Design Study: The view from behind

Last week, we embarked on an in-depth look at a key visual element of Saab: The Saab Grill.  Now it is time for us to go for a short jog and get ourselves a good look at the view from behind.  Most of us like to think that this is a view that other drivers (excepting other lucky Saab owners of course) will be intimately acquainted with.  And just as we all want to sneak up on them with class, we want to zoom past them with style.  My limited artistic abilities and non-existent photo-shopping skills prevents me from providing a general diagram of the Saab back-side, as I did with the Saab grill.  But, it turns out that there is enough “going on”, visually speaking, that I believe the best way to proceed with our study, is to look at examples and point the various interesting facets of the design.  So without further ado, we have our first example: The Saab 900 SE

This Saab 900 SE is from 1978-1993.  Recall from the grill design study that the Saab grill comes in three-parts.  Well, being masters of consistency, the Saab designers split the rear lights that are grouped together as one continuous piece, apart of the trunk: three-parts as well.  This design motif, where the light bar spans the entire width of the car’s rear actually experienced a decade-long hiatus (1999 – 2010), making a resurgence when the latest 9-5 was debuted (more on that later).  Looking at the rear, you get a mix of very interesting impressions that encompasses the full diversity of Saab’s intentions.  From 1994 – 1998, the Convertible (shown as yellow) doesn’t look all that much different.

Later, we will see how more recent Saabs have a few interesting points of distinction between their convertible and hardtop models.  Just one year later, we start to see elements of the newer design philosophies sneaking in (shown as the red convertible).  The point at which the rear light-bar no longer spanned the rear of the car was also point where the 900 name was replaced with the 9-3 designation.  But if we go back in time, again, there were in-fact Saab 900’s that did not have the full-sized light bar. Observe the Red Saab 900 to the right.  Many would consider this particular car to have the quintessential Saab look.  Here we have a continuously sloped back that reaches down

towards the tail-lights.  An interesting theme to notice here is that Saab hatchbacks a very much slanted.  This is a stark contrast from the upright or near-upright look of hatchbacks from other automakers.  This was a design motif that Saab has been applying for decades, and actually shows how far Saab was ahead of their time.  Now, it is becoming more widely accepted for cars to have steep slopes on the front and back.  Hence, as Saab continues to adapt additional modern auto-industry design cues, they can’t help but also create a connection to the past in the process.  In 2003, Saab gave a slant to the tail lights, and rounded the corners, which made a very bold statement, yet you will notice that the tail lights continue to be only half on the trunk-lid and half off the trunk-lid.  I must confess that I am very much fond of the look of the Saab 9-3 2003-2007 (given that I own a 2007 9-3 Arc SS).  Saab also continues to be a fan of the black rubber moldings on the back and sides of their cars.  This of course protects the sheet metal, but also adds to the cars’ style.   It is with these newer models that the horizontal breaking light moves from the trunk lid to the top of the rear wind-shield.  This is not a bad idea as it prevents the trunk area from looking overly cluttered.  Another interesting addition is the extra piece of metal just above the license plate well, which I find as an interesting throw back to the days where the tail-lights appeared as one continuous light-bar.  Next we have a Sports-Combi from the same time-period.  This one is actually a 9-5, and is more upright than Saab hatch-backs from earlier years.  Just as we have seen in the sedans, the horizontal break-light is up towards the top of the rear, but there is no piece of metal spanning the top of the license plate well for this one.  We still have the rubber molding but in this case it sits just below the hatch back, which is not a bad idea as hatchback owners might want to sit in the back, as it is opened, if they are parked somewhere scenic (e.g. in front of a beach).  Around this same time the 9-5 SS also had an interesting look.  The tail-lights looked very different than you see on other Saabs, as the bottom of the tail-lights on the trunk lid didn’t actually line-up with the lights beside the trunk-lid.  Just like we see with the 9-3 Sport-Sedan the tail-lights curve towards a body line that leads towards the rear-wheels, but given the wider stance of the 9-5, the tail lights definitely have a more complex shape.  The 9-5 also has a frame of metal around the license plate well.  One thing that is curiously absent would be the rubber molding.  Presumably this was to make the rear look a bit more elegant for the more upscale 9-5.  Late model convertibles have some very interesting design cues that distinguish it from the Sports-Sedan.  The proportions of the tail-lights to the size of the rear of the car, definitely stand out as being quite different.  Of course there is another very interesting difference in the tail-lights that was also the case with all Sports-Combis and Sport-Sedans as well (which we will look into later).  But for now, notice how the bar above the license plate doesn’t line up with the bottom of the tail-lights and the horizontal break-light is on the trunk-lid.  These are a lot of distinctions that make the Saab convertible rear look quite a bit different from other Saabs.  In fact, I have actually read in Car and Driver that the tail-lights have the effect of “eyes looking in the sky”.  While I seldom agree with how media outlets and magazines perceive Saab cars, I have to admit that I can’t disagree here. The year 2008 saw some rather significant changes to both the 9-3 and the 9-5.  In 2008 The Sports-Combi experienced the most noticeable changes in the rear, but there a number of interesting changes to the look of the rear of the sport-sedan as well.

 To the right we see an example of a 2008-2012 Saab 9-3.    Notice here that the rubber molding goes away.  Since the image here is actually a 2012 model, the 9-3 and 2.0T emblems are below the tail-lights.  Note that in 2008-2010 those emblems were actually above the tail-lights.  But you may also see that the bar over the license plate well and the tail-lights themselves are bolder looking.  The later is because there is dark trim bordering the headlights, creating a very strong visual effect.  Not only is this a wonderful new addition to the Saab look, but it also is a throw-back to the Saab 900.  If you take a look back at the Red Saab 900 above (the one Saab 900 picture that shows the rear-side view), you may be surprised to see the same border around the tail light pieces.  This actually marks the beginning of Saab’s move of incorporating historical design motifs into their modern cars.  Well, actually there is a bit of an exception.  Take a look at the 2011 Saab 9-3 Sports-Combi.  Whoa!  Where in the heck did those vertical tail-lights come from? (cough Volvo cough).  Yes, it does looks pretty slick but we have to confess that this is a massive departure from the Saab hatchback design.  And when we look at pictures of the upcoming 9-5 Sports-Combi, it’s quite obvious that Saab is in the process of back-peddling from that design decision.  In fact, next we will do just that and have a look at the Saab’s latest offering that we should see rolling off the production line any day now.  And as I was eluding to earlier: the continuous light-bar is back.  Also note the wrap-around rear-windshield.  Simply put: there is no other hatchback that looks like this.  Also note that instead of curving downwards on the sides of the car, the tail-lights curve straight ahead.  Think of this inversion as a reflection of Saab’s new “reverse hockey-stick” motif.  And while there is no body-molding, we see a nice indentation below the bumper.  Expect to see more of this in future Saabs, as they continue doing progressively more fancy things with their sheet metal.  Of course, this has nothing to do with the rear-end view of the car, but I am a big fan of the wheel rims that have a large number of spokes, just as we see here.   As a final exhibit of production Saabs, we now have the 9-5 Sport-Sedan.  The back-side of the 9-5 SS is indeed very much consistent with the back-side of the 9-5 SC.  One curious change is that 2.0T models now have a “Turbo4” emblem.  I’m honestly torn as to which I like better, but having actually driven the NG 9-5, I can say that desperately want one.  Of course the biggest change: No Griffin!  That’s right, the Griffin is indeed missing in action.  Even the steering wheel has no Griffin.  For those of you who may remember, when I first joined the Saab community, I did a lot of griping about the phasing out of the Griffin.  I’m still not particularly happy about it, but at the same time: The Saab wordmark is beautiful enough that frankily, I believe it can stand on its own. A rather intriguing principle of Typography highlights that the shape of letters have a very real visual impact.  There can be a certain beauty to letters, their font and how they are combined that isn’t easy to describe.  And years before I became insanely fanatical about Saab, I felt something rather special whenever I would see: 

Finally, let us take a look at the view from behind of the Saab Pheonix concept:

Exactly how much of this car we will ever see in production Saab vehicles remains to be seen.  However, I can say that the horizontal tail-light which is shaped like the retro Saab logo is a likely candidate.  And we could very well see the taillights of a future ultra high-end Saab (ala Lexus LFA) have a similar look.  Those tail-pipes are also quite plausible.  But, the wierd crooked looking things going from the trunk to the top of the car?  I say forget it.  But hey, It is a concept car after all. The history of Saabs design-language is quite intriguing indeed. As we saw last week with the evolution of the Saab grill, there is an impressive array of details going into the look of the Saab rear-end.

30 thoughts on “Design Study: The view from behind”

  1. I was hoping for;
    1. NOT to see the Phoenix tail lights in production because they don’t remind me of anything Saab done previously and they aren’t especially good looking. (If any of you would have seen the rear end of the Phoenix without knowing it was a Saab I guess all of you would have guessed it was a Korean car…)

    2. NEVER EVER see the silly airplane silhouette on the Phoenix go into production on any car. I think that it is a big mistake to fall in the retro pool – you can easily drown in there.

    3. ACTUALLY see Saab go all in on aerodynamics by providing an Aero/Airflow package for the new cars that could include such features as the “wierd crooked looking this” because the actually add significantly to the aerodynamics of the car. And just imagine how significantly the rear wing of the first generation 900 Aero added to the image of Saab.

    So I guess I am hoping for the exact opposite of the predictions in the article. 🙂

    • predictions? I was careful to not be too heavy on making forecasts of future Saab designs. Given that Castriota is now in charge, there is a good chance that some of the new trends that were started with NG 9-5 and the 9-4X will likely be either reversed or replaced with some completely new ideas. Regardless of year, I would say that Saab designs have always been unique and exemplary. The only exceptions, in my opinion, are the 9-2X and the 9-7X. Honestly, I have a hard time getting excited about those two.

    • Re:
      1. The rear lights are actually the thing I like most with the Phoenix. Tastes differ 😉
      2.agree, but what about having the wordmark illuminated as a braking light?
      3. I’d rather have that Saab design a car having excellent aerodynamics without the need for such ugliness like spoilers etc.

  2. Huh? The rear lights “grouped together as one continuous piece”, a continuous light-bar, as a hallmark for Saab? I don’t agree. Yes, it’s been there, but not that often. Something similar could also be seen on the Saab 9000 CS, I think, but before that? And then as you say on the short lived NG900. All that happened in the 90s. (It’s possible there have been some plastic pieces for the old, classic, 900, some aftermarket-thingies, perhaps,)

    “This Saab 900 SE is from 1978-1993.”
    Surely not 1978-1993 for the NG 900? 😉

    The OG 9-3 was close to the classic 900, in this aspect; i.e. lights, license plate etc.

    And the OG 9-3 came 1998 not 1999 (the decade-long hiatus you mention). As for the move of the break light, you mention it closely after the paragraph about the 2003-2007 9-3, but as you know the move was done in the 90s.

    (As for the 9-5 SCs, old and new, to me they look a bit like a box on a sedan (mini-Toppola?); with that C-pillar and what you call wrap-around rear-windshield; not like an estate car, combi etc. compared to the 9-3 SC or the old 95. Not bad, but different, and we see it sometimes in car design.)

    • Whoops, pardon my years for being slightly off. And yes, my scope didn’t include *all* Saabs as I focused more on modern editions which I am more familiar with. My hope was to point out some interesting patterns and some common design themes, not create an in-depth history lesson (sorry if I gave the opposite impression).

      • No need to, Ryan. I’m sorry if I came through as harsh, the exact year isn’t important here, and there was no need for me to mention that. I think you, and you all, do a very good work. The topic, Design Study, is, IMO, interesting, and I’m looking forward to more posts on the topic. As you say one can start at some point looking at both older models and latter versions. It really doesn’t matter; it’s another thing is to study the overall design from the beginning. As you say there are indeed similarities between the dark trim bordering the lights on recent 9-3s and the classic 900s, I didn’t see that connection when I first saw the updated 9-3.

        As for the continuous taillights; I liked them on the updated 9000, the CS. A very beautiful 9000, IMO. I think there were many that waited on the new 900 at the time, it was nice; but I think they had to force, speed up, the project a bit, and in some respects I don’t think the design was the best that could have been achieved, and ultimately, as we know, quite many changes were done with the 9-3 in 1998. For example the low integrated break light, it wasn’t the best place.

  3. Taillight design has been one of Saab’s weakest points. The only designs worth mentioning in that regard are those of the current 9-3 estate, current 9-3 covertible and the new 9-5. So There is, fortunately, progress.

    • That is debateable. I never meant to imply that the full spanning lightbar was either superior or inferior: I just pointed it out as an interesting design element.

  4. I think the rear light clusters on the saloon 9-3, far from creating a strong visual effect, look as if they`ve been repaired with black stick tape. And call me biased, as I own one, but I like the rear lights on the MY12 9-3 SC.

    • For me, the visual appeal of the current 9-3s tail lighting depends on the color of the car. I had a black 2007 9-3 and recently traded for a black 2011 9-3 SS. I don’t like the black ‘taping’ on other colors, but on the black (and Nocturne Blue) it looks quite striking. I also like that when the car is parked these lights appear as clear–something not mentioned in the article above. It definitely sets this Saab apart from others.

      • Agree with both of you.
        Can anyone with insight of the black tape design of the 2008- 9-3ss rear lights explain the idea?
        While I find my 2006 9-3ss aero red behind very nice, the weird black tape design on the newer models have actually prevented me from getting the newer car, especially that I don’t want a dark or black car.
        My favorite rear is the ice block 9-3sc rear lights, stunning!

  5. Hmm.. I am not that sharp on the design history, but isn’t the continous taillights something that came with the 9000 CS’s and the NG900 got that same design for consistency?
    I don’t think it existed before that, but I may be wrong?

    Anyway I think the design on the OG9-3 is more in line with the rear end design of the OG900, with the horisontal line on the hatch overhanging the licence plate in a straight horisontal line and the number plate place between the rear lights and pulled in

    The 9000CS and the NG900 has the sheet metal as one piece between the rearlights, and the reflective parts placed there with the licence plate placed low
    The older 9000 had the horisontal line and License plate placement like the OG900, and continued that from the 99.

    What I wanted to say is that I think that the continous backlights are more of a deviation than a trend, only present on the 9000CS and the NG900.

    What we see on the NG9-5 is a sort of compromise in my eyes. The Licence plate is placed between the rear lights , with the continous band running in the position of the old brake light position, combined in the horisontal line over the Licence plate.
    As I view it it is “just” the old horisontal line accentuated

    Regarding the rear end design of the 9-3SC I thought it was a continuation and refinement of the 95, which had a vertical line of the rear lights, but OK they are placed in the same position of the Volvo cars, and you are probably right

    Don’t get me started on the Aquarium Estates.

    But my GF really likes the NG9-5 SC

  6. the most beautiful rear light design of a SAAB I can think of is the old SAAB 96, where the lights are more integrated into the overall line of the metal. I also think the new 9-5 has quite a good rear light look.

  7. In 2003, Saab gave a slant to the tail lights, and rounded the corners, which made a very bold statement, yet you will notice that the tail lights continue to be only half on the trunk-lid and half off the trunk-lid.

    For the front end you are absolutely correct about the three-division grille, and BMW’s kidney grille, which makes Saab and BMW vehicles recognizable from a mile or more away – from the front. From a profile view, comparing a Saab 9-3 or 9-5 to a 93 or 900, Saab heritage is barely recognizable, if at all.

    I’m sorry, but for the taillights there really is not a consistent theme. The only vehicles I can think of which have had consistent (or at least related) taillight schemes across two or more generations have been Pontiac (which had the honeycomb look on several vehicles, particularly the Firechicken, er, Firebird) and the Corvette, which have had dual taillamps as far back as 1960; at first they were convex cones, then became flush, and then recessed, but always circles until the ZR-1, where they became rounded squares, then within a year of the ZR-1’s introduction the rounded rectangles filtered down to the base model and continued even after ZR-1 was discontinued, into the 1996 model, then it was back to rounded (oval actually) dual taillamps in the C5, and back to circles in the C6. They are unmistakable, and even though some other models try to emulate that look, even a mile or more away you can tell a Corvette is a Corvette at night. Also, if you see a “Midyear” (C2) Sting Ray, a C3 “Stingray”, and don’t ever see a C4, C5, but are introduced to a C6, you can immediately see it’s a Corvette – it SCREAMS Corvette despite decades separating the designs, and based on spy photos, the “C7” will convey that heritage even more than the C6 does. It has not been a sharp discontinuation of a scheme like other vehicles have done.

    Lamborghini? A related theme starting with the and LP500 (Countach prototype) and LP400 (first year production Countach) (although you could argue it started with the Miura) and continued through the Diablo, and into the Gallardo and Murciélago. A very consistent, related theme throughout the generation of models. Yes they differ, but are still very consistent and convey familial heritage. The lower end models (Urraco, Silhouette, Jalpa) had a similar theme which continued through the generations, although the current Gallardo shares more heritage with the flagship vehicle rather than the entry level Lamborghini. Also, on Lamborghini’s higher end model, the overall styling has remained very consistent, so even if you haven’t seen the new models but only the Countach, and then for the first time see a Gallardo or Murciélago, you would immediately know it’s a Lamborghini. Their designers know consistence and conveying a particular feel through the body “lines”

    But Saab? No, there really isn’t familial heritage and consistency in the taillights. They are similar to BMW and Audi, both of which feature the part of taillights on unibody/part of taillight (the fog lights in particular, just like Saab) on the trunk lid/hatchback. In fact today’s 9-3 may as well be a BMW or Audi based on the rear end view, and today’s 9-5 may as well be a new Pontiac Grand Prix based on the taillights, since it is Pontiac which has historically had the all-light-and-reflector rear taillamp assemblies.

    You were “dead on balls accurate” (“It’s an industry term”) when it comes to the front grille analysis, but completely wrong about the taillights.

    • Given that Saturn was canned awhile back, that’s sorta moot. But, I can see *some* similarities. I still think the Saabs look quite a bit better out back.

  8. Thanks for the article.

    My favourite SAAB taillights is the new 9-5 sedan.

    I can see in one second during night that it is a SAAB, because of the continuous taillight.

  9. Great post, Ryan! I’m enjoying the dissection of Saab’s design. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone try to take on the task… Very ambitious. This is definitely one of my favorite parts of Saabs/cars in general (Freud would have a field day with that).

    My only gripe with tail lights for ANY car, is the full-on light-bar going across the back. I just don’t like it, regardless. The second generation 900 sort of resembled the Nissan Sentra around the same time. Yet, when you take away the center light bar for the first generation 9-3, instant infatuation! Well, it’s not just because of that, but I’m drifting off topic. The light bar on the new 9-5s doesn’t completely put me off… I think it’s because it’s not a solid horizontal line running across the back.

    My favorite lights are on the classic 900, and a close runner-up are the ones on the second-gen 9-3 with the black trim around them. I instantly liked the black trim, despite having seen it on other cars shortly before it appeared on the 9-3. I was surprised when I heard a lot of people didn’t like it… I agreed with those who thought Saabs were a little too conservative at the time, and thought this was a little effort to come off bolder. I’m not so sure they took the design cue from the classic 900, however. It’s a little similar, but if I remember correctly, the black in the C900 tail lights is a gasket to keep moisture out, and (in my opinion) not very prominent.

    I also agree the tail lights from the recent 9-3 sport combi look awfully Volvo…

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Thanks, and yes it’s not easy. Trying to do this analysis on the various rear-ends was quite a bit more difficult than my earlier grill analysis: largely because — many folks just don’t see any patterns whatsoever 🙂

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