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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Stillborn SAAB 9-3 Reminds Us All To Feel Saad

2012/13 SAAB 9-3
It feels like it was quite a while since SAAB Automobile died off and their museum collection was under threat of being separated off into the hidden garages of the world. Since then, the museum was saved, but SAAB wasn't. They auctioned off the last 68 cars they produced, some of which were examples of the 9-5 SportCombi that never made it to production - they were either pre-production or ready to be sent to dealers and/or journalists, I think - although if you're desperate to own a unique SAAB estate, you can painstakingly get it legalised in some countries where it would pass all the necessary government tests. There's no point offering you that possibility though, because they were all sold off months ago.

Anyway, like Rover, SAAB had big plans for its resuscitation in the works just before it went bust, and pictured above is one of the most important ones: the next 9-3.

Styled by Jason Castriota, he of Maserati GranTurismo fame, it combined the Swedish firm's then-current (and still excellent) design language with a retro nod to the 900 and 99 that put them on the map, mostly in that sloping rear end, but there are also similarities in the windows as well. The tailgate is flatter though, probably because it makes for a more saloon-like rear end that buyers not aware of the retro reference would've appreciated. Another image (below) also shows what must be a hatchback version that's truer to the 99, 900 and 9-3 five-doors of old. The blacked-out A-Pillar is fast becoming a cliché in car design, but its jet fighter reference suits plane makers SAAB perfectly.

As well as this new volume model, SAAB had considered bringing back the 92 as a hatchback to tackle the VW Golf, but in their own unique way, with a teardrop shape like their early cars but probably not featuring a 2-stroke engine or a V4, and featuring styling akin to the last 9-5, a car that looked very good and a car whose "face" Castriota modified and put onto the PhoeniX in 2011. That concept car also featured features of his own like flying buttresses (think Ferrari 599) and lots of little circles, in this case to make up the tail lights within a body-coloured cluster. It looked great, although not all that much like a SAAB from the A-Pillars back in my opinion. Nevertheless, the "9-2" would probably have started out as being based on GM's small hatchback platform, but then modified so heavily to suit the wants and needs of the Swedes that it became almost unrelated to the Vauxhall Corsa or any other small GM car.

Here's the hatchback version, complete with little black spoiler, and tail lights akin to those on the 9-5. Castriota has actually caught wind of these picture leaks from within SAAB, and has commented to Auto Motor & Sport (Swedish) saying "Obviously it is disappointing that the images were leaked without my knowledge, especially when they're bad pictures. But it's fun to see the response to the design. My design has a strong character. Some like it, others don't. But everyone has an opinion. I like that. Design work was still in progress and the final product is different from what you see now. I worked on the 9-3 all the way until the end of 2011. But conceptually correct, the images agree with the final product. It was this design tracks we worked with - a five-door hatchback." The translation from Swedish may not be brilliant in places, but these pics are from when he joined the 9-3 project in early 2011, and are quite similar to what would've been the final product, if not exact. What's here is good though, so tweaking and developing this look would've made something fitting for a car company that, legend has it, primarily sold cars to architects and designers. No wonder I like them!

Also in the works was a convertible, which hopefully didn't pay homage to the 900 convertible, a car that became the dictionary definition of scuttle shake (when a convertible isn't stiff enough and starts flexing in the middle over bumps). It would probably have started off being based on a Pontiac G6 convertible and then been modified so heavily to suit the wants and needs of the Swedes that it was effectively unrelated. Well, if GM had held on to them, perhaps, but because this car was conceived post-GM, it would've been on its own bespoke "Phoenix" platform, which can't have been extremely expensive to develop at all...

SAAB 9-3 Convertible. There are no shots of the front, but imagine a 9-5's grille on it.
Engines would probably still have been GM ones, with a variety of petrol and diesel units, all turbocharged no doubt. SAAB was big on turbocharging, being the first people to fit a low-pressure turbo, and only the third car company to turbocharge a car at all. The 99 Turbo then made a name for SAAB. The blend of increased power and high efficiency is exactly what everyone's targeting now, so it turns out they had the right idea all along. Typical.

SAAB tried to escape the stifling clutches of General Motors after they'd made it clear they didn't want their platforms and technologies going to another company. Ironically, GM's refusal to sell the financially-scatterbrained company on those grounds is exactly what stopped them making their in-house breakaway car in the end. It sucks. SAABs were solid (900 cabrio aside), very well thought-out, ergonomic, extremely safe and always very handsome cars, with their "hockey stick" rear pillars, turbine wheels, windswept headlights and latterly iced tail lights. The jet connection was never more than superficial, but it made them cool. Sadly, not enough people bought into their ways and here we are, in a world lacking this interesting and innovative car maker. One could argue that sticking so bloody-mindedly to their beliefs is why they lost so much money for so long, but it certainly didn't help that their American parents were too oppressive for almost their entire 23-year ownership of a company many will miss, not least the residents of Trollhättan in Gothenburg, where the company was based and built its cars.

There's talk of electric SAABs, coming from National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB (NEVS) with Chinese investment from Qingdao, a city with about the same population as Sweden itself. Nothing seems to have come of that little venture, though. Still, if there's even a flickering ray of hope, it's from them, so keep a look out for them. Maybe they'll use the finished version of the 9-3 renders you see here. In the mean time, it's always worth combing the classifieds for a used bargain, as a company is supplying parts for SAABs in the UK. Might look for a manual black 9-3 Turbo X...

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