The Swedish car company’s new owners are aiming to make it “a leading manufacturer of electric vehicles”. Can Saab be saved by electrification? Farah looks at the evidence.
By Farah Alkhalisi on June 20, 2012 3:23 PM
Like so many industry reporters and writers pitching in with their two-penn’orth on anything automotive, I have a soft spot for Saabs.
I’ve owned a couple of 900s (both 1986 cars, the first an original-shape ‘long-bumper’ 900i four-door saloon, the second a facelifted 900 Turbo 8v three-door, since you asked) and ran the first to well over 200,000 miles on its clock. The Turbo was not one of my best buys, but that’s another story…
Anyway, the slow, prolonged saga of Saab’s languishing under the ownership of General Motors, its sell-off to Dutch firm Spyker, aborted sale to Chinese firms Youngman and Pang Da (blocked by GM, which continues to hold patents and licenses to some Saab tech) and its subsequent bankruptcy has been a sad story. A story of a once-proud maker of iconic-looking, technically-innovative and utterly unique vehicles, struggling to find its place in the modern motoring world.
However, as TheChargingPoint.com reported at the end of May, hope for Saab-fanciers has come with the sale of the brand – along with the Trollhättan engineering and production facilities, plus the rights to the 9-3 and the new ‘Phoenix’ platform which was under development – to a Japanese-Swedish-Chinese consortium which calls itself National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB (NEVS).
There are many questions as yet unanswered, of course: whether the cars will just be built for China, whether full production will ever resume at Trollhättan, and the role of other potential investors/partners still circling around, said to include India’s Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata, as well as Youngman. Sceptics are also suggesting that NEVS may have shades of the earlier ‘Phoenix’ scenario re. MG Rover, and just be an asset-stripping cut’n’run operation, after a well-known brand name plus any incentives or subsidies for electric car development which may be up for grabs.
However, this is about the best chance Saab has had in a long time to get back into the game. As a statement from NEVS says, China is “projected to be the largest and most important EV market”, and is investing heavily in e-mobility. Hence the “initial focus” on China, though ultimately, NEVS promises that “sales and marketing will be global”, and chairman Karl-Erling Trogen said last week:
“I am delighted that we can build on Saab Automobile’s skills in vehicle design and production to start a new future-oriented venture in Trollhättan, where world class manufacturing facilities are available. We will match Swedish automobile design and manufacturing experience with Japanese EV technology and a strong presence in China. Electric vehicles powered by clean electricity are the future, and the electric car of the future will be produced in Trollhättan.”
So what have they got to work with? The existing 9-3, “which will be modified for electric drive using advanced EV technology from Japan”, is old but still serviceable – and Saab already had 9-3 ePower prototypes up and running, as this video from August last year proves:
The Saab 9-3 ePower, first seen at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, was based on the SportCombi estate and featured a 35.5kWhr lithium-ion battery pack and a 184hp/135kW motor; it was said to be good for 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 93mph, with range up to 200km (around 125 miles).
The Phoenix platform, meanwhile, which will form the basis of the next-generation models, is a modular and highly-scalable structure which could be adapted for a variety of different models; outlined at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, when Saab showed a dramatic hybrid concept called PhoeniX, it used a further Saab development, the ‘eXWD’ electric rear-wheel-drive system with torque-vectoring, regenerative braking and a motor/generator housed within the rear-drive unit. This was designed to support an engine-driven front axle in a four-wheel-drive set-up, but suggests that much of the groundwork has already been done for a high-performance pure e-drive system.
Given the advanced status of the project, NEVS probably has a better chance of getting vehicles in production than many of the small EV start-ups we hear about, and it appears to be well-financed.
It’s aided by the talents and continued dedication of the team in Trollhättan – but its biggest asset, perhaps, is the goodwill attached to the brand and the loyal support of Saab fans worldwide. Let’s hope that some of those sentimental attachments translate into sales.