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Ageing designs and even older platforms have seen many prestige car buyers cross Saab off the shopping list before leaving home. The 9-3 sits on eight-year-old underpinnings, while the 9-5 is even older with its Epsilon platform approaching 12, a true geriatric in prestige automotive terms.
“There is no doubt we have suffered because we spent a lot of time telling people what the price of the car was rather than what the brand was about,” says Saab Australia boss Parveen Batish.
“That approach has a negative impact as far as your residual values are concerned and it takes a while to dig yourself out of that hole ... and we're not out of that hole yet.”
Batish was on hand at the launch of the limited edition Turbo X and Aero fettle for the TTiD diesels. Saab hopes these will turn things around. Despite sales evidence to the contrary, Batish says the brand is heading in the right direction.
To the end of May, Saab sales have dropped almost 27per cent over the same period last year, with just 592 cars registered.
“We have been talking about the brand a lot more over the past 18 months. We've got to tell people what Saab's about if we're going to be sustainable in the future. We can't just go on price ... people are willing to pay as long as they know they are getting the performance and value they expect from the brand that they are buying.”
The poster car for Batish's vision of a brave new future is one that will do little to improve the bottom line in raw figures but will provide a point of reference for what Saab is going to become.
The Turbo X (just 30 examples will make their way to Australia) is a showcase of technology for future models. The all-wheel-drive (cross-wheel-drive in Saab speak) 2.8-litre V6 with active limited-slip rear differential is a clear signpost on the road to the all-new 9-5 due by early next year.
“To have a hero car we can point to is hugely important for a couple of reasons,” Batish says. “Firstly it gives everyone a boost, a lift, and that will show in the marketing. More importantly it allows us to talk to the people we want. We can finally say to those people who have been scared to drive a front-wheel-drive car because [they say], `You can't put that much power through the front wheels', try this.
“It is true that 30 cars is not a lot of conquests, but from here AWD will flow to other models, at least as an option, in the very, very near future. That is what I mean about giving those people confidence. We can do one job at the moment in terms of lifting the brand with the Turbo-X and then with cross-wheel drive in the future we can bring those conquests to us.”
Even before the flow down of the AWD and LSD technology, Saab is working to get its cars back on the consideration list.
“The conversion rate when we get people into the cars is fantastic, something like 50 per cent,” Batish says. “That tells me we have a product people like but we have to get them into contact with it.”
To that end Saab will be pushing what Batish believes is the brand's unique selling point.
“As a brand what we're going to focus on is responsible performance. The fact we have excellent diesel engines with an Aero diesel, the fact we have enviro-power-flexible vehicles with E85, the fact we have four-cylinder engines with great performance and fuel economy. All of this leads to responsible performance.
“Everyone wants performance. When people buy a premium car that's what they want.
“We think we have great cars with great packages, especially the TTiD.”
However, for all the “responsible” banter it is going to be, initially at least, the performance of the Turbo X that will grab buyers by the throttle.
Saab has opened its AWD strategy with a car of which it has built only 2000 - all of which are black and which Saab Australia holds only four firm orders for the 30 examples it has been allocated. There is little argument that it deserves a better reception than that, and may well get one once those looking in from the sidelines at the $88,800 starting price get over the sticker shock.
With 206kW and 400Nm the Turbo X, in six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, is open to some suspicion. The 9-3 Viggen (the car, not Saab's jet interceptor) is remembered for its audacious torque and atrocious manners.
The Turbo X shares none of that. AWD and electronic LSD means the 400Nm of urge is delivered in a controlled manner. So much so that the Turbo X was at its best on a loose gravel road with the torque delivery switching from front to rear and side to side with effortless efficiency.