x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

It's time to turn off Saab's life support

Saab was once a leading-edge car manufacturer, but little of that innovation remains.

Workers monitor the production line at the Saab automobile factory in Trollhattan, Sweden on October 2007. Bloomberg News
Workers monitor the production line at the Saab automobile factory in Trollhattan, Sweden on October 2007. Bloomberg News

Why are the Swedes - normally seen as a sensitive bunch - dragging out the seemingly inevitable demise of Saab so tortuously? It is truly sad to watch such a once-proud company having to beg for alms; its latest round of money-grubbing and debt restructuring the automotive equivalent of "will work for food" (Saab has just finalised yet another cash infusion as production had been halted for more than a month because of unpaid bills).

Let us not forget that Saab was once a leading-edge car manufacturer. The original 9000 set new standards for roominess and handling in the mid-sized luxury segment. And the same car's Trionic fuel injection system was a harbinger for the ultra-sophisticated EFI systems that allow today's cars such low-emissions motoring. Even little details like the Black Panel instrument cluster - which shut off all the gauge lights save the speedometer for more comfortable night motoring - was brilliant in concept if incredibly simple in implementation.

Little of that innovation remains. Many blame General Motors, of course, because Saabs eventually became little more than rebadged Opels. On the other hand, there wasn't much choice considering the company's pitiful sales volumes. No one can make money selling 100,000 or so cars (let alone the 28,284 Saab sold last year) globally, especially mid-priced luxury models in a very price-sensitive segment. Even more certain is that 100,000 cars can never fund the engineering resources that used to make Saab so attractive.

What's left is just not that appealing. Or, more specifically, that unique. Oh, the new 9-5 has its devotees, but there certainly aren't any of the technological marvels upon which the new Saab can start rebuilding its image. One of the absolute necessities for success in the automotive marketplace is the ability to differentiate your product from its competitors. Unfortunately, for Saab, an oddly placed ignition switch is no longer enough to hang your "branding" hat on. For potential Saab owners facing the inevitable "Why did you buy that instead of a BMW, Mercedes, yadda, yadda?" query from neighbours, I can offer no compelling answer.

So what we're left with is a Swedish automaker run by management whose only expertise is making semi one-off sports cars of dubious quality selling cars developed by other companies and funded by a Chinese money lender of last resort that is now going to suppliers hat-in-hand hoping to get a reprieve from the bills it has left unpaid. It's not pretty.

Nonetheless, it looks like Saab has, once again, been rescued from the brink. China's Pangda Automobile Trade (a car dealership group - not an established auto manufacturer) has put up nearly €100 million (Dh525m) and, according to Saab's production director and purchasing manager, Gunnar Brunius, the company has already reached agreement with some of its 800 suppliers to resume deliveries.

But why? I still see no compelling reason to save Saab. Much of its once-loyal clientele has moved on and its immediate competitors - Audi, BMW and Mercedes - are all filling the safety/technological innovation hole Saab once held in the near-luxury segment.

There's simply no convincing argument to say that even if Saab does get off life support, it won't suffer some other catastrophic malady the next. Like it or not, it's time to put Saab out of its misery. Let it die.