Playing devil’s advocate on the sedan vs hatch discussion

Mark C sent me what I thought was a very good open letter to Saab about the need for a new Saab 9-3 and for a hatch variant in that lineup when it comes.
I’m quite sure that’s actually going to happen, too. It pleases me a great deal to be able to write that.
I know that Mark wasn’t advocating a 9-3 range without a sedan option and I’m sensitive to the notion of appearing contradictory, but I’d also like to briefly defend the 9-3 Sport Sedan and offer up the commercial reasons as to why the sedan was, is and may be the best prime target for this section of the market.
Let me say right up front that I agree 100% with what Mark wrote about the need for a hatch and that my money, should I ever be in a position to buy new, would be going on a hatch or coupe version of a new Saab in the future.
The Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan is a great vehicle. It still looks great in profile and at the time it was released, it was warmly received and has continued to sell in decent, if not spectacular numbers.
This is not an unattractive car by any measure……
……but we can all rightly regret the fact that it never came out looking like either of these….

The thinking at the time wasn’t all that far off the mark. Saab’s sales were waning and their bread and butter model, the 9-3, didn’t have a sedan variant. Sedans have long been the preferred body style in Saab’s biggest market, the US, and sedans were selling well for what Saab see as their competition (BMW, Audi, etc).
Was it too US-centric? Yes.
Was it a mistake to kill the hatch version? Yes.
But was it a mistake to do the sedan first and make it the center of the range? No, I don’t think so.
The mistake was in leaving the range incomplete.
Saab’s golden era is considered by most to be the latter half of the 1980’s. This saw Saab’s venerable 900 hatches in the limelight, with the consolidation of the 16valve engine, the SPG or Aero versions, the addition of the convertible to the 900 range and the all-new addition of the Saab 9000 to Saab’s vehicle offering.
It can be a mistake to think that the hatch was solely responsible for Saab’s success during this period. What really led to Saab’s success was innovation and expansion, coupled with an energetic dealer network and generally speaking, pretty decent economic conditions.
The five year period following that golden age (i.e. 1990-1994) was Saab’s worst sales period in the last 20 years and that’s despite still having a range that incorporated perhaps the best of the classic Saab 900 offerings as well as a range of 9000 sedans and hatches.
You can check all that sales info here.
The Saab 9-3 Sport Sedan brought Saab sales between 2003 and 2008 to an average of around just under 120,000 per year – on par with the golden age of the late 80s.
What GM can rightly be accused of doing wrong in this period is killing off the hatch/coupe versions we know that Saab developed, thereby killing off the type of model expansion that could have seen Saab grow to the next level and achieve sales in the order of 140,000 or more per year.
GM had the distribution network in place. All it needed were the cars to sell. And now Saab are having to start over again, virtually from scratch (though with a decent headstart in terms of model development).
Saab’s sales in 2009 will most likely be the worst in around 40 or so years. The worst year I’ve got recorded in that period was 1971 with around 61,000 units sold. Saab’s production for much of this year has been at around 100 cars per day. If they worked Saturdays and Sundays and produced at that rate every day of the year then that’s 36,500 cars rolling out of the factory. I know there’s a lot of 2008 models hanging around, but still…..
The point is this: Saab are starting from scratch and have to figure out where they allocate their resources. There is no doubt in my mind that a hatch should be (and will be) a part of their plans for short-to-medium term future.
But the sedan has its place and Saab did their sedan well.
As an aside, and a pointer to what prompted this post in the first place…..
Audi have just announced more details of their A5 hatch, which looks pretty darn good. This is a car for which Audi have no plans with regards to a US release.
Now if Audi, who have been slaying competitors in many markets in recent times, can’t justify what is a pretty attractive hatch for the US market despite years of recent successes there, you can understand why Saab may have pause for thought about where their comparatively rare resources are allocated.
With all that said…..
Give me a new Saab and make mine a hatch please!!

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