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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Releasing the Inner Snaab

Let's be perfectly clear: I was not one of the mopers who spent the larger part of 2011 distraught as the company that was "Born from jets" quickly rolled over and went dead from neglect. Sure, there's the closet nerd in me who thinks that V4 engines are sexy in the same way that Denise Austin is sexy telling us to eat potatoes, and I would go bat crazy for an 80s anything 900 Turbo in black with matching black rear window louvers.

Its just that not all the blame can be entirely laid on GM, even though the mindset in America prefers this ire by pointing fingers at whichever failed administration happens to be in office. Who can honestly say that staking your entire product lineup and future on TWO, long-in-the-tooth, premium priced hatchbacks in a country that despised (and still despises) hatchbacks, was anything less than a terrible idea? And yet this was exactly the position that Saab left itself in as it entered the 1990 model year and into the General's receivership.

The car that tried to change Saab's fortunes, the 9000, shared its platform development with 3 other, ill-fated brands in this country: Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia. And yet, in a strangely perverse way, the cars this platform spawned - 4 in total - weren't inherently BAD, they all just suffered from varying degrees of hyperactive, torque-steering twist (or bliss if you're the sort that enjoys scouring both sides of both shoulders). While the Lancia Thema and Alfa 164 were too dynamically flawed to be game changing executive cars, they were at least compelling sedans in their most potent forms. The Thema's trump card was its optional Ferrari V8 in 8.32 flavor, which pleased automotive snobs everywhere  (more on that one in another musing), and Alfa's V6 looked and sounded like a thoroughbred. The 9000 Turbo was also a compelling entry, at least dynamically, even if it was a bit stoic compared to its charismatic, Italian blooded cousins. It took a entirely different route using Saab's signature, small displacement, forced induction 4 cylinder. I'll leave Fiat's poor bastard, step child, the Chroma, out of this discussion since its relevance in the marketplace could best be measured on a thumbnail.

Saab 9000

But there was the question of style, or lack thereof for the 9000. Pininfarina did a masterful job penning Alfa's 164 - now wearing two decade's old fashion like only a gracefully aging supermodel could - and arguably imbued Alfa Romeo with a longer shelf life in this country than should have been possible for a marque whose dealer infra-structure was shakier than a 1st generation X3 on run-flats. Lancia's creation, the Thema, was no supermodel, but it was, in its own right, attractive in a generic sort of way. Both were in contrast to the 9000, which always managed to look like your older, disapproving Aunt in a Nun's habit. Ironically enough, both the Thema and 9000 were the creations of Giugiaro.

Alfa Romeo 164

Even if Guigiaro's hand had been more evocative while inking the 9000, the real blame for the 9000's epic design failure lay with Saab and its penchant for the hatchback form. Somehow, even Alfa Romeo, whose North American marketing arm thought it was a good idea to show us a picture of a 164 dash lit up like a XMAS tree (I have the brochure to prove it) knew that you just couldn't peddle a premium priced hatchback in the US market. Oh sure, Saab later realized this was a shortcoming of mammoth proportion and gave us the graceless 9000 CD sedan in 1989. But in any form, the 9000 was a bitter pill to swallow for the average, status conscious American. Some of us tried to swallow paying Mercedes E Class or BMW 5 series money for a car with 4 cylinders (even if they were - for the time - exotically turbo charged... nope, didn't work for Lotus either). And what few of us hadn't spit it out yet took another big gulp and tried to force down its plebian, instantly forgettable shape or gave up when we saw that strange looking appendage at the rear.

Lancia Thema 8.32
In fairness, Saab's Italian cousins fared no better as serious competition to the German juggernauts who churned out barely enough E Classes and 5 Series to meet demand. However, Saab had tangible advantages in the North American marketplace over the likes of Alfa Romeo - namely a plausible dealer infra-structure - and with a pretty body and a few more cylinders it could have posed a credible threat to the likes of Mercedes and BMW.

 The real problem was Saab had fallen victim to its own, inverse automotive snobbery. It deluded itself with thoughts of pricey, esoteric hatchbacks that few Americans wanted to or even cared to understand. By 1990, the 900 was a relic, albeit an interesting one, and the 9000, already long-in-the-tooth, would be forced to soldier on for 8 more years until its replacement, the 9-5, arrived. And yet, the 9000 was brimming with potential - it offered competitive performance, interesting (but flawed) dynamics, excellent fuel economy, and a large, comfortable cabin. If only Saab had paid a little more attention to the fundamentals of what sells a car, it might have been a different story today.

Instead, Saab was left to flounder and share second rate GM platforms and, in later incarnations, share mechanical bits too. The irony for Saab, of course, was that mainstream GM snuffed out automotive snobbery in whatever, limited forms miraculously came to market (R.I.P. Carlton and C4 ZR1). In the end, automotive snobs everywhere were left clinging to romantic notions of quaint, turbocharged hatchbacks that were barely competitive in the most competitive market segment on the planet. The only salvation was to release the inner snaab and find solace in your neighbor's Camry or Taurus which, after-all, was the whole reason you bought a Saab in the first place.


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Meet the Auto Snob

Mike Kovac


My passion for all things cars traces itself back to the age of 3 when I became obsessed with my Dad’s 1973 Capri V6. He would give me the keys and I would spend hours locking and unlocking the passenger door. Once I could read, I would lose myself for hours pouring over his car magazines and that carried into my teen years and beyond. Every month, I would creatively find ways to scrounge up $10 and buy the latest issue of ‘CAR’ Magazine which just fueled my desire to buy the “forbidden fruit” cars that were never imported into the States. This might explain why there is a 1987 Citroen CX25 TRD Turbo 2 parked in my garage. And why there will be others…

Age 3

Mike Kovac

Contact Information

Phone number: +1 (917) 374-3291
E-mail: euroe28m5@gmail.com

And now

Today, my addiction has morphed from just reading about them to collecting, racing, detailing, driving and yes, even fixing them on occasion. But it’s not just the cars that I own that are exciting to me; it’s infecting others with the same passion and love for cars of all nationalities, shapes and sizes. It’s seeing what brings out the auto snob in each one of you!


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