Memo to a young, new Saab – please make the details a priority

I have the best photo that was ever taken of my Viggen as my desktop wallpaper on one of the computers I use and as I fired that computer up this morning, I thought to myself “Wow! What an awesome looking car.”
This is the photo, taken by my mate Stu the lens genius. Many of you will have seen it before:
My mate Richo in Sydney had a Viggen until recently. His was actually much better than mine. He’d BSR’d it and it had a brand new engine installed last year with only around 4,000kms on it when he sold it. The young lady who bought it, Suzanne, got one heck of a good car for very good money.
I had the chance to drive Richo’s new car on the weekend, a BMW 3-series coupe. He bought it brand new. It’s got the detuned 6 cylinder so the performance isn’t hot, but it’s quite adequate. It’s very comfortable, looks pretty good (if you like that sort of styling) and definitely has quite a presence by the roadside.
Seeing my old Viggen photo again this morning made me compare notes in my head. Richo’s old car vs his new car. I can only do this from my perspective and I’ve only had a short drive in his new car but it was enough to form an impression.
The impression that I got was one of solidity. That’s probably the best word I can use.
The car looks solid. It looks like an evolution of its forebears and therefore has a solid history behind it.
The car feels solid. There are no moments as you open or shut things, as you operate any controls, as you drive, that suggest any sort of fragility. There are no “oh, I didn’t expect that” moments whatsoever. There are no moments where you wish they’d done something different.
The best example I can think of – and it’s a small one but demonstrates the comparison perfectly – can be found in the stalks that operate the indicators.

These feel quite fragile in the Viggen (and in my Monte), made of hard plastic with some sharp-ish edges. They operate with a loud click and you feel like you’re capable of snapping them at any given moment you’re using them. In the BMW they’re softer, smoother and quieter. You move them to operate the indicator and they move back to their central position straight away, and silently. It takes a little getting used to, but it feels right.
The driving position is good and the attention to detail is fantastic. I may not like the cabin design or some of the materials but even I can’t disagree with the fact that the cabin looks and feels like it’s finished.
When you’re driving this basic 6, it’s not fast and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it’s quick enough to give you a smile when you need it and perhaps more importantly, it’s smooth and very, very connected to the road. BMW’s are renowned for their creamy straight sixes, but they’re revered for their precise handling and you can feel this as you drive.
Again, the best word to describe the drive is solid. This isn’t a performance car, but there are no holes in the driving experience. No tramlining to deal with, no strain and no question as to where you’re pointing. Driving it in bad winter conditions in the northern hemisphere might produce different results, but this was Sydney on a mild Friday evening and even with Sydney’s absolutely shocking roads, the drive was solid.
To the Viggen, then…
This was an interior design that I far preferred over the BMW interior I sat in on the weekend. The materials were lacking in some areas (see stalks, above, and add buttons, door cards, and possibly several other surfaces) but the operations and ergonomics were fantastic. Despite the BMW’s side-hugging controls, I far preferred the Viggen seats in both look and feel.
And the power….
The Viggen in standard form had more power than Richo’s new BMW and his particular Viggen, with its various upgrades, would drive circles around this new car if only it could corner as smoothly.
And therein lies the problem of comparing an old Viggen with a new BMW.
I might still prefer Richo’s Viggen over his brand new BMW but I can’t fault him for buying the new car. The BMW provides a very satisfying driving experience but most of all, it looks like it’s meant to be exactly the way it is. There’s no compromises evident in the product you receive when you hand over your hard earned. It’s not the most powerful thing in the world, but you know that because you haven’t paid for the most powerful thing in their range.
The Viggen, and just about any Saab made since then, does feel like some things could have been improved, which should never be the case with a top of the range model and should rarely be the case with any model – you should get what you paid for and it should be capable of satisfying your needs.
Perhaps Saab’s newer products come closer to this mark than what I’m giving them credit for here. I can’t help but think, however, that there’s still a few areas where they seem compromised, possibly because of the need to parts-share and possibly because of the legacy issues affecting GM.
The indicator stalks in the current 9-3 are only marginally better than in the old 9-3. The dash design and materials may be OK for you, but I’d find myself feeling a little flat without a Hirsch upgade. The drive is certainly very rewarding and I’d happily go a 2.0T in place of the baby-6 in the BMW, even if it’s not quite as smooth – that’s a choice I’d be happy to make.
I guess what it all comes down to is the details. I’m not sure that Saab were capable or allowed to think of the smallest things with uncle-Bob looking over their shoulder. The detail gap certainly wasn’t as wide back in the 80’s or early 90s and I can’t help but think that Saab are well and truly capable of building a car as satisfying for you and me, just like BMW are capable of building a car so capable of satisfying many people, as they did with Richo.
Saab make excellent cars and they’re getting better. Improving reviews bear testimony to this, even if current sales figures don’t.
I just hope they bring the gaps between them and their competition even closer in the coming years. The potential they have is limitless.

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