Design Study: The Saab Grill

Aside from being a SaabsUnited Crew Member by night: my day-job consists of writing software.  It is for this reason that you would be right in thinking that is rather odd for a Software Engineer to discuss an artistic topic such as automotive visual design.  But, the fact of the matter is: just as there is a heavy artistic component to visual design, there is a lot of interesting science at play as well.  What us Saab fans refer to as “design language” is really just a set of special rules that Saab designers follow when they are making changes to a current model vehicle to give it a more updated, fresh and modern look.  Of course, there is no denying the artistic component to this work (which from my drawings below is sorely lacking), but when all of the embellishments are eliminated we arrive to a fundamental core that is decidedly linear and dare I say: elegant.

And to the right, my friends would be the fundamental Saab grill.  It really is quite simple: a vertically bisected trapezoid with two slanted “bands” on the left and right.  Saabs of the 1970’s and 1980’s sport this grill in its most simplest form as we see in the picture shown below, to the left.

 The bar that is bisecting the Trapezoid typically has the “SAAB” word-mark on it.  And the headlights reside beside these left and right “bands”.  On the image shown to the right, we see essentially the same grill, with the main difference being that the trapezoid is actually wider.  This is a well-known differentiating characteristic between the Saab 900 (or the 9-3) and the 9000 (also  the 9-5).  All of the Saabs of the time leading up to this day has a grill that follows these patterns, and this is one of the many design elements that makes Saab truly unique.  The grill is a highly expressive component that gives the car an opportunity for a common thread of design, yet plenty of latitude for future direction.  In fact, take a look at a grill of a 9-3 from the mid-90’s (which would be the same as you would find on my 2007 9-3).  It really is the same basic grill with some corners rounded and the left/right bands spaced out from the trapezoid just a bit.  It looks stunning, if I might say so.  And to be honest, I actually preferred this look, with the squared off headlights, over the latest 9-3 when I was car shopping.  But, seeing more late model 9-3’s on the road, I’ve found the more modern curvy headlights growing on me to the point where I am happy with the look on both generations of the 9-3.  Take a look at the next picture on the right and you will see what I mean.  Another interesting change in the current 9-3 is the taller trapezoid and the larger left and right bands with the non-rounded corners.  It definitely increases the edginess of the styling and gives it a fresh new look over the previous 9-3.  The heightening of the trapezoid is a evolutionary move that would be continue on through the NG 9-5 (more on that later).  Needless to say, the Saab grill’s increasing size has posed a very interesting design predicament that I can imagine has left designers thinking:  “with the 9-3 grill being so big now, how do we make the 9-5 grill bigger but still have room on the front for those left and right bands?”  For the solution, take a look at the next picture to the left.  Yep, that’s it!  In the 9-5, the left and right bands have effectively “merged” with the headlights!  Unfortunately, however, I think that this design change has led to the left and right bands increasingly loosing their significance in the Saab design language.  According to the latest 9-5 the latest Saab grill template should look like this. That is there exists a trapezoid that is taller than the left and right bands.  However, if you observe the very latest 9-5 grill, the left and right bands, while they are still present, they are actually quite a bit smaller than even the previous generation 9-5.  Don’t get me wrong: this is an absolutely gorgeous look on Saab.  I just worry that the and right bands may actually be phased out completely, and what was a three-piece grill will turn into a one-piece grill.  Some of the latest mock-ups of the 9-3 replacement actually show the left and right bands “merged” with the headlights, as shown in the NG 9-5.  Perhaps if the designers at Saab want to keep consistent with past models, we will see the bands appear as separate from the headlights.  But, time will tell.  All of this being said, the future direction of Saab’s look is continuing to evolve and I’ve been seeing a lot of exciting designs coming out of Trollhättan.  So, I have no doubt that the look of future Saabs is in good hands.  And the Saab grill is a very special part of the look that makes these cars so distinctive and so beautiful.  In fact, we might even see the Retro Saab logo (shown below) make its appearance as part of the grill.


46 thoughts on “Design Study: The Saab Grill”

      • “deeply into these topics” spot on, I love looking at design-languages and design-heritage, but I´ve never looked that deep into the grille, so it´s an eye-opener. And I do agree with your conclusion, hope they keep the three-piece design, it stands out more from the crowd.

  1. Nice write-up. However, I feel that dismissing BMWs “twin kidney” grille is totally un-called-for … as an identity bearing design element it is every bit as distinctive as the SAAB grille, plus it has been kept and cared for MUCH longer than the SAAB grille…. it dates back to 1932.

    • That statement regarding BMW was intended as an innocent “jab”. But, having someone feel strongly about this has encouraged me to reconsider my statement.

      As a result I have decided to remove the reference to BMW’s “twin kidney” grill. In all honestly, I actually agree that it is also a distinctive design element for BMWs and while “trash talking” it isn’t “uncalled for” per se — I agree that it is unnecessary: hence the reason why I decided to remove the comment.

  2. NIce post,
    but for me you have forgotten the lost slabs.
    You had some kind of continuity in the Grill. From the 900/9000genI, till the 9-3gen II/9-5 facelift 1.

    But the second 9-5 facelift, also known as Dame Edna 9-5 is more of a revolutionary step than a evolutionary step. But if you look at the lost slabs (the concept cars) you see that the Grill was always the same, it has gone though some evolutionary steps, for instance the DE 9-5 makes much sense if you look at the 9-X from Mr. Maurer, where you see this traditional Saab Grille but the lights are introduced in the side bands.

  3. Saabs of the 1970′s and 1980′s sport this grill in its most simplest form as we see in the picture shown below, to the left.

    It that wasn’t exactly that “look” in the 70s or the 80s, but as you mention the “trapezoid” had become wider, so I guess one can say the shape was more or less the same as on the 9-3 in the picture.

    As for the evolution, I like the updated one on the old 9-3 compared to the new 900; with the stylised wings in the bar, rather than a simple line. And we can still see it.

    As for the whole grill and the new 9-5 and 9-4x, it’s almost getting ridiculous big; but we have seen a common “design language” for decades in the automotive industry, so it’s a trend at the moment. Not to mention the area around the fog lights (if I’m allowed to go slightly off topic); they have become larger for every new generation, a few more steps and they are larger than the grill.

    “In fact, take a look at a grill of a 9-3 from the mid-90s …”
    I think it would be difficult since the old 9-3 replaced the new 900 around 1998. 😉 But I agree with you; it looks very good, and as I mentioned, IMO, also the shape of the “bar that is bisecting the Trapezoid”.

    • As for the evolution, I like the updated one on the old 9-3 compared to the new 900; with the stylised wings in the bar, rather than a simple line. And we can still see it.

      Yes, I like the tapered look as well. The Phoenix does something truly awesome with that bar that “bisects the trapezoid” and makes it extend into the left and right bands and the headlights. Truly slick looking. In fact, after writing this article, when I look at the Phoenix concept: I actually like the look of its grill even more!

  4. I like the old design language of 1981-1983. That was when there were 3 slots to each side. Those were the days!

    The design language I’d like to see continued is the dashboard. The 1986 Saab 9000 is the classic though the 1981-1993 900 isn’t bad.

  5. I liked the 96 grill with the aeroplane motif, I like the current grill, so a mixture of the trapezoid and ‘plane motif would be splendid.
    And is it just me or does the current 9-3 and indeed the 9-5 grill have a sort of happy smiling look to them ?

    • I love the aeroplane. Since I grew up as kid staring at that aeroplane, just at the right height for a kid, it’s no wonder. 🙂 But if we can’t have it, some stylized wings are nice.

    • I think that most Saabs with the exception of some concept cars has that happy smile, and I really like it. It always makes me smile too! 🙂

      Great article Ryan, very appreciated! I have also been thinking a lot about the development of the Saab three port grille, but I lack the ability to express myself like you do. However, my favourite Saab grille is from the MY88-93 900 with the MY85-91 9000 close second. The MY98-02 9-5 is very nice too, not just the grille but the overall design too. 🙂

  6. The grill is the face of the car; it’s most recognizable feature, and the thing that links one generation to another. The design changes on the Saab have concerned me, because this is where BMW have excelled. They are always recognized with their twin grills.
    Saab have been pretty good on this regard, but the move that put the side openings into the headlight area causes them to be lost. I don’t like this idea, as it means the idea of the historic arrangement is no good.

    Just because fashions change is no reason to abandon the good. Imagine if Ford and Coca Cola had got rid of their logos because they were old fashioned! For that reason, the old twin prop airplane symbol should be brought back, along with the side apertures.

  7. .
    Interesting stuff & something that I have noticed over time.

    My first Saab’s were 9K, Mk1’s and when they bought out the CS grill I did not like how they had ‘shrunk it’, however as time goes on, the Mk1 started to look dated.

    I did not like the revised 9.5 grill, but again, as time went on, etc….

    The Dame edna, does take a bit of getting used too, particularly if the car is a dark coloured version.

    The NG 9.5 follows on, but somehow it is starting to loose that Saab thing. Indeed if you are driving & catch one in the rear view mirror , there is a moment, that it looks like the new Jaguar XF, as here:

    The Phoenix, looks good, but a slightly longer left/right bands, down into the bumper, would look interesting too.

    • Agree. As I said above we have seen a more or less common “design language” for decades in the automotive industry, trends come and go, and this seems to be the trend at the moment.

  8. I preferred the grill in it’s earlier simpler forms. Unfortunately of late it has become too big, rather contrived and reminiscent of a Daewoo. Not good! Hopefully on the 9-3’s successor it’ll become a bit more subtle again?

    • I’m not sure if that Daewoo is a good comparison. The vertical lines in the center of the grill changes the overall look. And the shape of those headlights is utterly horrible.

        • I know, I know … I’m still finding this amusing :-p

          At any rate, Daewoo simply has a completely different design language than Saab, and any commonalities are mostly aberrational.

          • I have to agree with you. Apart from the Leganza with it’s Ital Design heritage, most Daewoos were pretty ugly including the the current ones which are badged as Chevrolet or Holden. Just with the Daewoo grill design, if the bars in the central part were horizontal and not vertical, it would be quite similar to where Saab has been heading recently. The big nose and big grill look worked reasonably well for the Aero-X, but I don’t think it has translated that well to the NG9-5 and certainly wouldn’t work well on a smaller car. Hopefully the treatment that JC gives the 9-3’s successor will be a little different? Fingers crossed anyway!

  9. As much as I loved my (ex-)9000CSE’s clean and “Italian” front fascia and grille, I must admit I think the classic 900’s slant nose grille and front fascia is the “most” SAAB in its boldness, distinctiveness and simplicity:

    I should add the 9000 Mk.I was equally good:

    Together ………

  10. To be perfectly honest, I always found the Saab grille on my 03 9-5 to be a bit busy with all those shapes crammed between the headlights. I find the modernized grille on the current 9-5 to be far more elegant in its simplicity and clever integration into the lights. It really helps to unify the front end elements rather than a plastic piece stuck between the lights. I think the Phoenix concept was a very nice evolution of this design.

  11. The change in the design also indicates a change in the attitude, from function to style. Making the grill less “square” and more dynamic might have improved it’s design, but enlarging it also meant a bigger air brake on the car, with worse aerodynamics.

    Personally, I don’t like those black holes anyway, and prefer the meshs on e.g. Bentleys’ grills. I actually implanted a stainless steel mesh into the grill (don’t know if that is recognizable on my avatar icon).

  12. My favourite is the 99 grill from late 70s. However, as has been said, tastes change. I don’t really like the big centre opening with the smaller side openings ‘hidden’ with the light units – seems much less distinctive when it looms in your mirror!

    BTW: Autoexpress (UK) have a good ‘shopped’ version of the new 93 even if they are a bit late and have some facts wrong. see here

    • Late and not very accurate either. They photoshopped that fuzzy image from the other week and then say it was designed by JC. It has already been announced that that image was pre JC and probably dates back to when GM were proposing a smaller Delta II based 9-3. This is why the proportions looked a bit odd when the 9-3’s successor is meant to be a fraction larger than the current 9-3SS. Hopefully the real car will bear little resemblance to either the fuzzy image or the Autoexpress photoshop effort. It looks to much like a 9-5 and we need to move on from the conservative GM era.

  13. Very nice! But programming is a liberal art, you know 😉 I think the corollary of that is that car-making is a liberal art too. Beyond specs, the cars are only as good as how much usability, that is, how much culture, you manage to build into them.

    Great stuff, and yes, I also think JC will do what it takes to preserve what’s valuable about the front!

    • Ah yes, I havent forgotten about Steve Jobs’ famous statement that Apple’s work is “the intersection between Liberal Arts and Science”. In principle, I definitely agree and was eluding to this in my piece. I am just not a huge fan of the designation “liberal arts”. To me: “art” is a simpler and more accurate label, but I recognize that this is a minor point 🙂

      regarding JC preserving Saab’s heritage in the grill: I agree. In fact, of I had to guess, I would suspect that the left and right bands would be more pronounced (probably integrated with the headlights) on future 9-3s but continue to be more subtle (also integrated with the headlights) in future 9-5s. Honestly, I do find this possibility a bit strange, as higher end models tend to have more exagerated visual features but hey as long is that grill is in three pieces, even with a little disguise, then I am happy 🙂

  14. .
    Being a 6’+ [1.8m+] Man, I keep looking at the entry size into the rear.

    Looks like a Bum first entry for bigger people.

    God knows, what the size of the glass after the C pillar will be in an estate version……

Comments are closed.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.