Saab is terminating 'poor performing and unfocused dealers' as it upgrades its worldwide network and revamps its product lineup.
By 2004, Saab's 1,200 dealers across the world will be cut by more than half, said Mikael Eliasson, head of global sales and marketing.
They will be replaced by 570 so-called 'Saab Unlimited' partners. The Swedish carmaker will also introduce about 30 Saab City Center showrooms and an unspecified number of Saab Brand Centers in busy locations such as airports, railway stations and conference venues.
Saab plans to boost annual production from its current level of 135,000 cars to 200,000 by 2004. As well as new versions of the 9-3 and 9-5, Saab plans to expand its range with models based on the 9X and 9-3X concepts that debuted, respectively, at the 2001 Frankfurt and 2002 Detroit auto shows.
The 9X incorporates features of a coupe, roadster, station wagon and pickup, while the 9-3X is a sporty, all-wheel-drive, three-door hatchback.
Saab had signed up 98 Unlimited partners by the end of last year, including 21 in Germany, 16 in Italy, 36 in the USA and four in Australia. It also opened its first City Center showroom in Berlin. It expects to add 220 Unlimited partners this year.
Within the company, Eliasson is known as the 'father' of Saab Unlimited. Speaking at the opening of the latest City Center location in London's Piccadilly, Eliasson said the level of dealer investment required to bring them up to Unlimited standard is considerable, but Saab is making a 'significant contribution' to dealers' costs.
Expensive City Center locations will be leased by Saab and operated by dealers. In the Piccadilly location, specially crafted conical glass imported from Sweden forms part of what Saab calls a contemporary and uncluttered environment. Each City Center will also feature a below-stairs area called the Platform, where Saab will display nonautomotive products from 'like-minded brands,' according to Eliasson.
'We want to use this as a magnet to draw people into the showrooms,' he said.
Fashion shows, art exhibitions and Swedish furniture displays are some of the events already planned for the Platform in Piccadilly.
Saab hopes its Unlimited showrooms will 'establish the brand in the global premium sector and increasingly attract new customers from BMW, Volvo, Audi and Mercedes-Benz,' said Eliasson.
'Saab Unlimited is designed to focus resources and ensure that every customer enjoys a high-quality experience in every encounter with Saab,' he added.
Swedish architecture firm Wilhelmson of Stockholm designed the Unlimited showrooms. All materials - from floor tiles to lighting and computer equipment - come from Saab-approved suppliers. Customer sales and service areas share the same appearance, design and construction.
Saab's new premium-dealer strategy appears to be working. Arne and Eli Hellesto have owned a Saab dealership in Sola, a suburb of Stavanger, Norway, since 1984. In 2000, they became one of the first Saab Unlimited partners.
Work to transform their dealership took 10 months to complete, including a shutdown for six weeks. But it has been worth it, said Arne Hellesto.
'We have more people coming to the dealership - and the majority we have not seen before,' he said. 'The advertising and appearance of the dealership is attracting new business from people who have owned Audis and BMWs.'
He added: 'In 2000, we sold about 180 new cars, but in 2001 we increased that to 260. We have never had such strong support from the manufacturer. The new showrooms have a very Scandinavian feel.'
Eliasson said the Saab Unlimited strategy would focus on the mature markets of Europe and North America.
'Our sales have traditionally been strongest there,' he said. 'In Asia, we do have a foothold in Japan, but for us that region will come later.'