Saab: the Saab-Scania era VS the General Motors era

I thought it might be interesting to go over the last 40 years and take a look, using 5 year segments, at what’s happened at Saab.
It’s basically the Saab-Scania era vs the GM era, and I want to take a look at the innovations, models and sales that happened during those periods.
The sales figures have been sourced from Ryan’s graph at Saab History. The iinnovations are from the innovations page here at SU, and the model stuff is out of my head.
Models: The Saab 96 and 95 were still on offer, continuing on from their heyday in the 1960s. The big mover in Saab terms was the Saab 99. Only two years old by 1970, the 99 range would be expanded with the addition of the 99EMS and maybe one of the most important developments in Saab design – the Combi-Coupe.

  • 1970: Headlights wash and wipe
  • 1971: Energy Absorbing Bumpers
  • 1971: Electrically Heated Seats
  • 1972: Side Impact Protection

1970 – 61,711
1971 – 73,982
1972 – 72,960
1973 – 83,997
1974 – 89,467
Total sales – 382,117
Average sales – 76,423
1975 – 1979
Models: The 99 range expanded with a 5-door GLE version but the big news was the Saab 99 Turbo. Even more than the Combi Coupe, this car was a total gamechanger and gave Saab a fantastic reputation for innovation and technology. In 1979, Saab took the game even higher with the introduction of their best selling car – the 900. It was a huge leap in terms of luxury, ride and equipment and set Saab up for the golden years of the 1980’s.


  • 1976: 3-Way Catalyst Converter
  • 1976: Turbocharging
  • 1978: Collapsible Steering Column
  • 1978: Cabin Air Filter

1975 – 92,554
1976 – 90,783
1977 – 95,927
1978 – 74,498
1979 – 72,516
Total sales – 426,278
Average sales – 85,255 but you’ll note the downward trajectory in the last couple of years.
1980 – 1984
Models: The last Saab 96 rolled off the line in 1980. The Saab 900 came out in 2, 3, 4 and 5 door models and whilst initial sales were slower, the car took off late in this period. Saab stunned the world with the Saab 900 convertible concept car and started manufacturing the 16valve engine late in this period. To go along with this 16v engine, Saab also unveiled and began manufacture of the first Saab 9000s in late 1984, though they were sold as 1985 models.

  • 1980: APC
  • 1981: Split-field Side Mirror
  • 1982: Asbestos-free Brake Pads

1980 – 83,758
1981 – 65,754
1982 – 66,392
1983 – 83,557
1984 – 96,012
Total sales – 395,473
Average sales – 79,094 per year.
That’s around 5,000 per year less than the previous 5-year period, but the 900 was just starting to hit it’s stride and the arrival of the 16v version would see it take off.
1985 – 1989
The Saab 9000 came on to the scene in earnest and provided an instant boost to Saab sales. Saab had essentially been a one-class vehicle manufacturer for a long time prior to this, but the 9000 gave Saab a distinctly different two-class vehicle lineup where both vehicles were very desireable. A new 2.3 engine came out in the 9000 range, giving Saab a whole expanded model range for customers to choose from.
The Saab 900 grew in great strides during this period as well. The 900 convertible finally went on sale and became an instant Saab icon in 1986. The arrival of the convertible, along with the SPG in the states and the 16V Aero in other markets gave Saab a genuine sense of flair and desirability. It ws during this period that Saab had the bulk of the 60 continuous months of sales growth in the Unites States under the watch of Bob Sinclair.
Saab did their first expedition to Talladega. Starting October 7th, the three cars were driven for around 20 days straight. The fastest of the three cars averaged 213.299 km/h during the run, the other two cars averaging around 210 km/h and 208 km/h. Saab set 23 speed and endurance records in this three week period.
Saab also showed the EV-1 concept car, designed by Bjorn Envall and based on the Saab 900 …. but totally different. The car ended up with a cameo role in Back To The Future II.
In late 1989, Saab’s parent, Investor AB, sold 50% of the Saab car operation to General Motors.

  • 1985: Direct Ignition

1985: 102,018
1986: 111,813
1987: 126,401
1988: 134,112
1989: 120,532
Total: 594,876
Average: 118,975 per year – absolutely amazing in Saab terms. This was Saab’s biggest expansion period in model terms, with exciting progressive vehicles.
1990 – 1994
The Saab 9000 was five years old when this period began. It evolved to include a 4-door sedan as well as the usual 5-door hatch and underwent a thorough re-style around 1992. The 9000 was available as a ‘Carlsson’ version from the late 1980’s, which continued into the early 1990s.
The Saab 900 finally bit the dust after a 14 year reign. It was revered by Saab enthusiasts all through this period and that reverence continues today. The last 900 hardtops were in 1993 and the final convertibles were made in 1994. The last few years of the 900 saw several special editions released, including the 900 Carlsson and the 900i in some markets, with a 2.1 litre non-turbo engine. These were packaged to look like Aeros and well equipped.
The classic 900 was replaced by the GM-based 900, which arrived to no small amount of fanfare in 1994. Apparently the gathering at the unveiling in Sweden was absolutely huge and the anticipation palpable. It’s fair to say that whilst the NG900 is a solid vehicle, it didn’t live up to the reputation created by it’s predecessor.

  • 1991: Saab Trionic
  • 1991: Light Pressure Turbo
  • 1991: CFC Free Air Conditioning
  • 1993: Saab Safeseat
  • 1993: Night Panel

1990: 103,591
1991: 87,356
1992: 80,366
1993: 64,569
1994: 70,961
Total Sales: 406,843
Average sales: 81,368
1995 – 1999
The Saab 9000 saw its final years in this period and the jewel in the 9000 crown was the Saab 9000 Aero. It was capable of blistering overtaking speed and won numerous plaudits for it’s sporty nature and practicality. You’d be forgiven for making a case for it being the best performing Saab ever. The last model year for the Saab 9000 was 1998.
The Saab NG900 continued along with the NG convertible coming out in 1995. Eventually the NG900 was replaced with the first generation of the Saab 9-3. It looked basically the same but had hundred of changes to make it a quieter and safer car.
The Viggen was released in 1999 and maintains a reputation to this day of being the most madcap vehicle Saab has ever built.
Saab returned to Talladega in 1996 with the NG900 and set 40 new records this time. The fastest car averaged 226.45 km/h
The Saab 9-5 saw it’s debut in late 1997 as a 1998 model and provided a much-needed impetus for Saab’s sales. It was a solid progression from the 9000 and offered improved comfort and safety, though many lamented the loss of the hatchback as the initial range did not include a wagon.

  • 1995: Ecopower
  • 1996: Saab Active Head Restraint (SAHR)
  • 1997: Electronic Brake Force Distribution
  • 1997: Ventilated Seats
  • 1997: Comsense

1995: 97,307
1996: 94,084
1997: 95,761
1998: 104,104
1999: 124,867
Total sales: 516,123
Average sales: 103,224
2000 – 2004
General Motors bought the remaining 50% of Saab, making it a wholly-owned GM subsidiary, in 2000.
The Saab 9-5 range gained solid sales in this period with the addition of the 9-5 wagon (may have been 1999; I’m working from memory here) and the first of the 9-5 Aeros were made during this period. This saw what many people regard as the finest 9-5s ever built and models from late in this period are still coveted today.
The Saab 9-3 was the big news of this period in good ways and bad. The first generation of the 9-3 received an Aero model and was a pretty tight car when it’s life ended in 2002. Of course, the car that replaced it was the first all-new Saab under GM’s ownership and it was a definite deviation from where a lot of people saw Saab.
The 9-3 Sport Sedan showed a more contemporary design (even if a little less daring) and was a vast improvement in terms of handling, safety and comfort. However, many saw (and still see) the loss of the Saab hatchback as a loss of Saab’s identity. Saab had had a hatchback in its range since the 99 Combi Coupe was released in 1974 and it had become a much loved Saab trait.
Saab also showed the 9x and 9-3x concept vehicles designed by Michael Mauer during this time and these were heralded as the start of a new generation of versatile Saab vehicles. Things looked very promising until GM pulled the plug on virtually all Saab development late in the period due to cost overruns with the development of the Saab 9-3 and a lack of production versatility due to modifications made to the 9-3’s platform.

  • 2000: Saab Variable Compression
  • 2002: ReAxs System
  • 2003: Cargowing
  • 2003: CargoSET

I’m dubious about including SVC there, as it never made it to production. Some of these others were less than really groundbreaking, but I’ll leave them in.
The sales data is incomplete at Ryan’s site for this period, but suffice to say the addition of a 9-5 wagon and the introduction of the 9-3 Sport Sedan range saw Saab’s sales hold pretty steady around an average of 120,000 units per year, which would be the best average since the latter half of the 1980s.
2005 – 2009
The Saab 9-5 was due for an all-new replacement model early in this period, but GM’s cost concerns and a lack of enthusiasm for the replacement model amongst product people (read: Bob Lutz) led us to a hasty re-design in the form of the Dame Edna 9-5 in 2006.
That same year, Saab wowed the world with the Aero-X concept car, which took best-in-show at the Geneva Motor Show. That award would be replicated by the 9-X BioHybrd concept several years later. Saab also showed a whole bunch of BioPower concepts, including a plugin hybrid convertible whose plugin capability was covered up at the last minute under orders from Detroit.
BioPower was a new model line offering in Sweden, running on E85. Saab’s BioPower range quickly became Europe’s best selling flexfuel vehicles, with the 9-3 BioPower joining the 9-5 around late 2007.
The Saab 9-3 saw the addition of the SportCombi in 2006 and gained a whole new model refresh in 2008, with the addition of XWD being the key feature addition. The Turbo X was the intro model for XWD and late in 2009, Saab will start selling the 9-3x.
GM also committed brandicide by introducing the 9-7x and the 9-2x in the US market. The 9-2x was a short-lived version of the Subaru Impreza WRX and whilst reputed to be an absolute thriller of a drive, it was poorly executed and lampooned by the press. Ditto the 9-7x, which was a Chevy Trailblaxer that received a lot of improvements courtesy of Saab engineers. The 9-7x was the second best selling Saab for all of it’s lifetime in the US market, but that may say more about the aged 9-5.
GM made a decision in early 2009 to sell Saab, with Koenigsegg emerging as the preferred bidder in the middle of that year.

  • 2007 (approx): BioPower
  • 2008: Cross Wheel Drive (XWD)

Again, sales figures are incomplete, but Saab peaked at 133,000 vehicles around 2006 (thanks to a GM fire sale in the US that saw 4,000 units of the 9-2x sold in just one month) and bottomed out at 93,000 vehicles in 2008. That bottom will be far more bottomed in 2009, when I predict Saab will be lucky to sell 50,000 cars worldwide due to the uncertainty about the company being sold from GM and the global financial situation.
GM’s larger distribution network and organisation actually brought more sales success than what we give them credit for.
However, a look back to the latter half of the 1980s shows that even with a smaller distribution network, Saab were able to achieve impressive sales figures by doing the most important thing a car company can do – build fantastic products and continue to improve them.
Saab had the most activity and the most exciting times when they were building new vehicles and innovating. They were able to build exceptional high-end vehicles at this time because their base-level vehicle offerings were solid and acceptable.
I’ve probably made a few mistakes in doing this, but it’s been one continuous writing experiment from start to end, done from memory. If I’d used a book for research you wouldn’t be reading anything today! So all errors of commission and omission are mine, but I think you get the picture as to how Saab has progressed both on their own and under GM’s wing.
GM bought some sales success, but at what price?

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