Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Saab Lives On, at Least in China

Linus Hook | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Saab, a brand once considered a leading player in the near luxury auto market, is getting a new lease on life.

If you don’t hear Saab fans around the world cheering, it’s for good reason. In its newest incarnation, Saab plans to develop its business building electric cars for the Chinese market.

The new owners will have the Saab name but little of the most valuable assets that made Saab a significant niche automaker.

The new owner, National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB, is a partnership between investment firms out of Hong Kong and Japan. For them, leveraging the Saab name to gain ground in China’s electric car market makes complete sense. For Saab’s traditional customer base the new owners mean nothing.

Saab’s former owner, GM, would not sell any of the intellectual property connected with the Saab 9-5 model or the Saab Parts unit. Long before GM refused to let go of the Saab DNA, the Swedish brand was already a shell of what it once was. When GM went through bankruptcy it made the decision to only sell the Saab name and plant in Sweden, but not the designs and technology that went into Saab models.

It has been a swift, though not surprising, fall for a brand that never lived up to its potential. GM sold more than 130,000 Saab models in 2006. I remember talking with former GM CEO Rick Wagoner about the future of Saab. He talked of the value of the niche Saab filled in the GM portfolio.

Wagoner held onto the Saab potential even though it was clear to most in the auto industry that it was a higher cost brand that never completely fit in the GM stable.

There are still thousands of Saab owners here in the U.S. who love their car. A good friend of mine who drives an ’09 Saab calls it a great car. He also ends every comment about his car by saying, “I’d buy another one if I could, but we know that’s never happening.” No, it’s not. But someday if you’re in China you may be able to drive a Saab electric car.

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