskilled functions,' said Cubbin, 'Here, teams do what they can.'
That attitude likely will be just as important as the product and the advertising in asserting the Saabness of the 9-5.