Interview with Jason Castriota – Part 3

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Jason Castriota is Saab’s Head of Design. In part 1 of this series, we talked about his appointment at Saab and a little about the successor to the Saab 9-3. In part 2, we focused more on the 9-3 successor, the expectations on Saab Design and the Saab concept car that will be shown in Geneva, 2011.

This is the final segment in this 3-part series based on phone calls in September and October 2010. My thanks once again to Jason Castriota for taking the time to chat about so many different issues for the benefit of the wider Saab community.

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SW: The workload is very heavy at the moment, with that concept vehicle (that will show in Geneva 2011) on top of the work for the 9-3 successor. How is the Saab design team functioning on a day to day basis at the moment? And what size team do we have at the moment? You’re in New York right now, so how is that working?

JC: Well, I’m constantly back and forth. My month is broken into around 10-14 days in Trollhattan. There’s a week of PR commitments and a week in New York. It really is a time of constant travel.

The team is absolutely flat out. We’re a team of around 35 people in total. There’s around 7 designers in total, including my people, then we have about 15 computer modelers, a handful of physical modelers and a handful of project managers. So around 30-35 people in total. It’s a very small team, but it’s the way it should be because the ideas are very clear now, and it’s all about having that synergy with your collaborators and executing.

We have the exterior and interior programs for the 9-3 successor going on right now (mid-October) – one main interior theme and then with the various body style changes, there’s mild variations because of rear door panels, or a lack of rear door panels, etc. In parallel we have the exterior and interior of the concept car happening.

SW: OK. Switching tack for a moment…

You’re part of the board now and you’re doing a lot of PR work, etc. I know you’ve got a particular interest in branding and making sure something suits the brand. Are you playing a part in the visual design in Saab’s branding efforts in the next couple of years?

JC: Absolutely. I’m working hand in hand with Knut Simonsson, the head of marketing. Simon (Padian) and another guy in the studio, Matthias, are working together with me to help design provide support to marketing and branding. We have to make sure the new message from Saab is very clear.

Even just the new concept car itself will send a new message about the Saab brand. It will usher in this new independent era for Saab and it’s a lot of fun to do something that’s going to set the brand up for the next 15 years or so. Right now, with this car, we’re not thinking about 2012. We’re really putting forward a very long term vision for the company.

SW: Are you actually looking at my notes here? It’s strange, because the next question I’ve got written down here is “Beyond the 9-3 [successor]…..”

JC: It’ll be staggering. On one of my recent trips to Trollhattan I sat down with Knut and we looked at the Auto Show calendar through to 2017 and we have everything planned out for each show up until the end of 2017. What models will be introduced, the different stylings, the new technology – because engineering’s involved in all of this as well.

It’s a good indicator as to how car companies work. It’s not just about planning the next couple of years. It’s about planning the next whole generation of vehicles. We’re looking at 6 or 7 years out from where were are.

SW: Let’s talk about Geneva 2016 then…… what are we going to see there?

JC: (Laughs)

SW: Knut doesn’t access the internet. He won’t know we’ve talked about any of this… (that’s a joke on my part. Knut is indeed very switched on)

JC: That’s on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know that much.

SW: Bummer! But you have mentioned in a couple of interviews that I’ve read, the fact that you haven’t had to twist people’s arms too hard to talk to them about a Sonett. Is something like that realistically on the table?

JC: They’re definitely having discussions around those types of products. But as we’ve talked about before, we first need to take care of our base. We really need to get our core product out there and make sure it’s a success. All of our eggs have to go in that basket right now.

That’s not to say we’re not thinking about how to do a car like a Sonett or something similar – all the issues such as what platform it would be on, etc, these are discussions that are alive and well. Everyone on the steering committee is working hard on where we are going and answering the question “what’s the best route to get there?”

There are a number of scenarios, e.g. if we develop platform X then we can use it for these types of vehicles. If we develop a partnership with X then we might be able to get a different platform. And all discussion that gets the design wheels spinning, thinking of what can be done.

It’s a constant, ongoing, and integrated team effort. This is not the old-school world of car design where engineering is in one building, design is in another, marketing in yet another, and we’re all busy planning our own little personal ideas about the evolution of the species. This is really about everyone being in the same room, saying “OK, what can we do and what do we want to do?”

My experience comes from working with a lot of different companies and consultancies and when you do that, you see first hand the different mechanisms within a company. It’s always very interesting to see the hierarchies, the islands of power that people build.

What’s fascinating about working for such a small company, with such a dedicated group of people is that we all find ourselves aligned. It makes things very easy. It becomes a simple matter of “how long and how much is it going to cost?” There’s no bickering about where Saab needs to go. We all know where Saab needs to go. It’s just a matter of execution and when you’ve got truly competent people around, execution is usually the least of your worries.

So it’s a very exciting atmosphere. There’s a lot of excitement within the company right now, which is a great contrast from where the company was a year ago, or even earlier this year, at the time when I joined the company. Even then there was a degree of uncertainty because people were still reeling from the roller-coaster ride of reconstruction, a failed sale, a completed sale.

It’s taken a while for the dust to settle and it’s been a huge transition, shedding the bureaucracy from a huge corporate parent and taking on the ideas of new people and new processes that have come on board. We’ve had to strip a lot of things right down to the core, and then sometimes strip them again because that’s one of the factors by which this company will survive – being as lean and efficient as possible, getting the most competent people and finding the best partners.

It really is a fantastic place to be.

SW: Understood. It’s a place I’ve always loved to visit, even amongst all the turmoil. I think I was there just after you, in June and again in July, and the sense of excitement was noticeable. They were all wearing their ‘Saabday best’ because they were doing a car launch, but there was a palpable sense of relief and excitement.

You had dinner last week (this is back in October 2010) with a bunch of Swedish journalists. Is there anything we can talk about from that?

JC: Everybody’s interesting in the same thing, being the new Saab 9-3 and the body styles we might see with that. And there’s always the pressing issue of the potential for a smaller Saab. That’s always a very popular discussion point. As Victor says, it’s not in today’s business plan, but it’s something that’s very high up on the priority list.

I’m not going to say we’re not kicking around ideas for that one, of course we are. As I mentioned before, we’re thinking about cars that are 5-7 years away. Clearly, we’d love to have that car come to market much sooner than that.. There are still some big decisions to be made internally about where the new platform that we’re developing is going to go (in terms of model use). Being a modular platform, it gives you a certain range of vehicle typology and size, from X meters to X2 meters. We have to determine where those points are going to be and whether or not that’s suitable for such a small car, or if we pursue a partnership. There are some small cars out there where it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we were to piggyback on them. But again, that’s all still to be decided and a lot of it hinges on the success of the new 9-3 successor.

SW: I actually wrote an article recently on this subject, this smaller car, and the fact that Victor, in his speaking about it, seems to be a lot more cautionary in his tone in the last month, compared to how he was before six months ago.

JC: Yeah, and that’s normal. Victor is very bullish and enthusiastic, as he should be. But it’s a matter of answering the question – “what do we need to focus on right now?” So as much as we all want that car tomorrow, or even yesterday, it’s one of those things that we have to approach in the right way.

We have a big vision for Saab and for that, the focus today clearly has to be on getting the new 9-5 in customer hands, getting the massage out there that Saab is alive and well, and developing the 9-3 successor.

Those things are key. The 9-5 and the 9-4x really have to do well in the next 18 months to make sure that we’re arriving somewhere close to our expectations. One of the big hurdles we have to overcome with that is the United States. We really have to mobilize, to get the message out that Saab is here. It’s difficult because the US basically didn’t have any cars shipped into the country for so long and we’re still facing that uphill battle at the moment.

I’m still running into people I know who tell me they only realized Saab still existed when they heard about my appointment. This is, for better or for worse, the #1 market for premium cars in the world, so if you’re in the premium segment and you’re not selling cars here, you’re going to be in trouble.

So it’s something we really need to work on from a communications aspect. The 9-5 has only really just started to arrive here (this is in Sept, 2010) and it’s being received exceptionally well, which is great. We couldn’t have asked for more in that respect, but we’re still fighting some misconceptions with regard to Saab’s wellbeing and status.

But they’re getting out there and doing it. The Saab stand in LA is actually going to have quite a few different vehicles on it and that’s quite a contrast to Saab stands of the past.

SW: I’m really looking forward to seeing the 9-4x….

JC: It’s a great vehicle. It’s a shame that currently, there’s no diesel motor but that’s something that internally, they’re addressing for the future of this car. Obviously, this segment is something that’s important for the greater vision of Saab. Having this true range of vehicles that we can grow and mature along with our buyers is important. It’s why the smaller car is important – to bring a new generation of people into the Saab family, who can graduate to a 9-3 or a 9-4x and as they get older and more successful, into a 9-5. It’s a lineup and an attitude that BMW, Audi and Mercedes have played very well – a lineup from A to Z. They have so many models it’s unbelievable.

Saab doesn’t need to do that, nor is it the agenda. To have a 9-3 family, 9-4x and 9-5 and then a smaller car in there for good measure and Saab would have a very complete product portfolio.

SW: One question without notice…. You mentioned the importance of the US market. I’m just wondering how that plays into your thoughts as a designer. Do you have to take into account the tastes of a particular market and that market’s prominence in the design objectives of the car?

JC: It’s less in the design objectives and more in the content objectives. The US market, for those who really are not well versed in it, it’s one where cars are more often than not, sold with premium packages. You don’t find a BMW, Audi or Mercedes without leather, without top-of-line sound systems, navigation, bigger wheels, etc. It’s not like Europe where you can buy a BMW stripped to the bones with velour seats, 16-inch wheels and no nav or big audio. That stuff just doesn’t exist here. The American clients really do get much more car for their money here and that’s because of the volume.

When American car buyers buy premium, they generally buy European, so in that sense, they don’t have ‘American tastes’. It’s more about the content. They want premium leathers, more power, more content for their money and that’s where we need to make sure Saab has their bases covered.

SW: OK. I asked that because a lot of people, me included, pin the loss of the Saab hatchback on GM’s ownership and the importance of the sedan in the US market.

JC: There’s something valid about that statement given the sedan’s traditional popularity here. Generally, hatchbacks have not sold well in America. But that’s part of the mistake that was made with Saab. Saab were never Opel, they were never doing 2 million cars a year. Saab has always been a particular niche, alternative product. It’s never been mainstream and never will be. It’s not going to approach the numbers of Audi and BMW, nor do we want to.

So the move from the hatchback….. I don’t know exactly because I wasn’t there, but I would hypothesize that GM didn’t want to make the extra investment to do a hatchback because it is much more engineering-intensive. It is more expensive to do and poses a number of problems so I think it was probably a matter of costs vs return for them, less a matter of identity.

I actually asked this question about the 9-5 when I arrived – was it ever considered as a hatchback. Internally, they hoped it would be, but the idea was cancelled exactly for that reason.

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designer
5 years 8 months ago
Solid interview. One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the buying power of the baby-boomer market which is the largest. These people are quite possibly buying one of their last cars in the next few years and are looking for function as found in hatchbacks which eliminates the otherwise lifting of objects in and out of a car’s trunk but don’t like the idea of driving a full wagon. Many couples may be scaling down to a single do-it-all car and downsizing from a Benz and an SUV. A few years ago, this wasn’t the case. They are also looking… Read more »
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