Interview with Jason Castriota – Part 2

Click the link to read part 1 of my interview with Jason Castriota – Saab’s Head of Design.

Part 3 is still to come.

When we left Part 1, we’d just started talking about the expectations surrounding the successor to the Saab 9-3, which is due in Q4 of 2012. Our conversation was interrupted and we had to pick things up again around 5 weeks later, so we started there.


SW: So back to the weight of expectation around the successor to the 9-3. We talked about it in terms of what the company needs this car to do – it has to be a hit in all categories – but how conscious are you of customers’ expectations re: what this car represents.

JC: I’m absolutely conscious about it. It represents the core Saab car for not just the existing core clientele but also people who are just car enthusiasts in general. This is always going to be the ‘point of reference’ Saab, the spiritual successor to the 900, which is the car that made Saab a modern and relevant company.

It’s great for me because we’re being placed in a ‘dare to be great situation’ and some people view that as a risky position. I don’t view that as a risk because if I’m given the power to live or die by my own hands then I believe in what I’m going to be able to do.

I know Victor feels the same way about the things he does and the risks he takes as a businessman and I know Jan-Ake feels the same way. None of us really feel like we’re at risk. There’s a challenge ahead of us, particularly this year because it’s going to be a difficult year – there’s no doubt about that.

It’s an uphill battle for Saab this year because in the United States, above all other markets, this is the market that suffered the most because of the fallout of what happened with GM. So there’s still this unfortunate misconception in the United States that Saab doesn’t exist, that it’s dead, been liquidated, and it’s something that we’re having to take very seriously – building customer trust and market trust again.

SW: With this 9-3 replacement, are you looking back to iconic features of older Saabs, to either include those directly, or include cues to those in the new car? Or is it something that’s going to be pretty fresh, a complete new direction?

JC: I hate to be cliché about it, but it’s going to be much like the 9-5 ad says – totally expected but unexpected. When dealing with a brand like Saab, you have such a rich history and there are so many fantastic cues. You can’t draw all of that out, but that’s your DNA. You have to evolve that DNA. It’s less about looking at a specific model. Those who think this is going to be a 900 re-hash because I’m a big fan of the 900 – that’s not what this car is about. This is a new car.

But what you will see is that Saab DNA and I don’t look at a single specific model for that. It’s about the essence and the philosophy of the DNA – from the UrSaab concept forward. It’s a matter of looking at how that has evolved and taking that next evolutionary step. But in certain respects we’re taking a revolutionary step because this is what is needed.

Unfortunately, Saab got a bit out of their own space in the last few years so there’s been a gap in their evolutionary development – which wasn’t necessarily their own fault. It was what was necessary to do at the time. But now that we’re independent there’s the ability to do what we need to. It might take a little more time and money to do it because we may not have every solution in-house but we can do what we need to do because it’ll be a matter of “this is what a Saab is”.

It’s giving us a lot of liberty, to push the boundaries for Saab again, which is a very positive thing. And the product is going to reflect that.

SW: So all this begs the question, then – what do you see as the essential strands of Saab’s DNA that we might see come out in this car?

JC: I think you’re really going to see it tap back into the aerodynamic, aeronautical heritage of the company. It’s something that everyone, internally, are really big fans of. People who have been there for 20 years and people who have been there for less than a year, like myself, everybody loves to look back at the older cars, where you really see this sense of the fuselage and canopy. We really want to bring those stylistic elements back as they’re really functional.

We want the entire design to reflect that from an aesthetic standpoint, but it also has to work. We’ll really be pushing the aero on the car and we feel that we can have class-leading aerodynamics. That’s very important today, with consumption being such an issue. To make a car that is functional, that’s efficient and sustainable but still has that fantastic sport soul that Saabs have always had.

It’s a mixture of sport and utility, which Saab has always had and which every brand is now chasing. Audi have just come out with models that basically mimic what Saab’s always been about – the A5 Sportback and the A7 Sportback. You have the 5GT from BMW – these vehicles have something that Saab always had, but that they lost in the last generation of cars.

SW: It’s been very frustrating to watch that happen, especially the Audi models, which we’re forced to admit – they do look good.

JC: They look great, and they are great. But they’re not going to have the soul of a Saab and that’s something that’s very important about this car and what everybody’s putting into it. There’s such a fantastic energy about what we’re putting into this car. Teams are pushing each other – from design to engineering and marketing. Everybody is working together to create the best possible car – what some people who’ve been in the company for 20 years are saying is the best Saab ever. It’s really going to put a flag in the ground for Saab again and hopefully people will come – not just traditional Saab clients but others as well.

SW: And that will be very important. I know Victor’s talked about winning back traditional clients but some of those are at different stages of the purchase cycle and some of them have just moved on.

JC: We have to win back trust, not just with the faithful but also with the people who may have considered a Saab before, or who had one 20 years ago. Our competitors aren’t making it easy because they’re building great cars, but we still feel that we have something unique in the marketplace and it’s really going to be attractive to a lot of people.

We feel that in terms of content, with the 9-5, slowly but surely journalists are starting to come on to this – when they really look at the price point of the car and the content it gives you, the drive that it gives you, they saying “Wow, this really is a bargain” compared to an A6 or a 5-series. But it’s taking them a little while to get over that hump, coming to terms with a 50,000 Euro Saab. Now, we see they’re finally getting around it, after driving them back to back – they’re seeing a similarly priced A6 or 5-series and noticing they don’t have anywhere near the content of the 9-5, at the same pricepoint.

The 9-3 successor is going to be a much more reasonably priced car, priced at a similar point to where the 9-3 is today. That’s a much bigger market segment, a segment where Audi is selling plenty of A4s. We’re pretty confident about the prospect of selling 80,000 to 90,000 of these new vehicles globally. The existing 9-3 was selling that many, so it’s not an obscene number.

These are the type of facts that gave Victor Muller the confidence to buy into this company in the first place.

SW: While we’re talking about the current 9-3…… We understand that that car’s due to get a refresh prior to the successor model coming out. Have you played any part in that refreshed model, or is that something that was already in the can when you arrived?

JC: No, that was signed off before I got there, but I think it’s a very nice re-fresh and very much inline with where Saab is going. It plays a bit more off the more recent designs and there’ll be some special colours available. I think it’ll be a really nice touch to the end of life cycle for this car and there should be a number of people who will still be very interested in it.

That car’s got to carry us through. It’s a difficult situation for Saab right now, no doubt about it, but the future for Saab is very very bright. We just have to get through the next year – and we will – but there are all these things going on at the same time: efficiency gains, alliances and partnerships etc. All of these are going to help bolster the position of the company.

SW: So back to the successor model….. What state of development was that at when you came onboard? How completely will you influence it?

JC: This project was always going to be a world record run to see how fast we could do a car from the ground up.

When I came on board, there was some work already done but we basically started with a blank sheet of paper. It became very clear that where we were going with content, architecture – a lot of different elements of the vehicle were not going to be up to the standard we wanted.

We really needed to fight some difficult battles to build confidence. We know that this is going to take a little more time, a little more money, but this is the car we need to build.

The good part about Victor and Jan-Ake is they’re enablers. So when it really came down to making these decisions, they were the ones who confirmed that we do need to do this. We understand the extra pressure it’s going to put on people but if we don’t do this, we may not succeed. This car needs to be better than ‘good enough’. This car needs to be great.

Everyone understood that in the end. It puts a lot of pressure on engineering because they already had a tight timeframe. But they have responded brilliantly and the pride and enthusiasm they’re showing is really fantastic.

SW: I could imagine that the enthusiasm for creating a world record, ground-up build in Sweden would be quite high. I imagine they’d really want to show people what they can do.

JC: It really is.

We were reviewing some things about Toyota. They have it nailed faster than anyone else at this point and what we’re trying to do at this point would actually trump Toyota. We’re excited about the challenge. It puts a lot of pressure on you, but in a good way. People of extraordinarily high competence always respond to these situations well. They always do their best and what the Saab team has proven to me, particularly the engineering team, is that they are more than up for this challenge.

I’ve frustrated them a bit because when I first came on board they were already heading in one direction and I’ve had to get them to change direction. That’s always hard because you lose a certain amount of work, but whilst they had good solutions in place before, now they’re coming up with even better solutions.

So now we have a car that’s going to be more aesthetically pleasing because of changes in the proportions of the car, but it’s not just that. We’re going to have a car that’s lighter, will crash better and will have more flexibility with engines, etc. We’re improving the car at every level, and that’s what exciting about it. Once people bought into that and saw the benefits of what we were doing then it became a much easier process.

SW: So what stage are we at, at the moment? What’s happening with this 9-3 successor right now?

JC: Design is now, essentially, thematically frozen. We’re now working out the last tweaking of some details and waiting for final aerodynamic tests to see if that needs any last minute adjustments. Most aerodynamic adjustments at this point in time will be done underneath the car. The main surfaces are now pretty much finalized. So in terms of the design team, the car is at about 98% of what you’re going to see on the road. It’s a matter of millimeters now, tweaking details like grille bars, headlights and taillights. But the main overall design is done.

SW: That’s encouraging to hear. And the timeframe that’s been mentioned – last quarter of 2012 – that’s still attainable?

JC: It’ll be a similar situation to the 9-5. We’ll look to launch in early 2012 at the auto shows and at that time the last pre-production cars will be running around, doing their final testing. The first true production cars will be rolling off the line at the end of summer.

SW: So we’d be looking to see something in early 2012, that would mean Geneva, right?

JC: I’d say that’s most likely. It’s not yet determined with any finality but I’d say that’s a pretty good guess.

SW: And what about a concept version of this car? Are we likely to see anything like that?

JC: We won’t see a conceptual version of this car. What you will see is a concept – next year – but not a conceptual version of this car. We’re doing a concept that ushers in….. let’s say it’s a design exercise more than anything else, to give a hint as to where we’re going stylistically. We also want to start to discuss some of the new technologies that are going to be in the new cars. But it’s not going to be the 9-3 successor. We don’t want to do something that disturbs the product line, or the lead-in to that car.

SW: OK, that’s interesting. I think there’s been some hints that there would be some sort of concept car and the natural expectation was that it would be a 9-3 concept, but it sounds like it’s going to be a bit like the Aero-X in that it will set down a design language for the next few years, correct?

JC: Exactly. It’s really a statement car. It’s really going to create what I would call the bookend to the Aero-X. The Aero-X is a beautiful and exceptionally valid Saab design and there are a lot of elements of the Aero-X that you’ll continue to see. But this is going to be the other end to the spectrum of Saab design – maybe a more passionate, fluid and emotional aspect of Saab design.

SW: Sounds like something to get excited about. Can I ask when we’re likely to see that? Early next year?

JC: We’re definitely aiming for Geneva (2011).

SW: Wow. That’s interesting and encouraging. I might have to try and squeeze Victor’s pocketbook and see if I can get a trip to Geneva next year.

JC: (Laughs) That would be great and we’re very excited about it. It’s a very tight program for that but it’s a show car, so it’s not as taxing as a production car, but doing it on top of doing a production car means quite a bit of work at the moment. With the 9-3 successor we’re not just working on a single body style so the workload is pretty heavy because we’re working on all the variants at the same time.

SW: Seeing you’ve mentioned this, I’d better ask: Are we looking at four body styles for this car?

JC: We’re looking at three variations for sure, but I’d definitely like to see a fourth and who knows, but potentially some day a fifth. But beyond the three that I think everybody can guess, we’re not confirmed on those extra ones yet. They’re not in the official business plan but discussions about them do get kicked around. People are definitely enthusiastic about the proposed ideas we’ve come up with. But again, it’s a matter of taking care of the nucleus first and then we’ll worry about the more fringe niche versions of these cars. But I personally believe that these are very important because they do build image but it’s something we need to play with after we get the core car stuff done.

SW: If I was to guess three, I’d guess sedan, hatchback and convertible. How would I be going?

JC: I’d say you have a pretty good guess there but I’m not going to reveal exactly where we’re at.

SW: Fair enough.

JC: We have to leave a little bit of mystery there.

SW: And if it were to stretch to five, then wagon and coupe.

JC: I make no bones about the fact I’m a sports car guy and I’d love to see a sportier version, but then again that’s not currently in the business plan.

SW: Which is unfortunate.

JC: We’ll get it there some day. Sooner than people think.


Stay tuned for part 3, coming soon!

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