The story of the 9-3 Phoenix
February 20, 2013 in Jason Castriota Design
SaabsUnited can finally bring you the 9-3 prototype, designed by Jason Castriota. The first images of this car was sent to us in early august 2011, these were three blurry computer generated images that has not surfaced until february this year. Why we waited to release any images or photos until now was out of respect for the work that Jason Castriota did for SAAB and in the hopes that the car might one day actually be produced.
We have since then received a number of images and photos of varying quality. During this time we kept a very good relationship with Jason and now it seams that this car will probably never be built, however it does not mean the end of this story.
Being able to present this car to the world in the way we do here, we hope that it will gain the recognition it deserves and that it could one day lead to a situation where we can take our place behind the steering-wheel of a Saab, once again designed by Jason Castriota. Over the past 6 months I have come to know Jason well and I’ve come to greatly respect him and the work that he did. Everyone of course have different taste but when you really understand how and why a car was designed in the way that it was, you come to respect and in the end appreciate the car in a completely new way.
So the time has come for us to present the SAAB 9-3 Phoenix. Its mission, to replace the current Saab 9-3 Griffin that was in production until 2011. Shortly after Spyker took over SAAB Automobile AB, about two years ago now Jan Åke Jonsson & Victor Muller got in touch with critically acclaimed designer Jason Castriota, Jan Åke Jonsson gave Jason the mission to design a new replacement for the aging Saab 9-3, another important piece of the mission was also to reduce current design costs by as much as 40%. They met first in Geneva and then again a month later in New York.
In 2007, GM made a design study in Rüsselsheim, Germany for the replacement of SAAB’s 9-3 line. Simon Padian supervised the design language but the general work was performed in Russelsheim and Detroit where GM had placed the majority of its designers and engineering assets. This study resulted in a clay model and a number of computer models which we have presented here previously. Designing a car is a major undertaking and Saab in 2010 needed a replacement for the 9-3. The management at Saab felt that a new design language was needed in order to further separate Saab from GM.
Jason Castriota’s mission from Saab was to design a car that captured the historical roots of the company while bringing out something new that could be based on the new flexible PhoeniX-platform that Saab had developed for a couple of years. Another criteria was that everyone needed to instantly see that the car was a Saab, without looking at the logo, while at the same time feel that the car was ground breaking and new. Having these criteria in mind you can understand the difficult job Jason was given, considering the long and important history of different designs that Saab has. To keep thing simple, Jason was given free reign to create a car within certain limitations and this is what he accomplished.
Designing a car is of course in the end a compromise of what you want the car to look like given the restrictions of what the engineers can create. Jason has said in many interviews that there was a give and take, and in many ways the process was challenging but also rewarding. The design pushed the engineers to revamp the entire platform to push the wheelbase out, to tweak the aerodynamics, and to make the car more composed on the road. But in the end, the most important factor was of course something different but very elementary.
Early on, it was made clear to Jason and his team that time and money were vital factors. The car needed to be designed, constructed and more or less ready by the end of 2011 in order to be launched at Geneva 2012. Looking back at December 2011 when the team was still working hard on finishing the project, the car the body design and it’s related engineering was nearly completed, but the final data would not be ready until spring 2012, which meant that the car would not be completed until the fall 2012 at the earliest. In the end the interior proved to be the largest hurdle to complete in the compressed time frame and limited budget, as significant technology and material changes kept moving the target and in turn the time necessary to finalize the design.
Normally when a car leaves the development phase and is prepared for production, it takes about 6-8 months to find out how to build the car, which parts to install when and where. SAAB used a GM virtual system which greatly decreased this phase in time and costs but given the details we’ve found out about the development stage of the car, the earliest production versions of this car wouldn’t show up until early 2014.
In September of 2010 Jason was also given the task of developing a brand new concept car that would hit at Saab’s new design language. This car also had another purpose, Saab was short on cash, in reality Saab desperately needed a financial partner and Saab needed to get eyes focused on themselves somehow. The Phoenix concept car was presented at Geneva 2011 and really caught the eyes of the world. The car ultimately ended up being one of the most talked about car by reporters from all over the world who visited the auto-show, mission accomplished. Having Saabs situation in mind gives us a better understand of why the Phoenix concept came to be, why iQon, eAAM and the ePower were all the subject of many Saab press releases ahead of when they were originally supposed to be presented.
In October 2010 the first prototypes of the 9-3 Phoenix were completed and it was placed next to a number of other design studies that were ordered including the old GM version made back in 2007. Jason’s version was picked and the design team was instructed to make a 5-Door hatch and a Convertible. Rather than develop a sedan followed by a hatch variant, the management team decided to develop a real 5-Door hatch-back without compromise and this version then came to be the “main” version of the 9-3 Phoenix.
There were of course other development projects in progress at SAAB, one of them was the 9-5 (SC) SportsCombi which was considered vital to future of SAAB. The 9-5 SC still had issues with the electrical system and D-pillar construction which wasn’t strong enough. Another issue that engineers were busy with was the installation of an advanced rear-view camera, a component that drivers get used to very quickly and in the end rely upon and thus has to work at all times. A lot of work also went into getting a diesel into the 9-5 and 9-4x.
Due to the lack of funds which really started to show at the end of 2010, some resources were claimed to be moved from the other projects to focus on the 9-3 Phoenix, since this car was considered to be the real money maker and most important product for the Chinese market. To shift focus towards the 9-3 Phoenix was a calculated risk made by managers, obviously under great pressure to deliver but also great evidence of the confidence the management team had for the work Jason Castriota did at SAAB.
The power-plant is of course one of the key aspects of a car. The 9-3 Phoenix was to be launched with a 1,6 liter turbo engine, codenamed N47 and made by BMW. The N47 was originally a 1,6 liter 136 hp engine which was developed into a HOT engine by Saab delivering hp in the range of 200-220. This high-output engine found its way into other BMW products now in production. Since 2009 Saab had worked on a BMW two liter engine, codenamed B48 whose engine block could be used with both gasoline and diesel. A diesel engine is normally about twice as expensive to make, compared to a gasoline engine, having the same engine, with some minor change in components only, being able to work as both a gasoline and diesel engine is highly cost effective.
The work with BMW did not stop there. GM had offered to sell SAAB start-stop technology developed by GM at the price of 25 million USD, a price that was just too high. In the end BMW provided the start-stop technology to SAAB and work progressed for a significant amount of time.
Meanwhile development of the 9-3 Phoenix progressed and it was decided that the car would be launched in two versions, the Vector and the Aero. The Vector version having 17″ wheels with the option of 18″, the Aero would be shipped with 18″ and having options as high as 20″. Chromed components in the lower area of the front as well as chromed rear-view mirrors distinguished the Aero from the Vector variant. From people who have seen and worked on the vector variant, we heard that despite being the economy version of the car, it had a sense of quality that was unlike anything Saab had previously delivered and it was equipped to a level far above what the competitors had.
During the complete design process a lot of compromises were made between engineers and designers, one of the main issues that Jason Castriota focused on was lengthen the wheelbase and shorten the over-hang (area in front of the front wheel). Some of the things Jason did not get were a brand new type of headlights and wing mirrors and thus major component sharing took place with the 9-5 as this was much more financially efficient. Even so a facelift was planned for about 2-3 years into the production phase where the 9-3 Phoenix would get the brand new type of headlights and mirrors, roughly at the same time as a facelift for the 9-5 was scheduled. Considering the timeline discussed, this would have happened in mid 2014. An overall facelift and re-design of Saab’s other products was also on the table including a new sports car called the 91 Sonnett as well as a 2+2 sports car based off the PhonieX Cocept to be called the Sonnett..
This car was something that I know Victor Muller had dreamed about for a long time however one of the things that were not included in Saab’s business-plan. The car could become a reality if Saab had managed to establish a working partnership with Youngman and Pang Da, sadly thought that did not happen. The image on the right is one of the versions made in different design studies and in no way the final version.
All the time up to the final day SAAB Automobile AB was alive, December 19th 2011, Jason Castriota and his team were working on finishing their beautiful car and up until then, facing the reality that they were working even though the possibility of not being paid, was a real threat. In the end, Jason Castriota worked for Saab for almost two years, even though Saab failed to pay for his team’s services for the last 8 months of their efforts. Regardless, JC and his team believed in Saab and pushed forward with their work to give the company the best chance for survival. Along the way, they managed to establish a more cost and time efficient design process that was nearly 40% cheaper than what Saab had done before, delivered a brand new concept car, and almost finished the 9-3 replacement and its variants.
My first impression of this car was mixed, I felt that it was something brand new and something I had to get used to. I felt the same way about the Phoenix concept car and when I think back in time, I’ve felt exactly the same way about every new car Saab has launched. Since I’ve come to appreciate and love every car that Saab has ever made I felt that this was probably a good thing. Today I’m as in love with this car as I am with any other Saab and I believe that if it would have been produced, it would have been loved by a lot of people and greatly earned it’s place as a true Saab-Saab in the history of this great brand.