Late Reprieve

The 9-4X arrived too late to save Saab. But could it have done so?

(c) motortrend

When General Motors acquired Saab, they were not taking control of a healthy, thriving carmaker. Saab was already losing money and furthermore, required massive investment. It’s clear that GM made many mistakes over its stewardship, but perhaps the most glaring of them was (and GM were by no means alone in this) a growth policy which placed speed and market presence over quality of execution.

Having spent vast sums of money acquiring European prestige car brands, General Motors, like their Dearborn rivals saw expansion as the favoured route to amortising their outlay. No stranger to the 4×4 segment – GM were already making hefty profits from their broad ranges of SUVs and pick-ups. But never the most far-seeing of automakers, the General was relatively late to recognise the growth in upmarket 4×4’s, apart of course from the Escalade, which at its 1998 debut, was hardly the quality item befitting the fabled Cadillac nameplate – if indeed it ever became one.

Having identified the necessity for Saab to be represented in this growing US market sector, Detroit management did what they knew best, scouring the GMpire for hardware that could be inexpensively repurposed for the job. Both Subaru and Chevrolet were variously employed – GM having acquired a 20% stake in the Fuji Heavy Industries business – the resulting vehicles painting none of the various protagonists in a positive light – Trollhättan least of all. This bought GM time and presence, but little else; certainly not credibility, nor return on investment, sales being of a rather paltry nature.

Saab 9-4X: Image DTW

Having instigated a nose-heavy facelift of Subaru’s Tribeca crossover, GM’s divestment in FHI in 2006 saw the proposed 9-6X model cancelled, and a new programme initiated, twinned with Cadillac. Although widely stated to be based upon GM’s Theta platform, Saab insider, Peter Dörrich who was engineering lead on the programme told Swedish publication, Aftonbladet that not only was the platform unique to both models, but that the conceptual engineering was led from Trollhättan.

Dörrich, who became Saab’s head of product development following GM’s sale of the Swedish carmaker to Spyker, spoke of his (successful) efforts to convince Cadillac’s management of the necessity for both 9-4X and SRX to feel European in driving characteristics, lobbying for a Haldex eLSD four-wheel-drive system to be fitted, when Cadillac had opted for a cheaper, less sophisticated set-up.

Both cars shared powertrains, with both Cadillac and Saab opening their respective accounts with a GM sourced 3.0 litre V6, developing 265 bhp, driving the front wheels only. Further up the price range was a smaller capacity turbocharged 2.8 litre V6 with 300 horses, all wheel drive and all the toys. Those artificially aspirated horses were necessary, because both were on the portly side.

But while there was little difference under the skin, the 9-4X was given its own identity with a bespoke bodyshell. Stylistically, during the immediate pre-disposal period, Saab design appeared to be going through something of a creative purple patch; a new, more coherent direction being previewed by a series of highly credible concept cars. And while the 9-4X was perhaps not a shining example of their craft, it was at least attractive and recognisably marque specific.
2011 Saab 94x: (c)

Carrying seemingly inviolate features such as blacked-out A-pillars (suggesting an aircraft cockpit), a rising DLO towards the rear and both surfacing and styling elements not only redolent of the previous year’s 9-5 saloon, but also the proposed 9-3 from the hands of Simon Padian and Anthony Lo, the 9-4X looked both up to date and cohesive. Furthermore, unlike previous attempts, it was a product with sufficient market potential to succeed both in the US and in Europe.

There was little question about where the primary focus of the model was directed however, and at the time, there was a degree of logic in that. However, the 9-4X’s primary enemies were weight and powertrains. It was obvious the large-capacity (and thirsty) V6 units were not going to cut it outside of the US, and efforts were made to source appropriate diesel powered engines. According to Dörrich, units from GM (a four-cylinder) and VM Motori in Italy (a V6) were tried, but they were neither sufficiently powerful, nor fuel efficient. Both were abandoned.

But the biggest enemy of all overtook Dörrich, Saab and GM. In the messy aftermath of the 2008 crash and GM’s subsequent Chapter 11 declaration, the troublesome Swedish satellite was pawned off to Victor Muller of Spyker N.V, who made a valiant if futile attempt to breathe life into the flatlining carmaker. Production of the 9-4X, which was built alongside the Cadillac SRX at GM’s Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico ceased with Saab’s subsequent bankruptcy in 2011, with somewhere between 600-900 9-4Xs built in total.

Many have posited the view that had it arrived in a more timely fashion, the 9-4X could have saved Saab’s fortunes – in the US market at least. Certainly, by 2010, sales of Saab’s saloons were in reverse, partially a factor of both their age and appeal, partially due to market conditions during that febrile post-crash period, but equally owing to the knowledge that the Swedish carmaker was in deep trouble and up for sale.

(c) caranddriver

The 9-4X was in itself a convincing product, with both the New York Times and Car & Driver giving the model a positive review, with some understandable reservations. The NYT described it as packing “a surprising degree of Scandinavian charm“, while Car & Driver applauded its “surprisingly supple ride“, lack of suspension noise and the smoothness of the six-speed Aisin Warner automatic transmission.

The cabin design was also heavily influenced by the concurrent 9-5, being almost identical in style and layout. Car & Driver called it “subdued”, lauding its “high quality materials and soft touch surfaces.” The New York Times noted, “your eye takes in its charcoal-tone surroundings in a clean, unbroken sweep. The cabin is also just right for the jet-inspired Saab, a blast of individualism against the more conformist vibe of, say, an Acura MDX or Lexus RX”. Boot capacity was criticised however.

Nevertheless, considering its high pricing, dipsomaniac thirst, not to mention its competition, Car & Driver concluded that the 9-4X was “a pretty tough sell“.

(c) motorauthority

For decades, the automotive world welcomed small-scale underdogs like Saab, with its loyal individualist owners. But that world is dying“, opined the NYT. So too it seemed was Saab itself, and while the 9-4X was perhaps a decent product, with sufficient potential for development, it simply wasn’t good enough, notwithstanding the timing, which wasn’t in any way auspicious. No one model line would have saved Saab by 2010. The damage was done at least a decade before.

Datasource and quotes: New York Times/ Car & Driver/ Saabsunited

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Late Reprieve”

  1. These Michael Maurer-designed Saabs are intolerably ugly, particularly the Dame Edna lights.

    1. Michael Mauer (the most misspelt German car designer?) was already some way into setting into his new surroundings at Weissach by the time the 9-4 was conceived.

      Beauty (and ugliness) are clearly in the eye of the beholder. The second-to-last generation 9-5 facelift I’d also consider ‘intolerably ugly’, but having come across its very rare successor just some days ago, I’d come to a drastically different conclusion with regards to that car.

    2. Broken record alert: Blaming a single person for the stylistic direction of a car business is at best, naïve. Stylistic decisions are not taken alone – there’s more than usually plenty of blame to go around.

  2. Isn’t it extraordinary that a company the size of GM didn’t have a suitable range of engines to make the 9-4X a viable product for the European market? With decent engines, the 9-4X and 9-5 saloon and estate would have made a platform on which to base a proper renewal of the marque, but it was too late and GM had squandered far too much of Saab’s (limited) brand equity on so-so products that left the market cold.

  3. Thanks for tickling the old memory cells!

    “Having spent vast sums of money acquiring European prestige car brands, General Motors”. Besides Saab, what were they? I can’t remember any. Ford had grabbed the lot. Not that Saab was a prestige brand here, it was regarded as an quirky niche car for the offbeat individual, sold at an elevated price. Arty types in fact seemed to buy them. I knew several a couple of decades ago. It was a “just to be different” kind of buy, and didn’t even feature AWD as an option. The stories about the Saab engineers wasting globs of money re-engineering whatever Opel platform the last 9-3 was based on are legion. Iconoclastic types labouring away in Trollhattan regarding themselves as geniuses, who somehow got away corporately with being difficult, yet finally putting out only a blah result. Then the midnight sun myths grew with Moose and company on Saabs United as GM moved to flog the remains to Spyker. Complete nonsense in my view. Talk about anthropomorphising an inanimate object. It became the Best Car Ever.

    Of course, under Wagoner, GM managed to lose $70 billion in stock value in the eight years from the millenia to its collapse. The man flailed around trying to stem the tide, so the “profits” from pickups and SUVs were flushed straight down the toilet. GM did have a stake in Fiat, hardly a prestige European, but desperately wanted out, so Marchionne managed to extract $2 billion for GM to leave:

    “Feb 14, 2005 DETROIT, Feb. 13 – General Motors said on Sunday that it would pay Fiat $2 billion so that it would not be forced to take over Fiat’s ailing auto business, resolving a dispute between the two ..”

    Ten months later in October 2005, GM sold off its 20% stake in Subaru to help pay for the Fiat fiasco, but netted only $740 million. Toyota bought less than half of that 20% initially. Also Subaru had not been all that co-operative with GM anyway, just as it has been a bit ascerbic with Toyota on using its production facilities in the US to make the Camry, and leading the BRZ/GT86 engineering before that. An independent lot. I highly doubt GM initiated the change to the Tribeca’s snout for the 2007 model year. They were long gone, and good riddance. Subaru had to own that unfortunate snout on its own account.

    So this 9-4X thing seems to have bred a bunch of myths as well. It was a pudgy looking thing as the photos show, too tall for its length. The companion second generation Cadillac SRX was a completely dorky misshapen looking thing that was even worse. The first generation SRX was kind of neat and with the Northstar V8, got out of its own way in a hurry, and didn’t bother looking like much more than a very slightly raised estate. GM was so disorganized before and after bankruptcy, it had various different V6 engines being designed both in both Australia and Germany, plus the US, and then made it in Canada as well as Oz. The Wikipedia page is instructive as to the riot of specs:

    Glance over that nonsense and waste of money and weep. And remember, GM owned VM Motori and were trying to develop a V6 diesel for Cadillac that got nowhere and the effort ended in 2010. They eventually flogged VM off to a resurgent Fiat.

    There was no magic in Haldex clutch-based AWD systems, even if Europeans want to make it so. Subaru made their own and better one in 1988, and still sell it, having refined it over the decades. Their even much better VTD system based on the STI system was in the Tribeca and my own Legacy GT, dying for the 2016 model year. It was only ever used in higher-end models and was right up there with Audi as a real centre-differential unit, but with a very advanced dual mechanical and electric LSD locking system on it since its debut in 1992 on the SVX.

    To me the Saab 9-4 X encompassed all that was off the rails at both GM and Saab. And the minimal production shows it, as the GM animal writhed around trying to restore itself from bankruptcy.

    1. “Having spent vast sums of money acquiring European prestige car brands, General Motors, like their Dearborn rivals saw expansion as the favoured route to amortising their outlay.”

      Bill: Thanks for your comment and for pointing out the inconsistency in the above statement. I realise now that it wasn’t perhaps clear enough. I should have substituted the term “American automotive multinationals” for “General Motors”.

      DTW’s sub-editor is currently self-isolating. Actually, that is his natural state. I’ve never actually seen him, although rumours do abound. Or did. The offices of the good ship DTW being rather desolate of late.

  4. 300bhp and 8.3 seconds to 100km/h with the benefit of AWD traction!! How heavy was this thing?!

  5. I don´t know if the 9-4X could have saved Saab, I never liked it much, but perhaps the car that could have been a sales sucess in Europe would be a production version of the 2001 9-X concept car. While no oil painting, sales of posh hatchbacks were booming and perhaps the 9-1X was the right car at the right moment for Saab.

  6. A thought-provoking article, as ever. No, the 9-4X was too late to save SAAB – once the confidence in a brand has gone, the vicious circle of low sales, poor resale values and high leasing costs starts. Also, the 9-5 of the time was (similarly) pretty good, but not attractive to enough people.

    I went looking for some brochures for the 9-4X, as I wanted to learn more and found this site, which will be of interest to brochure / SAAB fans:

  7. It’s “Trollhättan”, not “Trollhätten”.

    The irony of the 9-4X is that Saab could’ve gotten one a decade before, but it was nixed by GM in a phase of hubris pre-Chapter 11. They had plans making a Saab version of the first generation Cadillac SRX that debuted in 2004, but Cadillac wanted the platform “Cadillac exclusive” and didn’t want to taint the brand with a plebian Saab sibling. Which is of course totally absurd considering the Cadillac BLS.

    Also, I wouldn’t say Victor Muller “made a valiant attempt” saving the company. I consider him a charlatan that thought he struck gold. Whatever he did with the company, he played with other people’s money, in the end hustling money from Saab pension funds, third party suppliers, and even a futile attempt of suing GM for intellectual property that was never part of the deal even to begin with. In the end, GM was spared a lengthy winding down process just carting off the business to a charlatan they never thought would make it anyway.

    1. Thank you Ingvar for your kind correction, duly amended. I refer you to my earlier comment above. Standards are falling everywhere, and Simon Kearne’s outstanding sherry invoices remain unpaid…

    2. Does the editor drink outstanding sherry? I was under the impression that was Mr Herriot’s speciality, and the editor himself had been forced to lower his standards since going into hiding…..

    3. I mostly agree, Ingvar. Of course, the BLS wasn’t mentioned in North America except in the niche automotive enthusiast press. Wouldn’t be a soul in a thousand who heard about it, so Cadillac’s reputation for making cars nobody was buying in quantity would remain intact in the home market.

      Where GM made its usual overseas effete marketing error was in assuming the brandname Cadillac meant something to Europeans, but much of Mid West America is pretty much out of touch with the world. They then attempted to sell “Chevrolets” in Europe, made in the Korean ex-Daewoo plants I think, so not even real Chevs, whatever they actually were at the time six or eight years ago.

      I’d put the original Cadillac SRX above any Saab, which I do regard as plebeian plus, but no prestige car. Volvo was and is in the same class of not really being anything but what they are. The SRX Mk 1 underpinnings were similar to the CTS, and my Passat W8-driving brother was so impressed with the CTS he came within a gnat’s whisker of getting one. He ordered up a CTS at every major airport he arrived at in his role as corporate lawyer, and the drab interior rental specials still impressed him. Then he drove an Infiniti G37S and that would-be Cadillac love affair ended. Still has the Infiniti, which made the Mercedes C Class and BMW 4 series of 2015 seem like tin cans when he was looking to change again. 12 years and nothing gone wrong. You could get a V8 in the SRX Mk1, the reworked Northstar, which was a pretty darn pleasant engine to be behind. I really don’t see Saab in the same league in an engineering sense. The management in Detroit may be useless, but I’d never underestimate the US design engineering crowd, given a correct brief. Which of course rarely happens.

      Going way back to 1986 and my drives of the new Saab 9000 versus the Audi 200 quattro one after the other the same day accompanied by the same brother when he was an unknown, you’d be a strange person who thought the Saab came anywhere close to the Audi. Not in the same league except for price. I was unimpressed with it, because it felt cheap inside as well as being slower and not as buttoned down while having an indefinable air of flimsiness on road.

      My opinions of course. Feel free to differ. I just never got the Saab thing. At all. I have other anecdotes of my experience on the marque going back to its 99, but why pile on? The fact it essentially failed and was bought by GM shows the general buying public were staying away as well.

    4. Good morning, Bill. I couldn’t agree more with your observation about US automotive engineering vs management. The former is often excellent, the latter often inept.

      I remember being horrified when GM decided to use the Chevrolet brand for Daewoo models in Europe. Of course, I knew that Chevrolet was GM’s mainstream brand in North America, but it still had a certain resonance based on its cultural significance and certainly didn’t deserve such an indignity. It didn’t help that Daewoo were very much bottom of the South Korean auto hierarchy.

      I’ve driven on many occasions in the US and have always chosen an American car in preference to a European or Japanese one when possible, sometimes to the bemusement of the clerk at the rental desk. In recent years we’ve had, amongst others, had a couple of Mustang convertibles, a Chrysler 300C, a Chevrolet Camaro (and a Nissan Rogue Sport, a.k.a. Quasqai, which was fine but very dull).

      Without exception, the American cars all proved to be capable, comfortable and amiable companions for our road trips. Sure, the panel gaps may not be Audi-tight and the interior plastics not exactly ‘premium’ but, really, who cares? American cars are primarily designed for their home market and work perfectly well there. They just don’t translate particularly well to our narrower, more congested roads and mean parking spaces.

  8. On a blisteringly hot Schleswig-Holstein day last August, I met my first 9-4X at Saabists shrine Autohaus Lafrentz in Kiel:

    This one was already sold at 29,990 Euros, a 2011 3.0 V6 with just under 100,000km on the clock. I was told that the hard core of fanatical Saab-ists are keen to snap up any of the 800 or so made.

    It’s a decent looking thing, but not in any sense a rational €30K suv purchase in Germany.

    Wherein may be a hint at the cause of Saab’s downfall. It has its small core of faithful, willing to spend irrationally in witness to their faith, but for the rest of us, they were never quite good enough. Solidly built certainly, but far from trouble-free, and also expensive to fix. The perception of safety and environmental consciousness faded when such things became mandatory by law.

    I belong to the absolute core of the Saab demographic, but I’ve only fleetingly contemplate buying one, although I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve driven.

    Bill is right in his description of real-world pre-GM era Saab owners “Arty types”, “just to be different”. Affluent people, car-dependent by lifestyle, but purporting a distaste for cars. The two most prolific Swedish brands were seen as projecting their values perfectly.

    Thankfully for such people, after a model-cycle of GM ownership, Toyota delivered the Prius.

    1. Robertas, you might be the only member of the DTW commentariat that has actually seen a 9-4X in the metal. I wonder how many made it to Europe? The 2.8 and 3.0 litre V6 petrol engine were wildly unsuited to markets outside North America.

  9. Given that 814 9-4Xs were sold, none of them officially in Europe, I suppose the answer is not many. It would be a labour of love to keep one alive, even the USA. It’s a case of the world’s most butt-headed car company excelling itself. It may be a Cadillac SRX underneath, but the external skin and interior are unique to the “Saab”. The losses on development and tooling must have been horrific, as they were before with the Saabillac BLS.

    My impression of the 9-4X were quite favourable. The Saabification is thorough yet restrained. It has a discreet presence for a vehicle about the same size as the contemporary BMW X5, a matter which probably detracted from its appeal to suv buyers.


  10. I actually had to look for 9-4Xs in Autoscout after reading this article. There are two of them for sale in Switzerland at the moment, both of them around 30,000 CHF, so not cheap at all. I don’t remember ever having seen one of them, actually, but you can never be sure. There lives a Saab enthusiast close to my brother who always has some nice cars on his driveway, among them at least one of the last 9-5s. He could be a candidate for spotting one of these cars.

    Interestingly, I have always felt a certain fondness for Saabs, even back in my childhood. This was still the time of the 99 and the first 900s. I was even very close to buying a Saab 99 as my first car in 1997 or 1998, but then decided to stay a cyclist and Vespa-rider for two more years. To this day I still don’t know if I’d actually like to drive a Saab, I’ve never sat inside one so far!

    1. Hello Simon,

      I too had a look for 9-4X’s for sale and there’s a reasonable smattering across Europe. I wonder if it’ll survive in disproportionately large numbers, as people know it’s rare.

      While I was searching, I found this documentary about the 9-4X’s market positioning and launch. It’s a shame that SAAB were late in entering the SUV sector (I appreciate they were short of cash). I think that the SAAB brand matched the ‘suitable for a tough environment’ / SUV image quite well. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

      I’ve always liked SAABs – my family had quite a few over the years (two 96s, a 99, two 9-3s (I think) and two 9-5s. I miss the brand, even though I think they benefitted from a lot of goodwill that kept them going in the later years.

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