Number Nine Dream

Getting it right at precisely the wrong moment.

Saab biohybrid
2008 Saab 9X biohybrid. Image: Netcarshow

As the world’s auto press converged at Geneva in March 2008 for the annual motor show – blissfully unaware of what would unfold within the global financial markets that Autumn – it was all very much business as usual. For General Motors however, already fighting several fire-fronts at home (to say nothing of their perennial loss-making volume European arm), there were increasingly dissatisfied voices being raised with the performance of their upmarket Swedish satellite[1].

Relations with Saab AB had become strained, with senior GM management viewing the troubled marque as simply a problem child to be dispensed with. But while keen disagreements at senior board level over Saab’s future were still taking place, a striking concept was prepared for landing at Palexpo 2008, intended to demonstrate the mothership’s continued backing for the Trollhättan carmaker while its future was being decided.

With a good deal of Saab’s development being twinned with Opel’s Rüsselsheim engineering centre by then in an effort to curb costs, there was a belief that a smaller, C-segment Saab offering could broaden the marque’s appeal, especially in European markets where such cars still sold strongly. The 2008 concept did not however simply emerge out of the ether, it was in fact the apogee of a dialogue that had been initiated at the turn of Millennium[2] to habituate both press and public once more, towards a smaller, wholly different type of Saab offering.

The 9-X Biohybrid concept therefore was the culmination of several prior studies from Saab’s experimental studios, developed under under the leadership of Anthony Lo, reporting to Saab Design Director, Michael Mauer[3]. A year after his Millennial arrival at Trollhättan, Saab introduced the 9X concept, a close coupled all-wheel drive shooting brake styled coupé/estate in the Volvo 480 ES mould.

Image: saabplanet

Introducing a frontal styling theme which would subsequently be rolled out across the Saab range, the 9X was characterised by a decidedly cab-rearward set of proportions, the trademark visor-style windscreen/ side glass treatment, a tapering, falling roofline and a truncated upright tail. With a broad-shouldered stance and clean, unadorned flanks, the 9X as presented, was attractive and highly versatile.

This versatility was evidenced by an element of modularity; the roof panels could be removed and stowed to provide a facsimile of open air motoring, while with the rear seats and the lower boot opening lowered, large objects like skis or mountain bikes could be carried. The 9X’s appeal was unquestionable, but what could be quite reasonably asked however was whether the concept, frontal aspect aside displayed sufficient Saab identity, not just in overall form but in the arrangement of its various volumes.

Image: oldconceptcars

The following year, Saab presented the 9-3 X concept, a high-riding 3-door hatchback coupé crossover. While clearly an evolution of 9X themes, this seemingly production-feasible shape provided a highly plausible thought experiment into future compact-Saab thinking with a far more marque-specific set of proportions and volumes.

In fact, it is difficult to look at this concept and not envisage something closely approximating a production car. Indeed, just as some of the 9X styling features would transfer onto production models in the fullness of time, the rear-end styling (complete with rising DLO) were seen again in the more conventional looking 9-3 Sportwagon estate, which was first introduced in 2005[4].

Image: zercustoms

This vehicle provides a glimpse of a future progressive compact car from Saab,” GM product chief Bob Lutz told journalists at the 9-X Biohybrid concept’s Geneva unveiling, a statement which ought to have been as unequivocal as any[5]. Certainly, the massed auto-press corps took Lutz at his word, stating baldly that it would see production by 2010. The GM executive highlighted Saab’s history of ‘progressive design’ to journalists, suggesting that between the 9-4X SUV and the production version of this concept (dubbed 9-1/ 9-2 in the media), Saab’s volumes could push upwards towards 200,000 units per annum.

Voted best concept by Auto Week, the American imprint wrote, “It shows that the heart rate is still there. It moves them [Saab] into the most competitive European segment and is also the next Astra platform. This is proof that General Motors has its global Bob Lutz-vision working.

Image: favcars

Taking themes from the previous 9-X duo and with front-end styling inspired by the 2006 Aero X concept, the 9-X Biohybrid was a compact C-segment sized shooting brake style four-seater coupé/ hatch. Characterised by its more emphasised visor shaped DLO, clean, fuselage-shaped flanks, punctuated by pronounced wheelarch flairs, falling roofline and upright tail with an active rear spoiler, the arresting shape was elegant, athletic and superbly proportioned.

Billed to employ platforms and powertrains derived from the 2009 Opel Astra J-series, the ‘production’ Saab was touted as being powered by a 1.4 litre turbocharged direct injection, variable valve timing engine, running on bio-ethanol (as a number of contemporary Saab models could), with an electric generator/motor linked to a lithium-ion battery pack. Also said to be part of the specification was electric assisted power steering, a torsion beam rear suspension and a six-speed manual gearbox.

Make no bones about it, this is far more than just another interesting but irrelevant Saab concept: you’ll see a car very like this in the showrooms within the next three years”, said the never knowingly understated Steve Cropley in Autocar, reporting on the concept’s Geneva unveiling, before going on to assert that according to ‘Saab sources’, the 9-X Biohybrid’s design was “close to production-capable”.

Later that year, at the Paris motor show, a pretty convertible version of the concept was shown, dubbed 9-X Air. Timing is everything in life, so its appearance, which coincided with the catastrophic financial crash, would be followed by GM’s bankruptcy and Saab’s slow motion demise, meaning any attempt at realising the design was hostage to fortune.

2008 Saab 9-X Air Biohybrid. Image: cartype

Given this multitude of factors massed against it, its ultimate non-adoption was perhaps inevitable, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it remains a matter of acute disappointment to many observers and Saab aficionados alike. For not only did the 9-X Biohybrid look the part, it also successfully imagined Saab’s potential entry into a sector of the market that ought to have proven both lucrative and sustainable – hybrid technology notwithstanding.

But questions remain over just how much Saab, or their GM masters for that matter were prepared to take a punt on such a leftfield design, no matter how attractive or well-received; certainly no evidence has since emerged of any meaningful model programme being enacted while Saab remained within the GM umbrella.

Furthermore, we must also consider the question of whether such a car would have moved the needle in a favourable direction for the Swedish carmaker. Certainly, it would have given them volume, but that in itself is no recipe for profitability. The word from Saab’s then CEO, Jan Ake Jonsson was that the production car was to be built at Trollhättan, when perhaps production elsewhere alongside its projected GM Europe sibling might have made more commercial sense[6].

Image: zercustoms

But beyond that, could any one model line have turned Saab’s fortunes around, especially within an organisational set up like General Motors? Without the will (or the resources) to enable Saab to field truly competitive products, the risk would have been to have produced yet another case of (as the motor press would routinely adjudge) nearly, but not quite.

Perhaps therefore it is best the 9-X concept remained just that – a unrealised dream that could never disappoint – since it never came to pass.

[1] Many of General Motors woes by this time were seen as owing to poor oversight and what some observers have described as a dysfunctional corporate culture – their stewardship of Saab being only one aspect of this. GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009 and were bailed out by the US government.

[2] General Motors gained full control of Saab AB in 2000, at which point, the carmaker’s fortunes would be dictated by its US parent. 

[3] Mauer joined Saab in 2000, and would also go on to lead General Motors European Advanced Design teams, before accepting an offer from Porsche as Director of Design, a position he currently holds.

[4] In 2009, Saab introduced the 9-3X, a high-riding (raised by 35 mm) four wheel drive version of the 9-3 Sportwagon, with the requisite ‘go-offroad’ signifiers of plastic lower body cladding and larger road wheels.

[5] Lutz was believed to have been one of GM’s senior team to have advocated selling off the Trollhättan carmaker, which places his above statement rather sharp relief. In retrospect however, he was partially correct, insofar as the 9-X’s frontal style did prefigure that of the 2010 9-5 saloon. 

[6] Given Saab’s reputation for significant engineering divergence from shared componentry, this might not have worked in practice – in logistical or financial terms. 

Sources: Autocar/ Car Magazine/ Motor trend/ Saab Planet

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Number Nine Dream”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. When these concepts were new, I was very much interested in these cars. A 480-esque Saab would be close to ideal for my motoring needs. Having said that I never was fully on board with the GM-Saabs. Looking at these concepts again today I notice my dream for such a car is still alive.

    1. Agree with the dream. I’ve concluded I need something park-and-ride-ready, a liftback to lift a bike in without being dismantled, hybrid or ev powertrain, in fastback rather than coupe-SUV for better cd and range. No, I do not need to ford mountain streams or cross muddy fields. Enough of the sport+utility fetish.

  2. It may be purely academic, but I always wonder how Ford’s ownership of Volvo worked so well where GM’s stewardship of Saab went chronically awry. It seems that Ford had much more appreciation for what went on in Sweden, to the point that they commandeered Volvo’s platforms and engines to use at great length in their own vehicles. I’m not sure if that indicates a lack of confidence in Ford’s R&D or merely an intelligent outsourcing of engineering expertise, but it does stand in stark contrast to how GM very much structured Saab other way around, forcing them to use as much Opel as possible to achieve their means to an end. That said, Saab always did borrow technology from other firms throughout its history (Triumph, Ford, etc.) and were renowned for blowing resources on rather impractical engineering solutions (their stillborn tilting cylinder head) so it’s hard to say what a Saab-led GM would have looked like anyway. Of course, Saab was only one of many engineering-as-art car companies that would either die or be severely neutered under a mega-corporation such as Citroen or Lancia, ultimately demonstrating how poorly extravagant engineering is often received as a business proposition. Despite their esoteric flavor, Volvo’s comparative conservatism no doubt served them well throughout the Ford years.

    Still, the degree to which GM misunderstood Saab is simply staggering to me. Their reliance on badge-engineering is well-documented, but for them to think that the loyal customers of the Swedish Griffin would stand for a lightly warmed over Subaru Impreza or Oldsmobile Bravada really underlined the plight of the Saab enthusiast in the mid-2000s. Sure, the Opel-ized 9-3 and 9-5 were one thing, but at least those saw heavy fettling from Trollhätten itself and no doubt the theoretical 9-2 would have also been undeniably Scandinavian. It boggles the mind how GM simply considered Saab as another Buick or Oldsmobile, ready to receive whatever garbage they could get their bastardized badge on. At least the ill-advised Saab Tribeca never saw the light of day, except in the Saab Museum.

    1. Ford got Volvo on the cheap, and they didn’t have to pay upfront but could pay with future earnings. In the pipeline was the coming P2-platform for the S80/S60/V70/Xc90 cars, something that would underpin almost half the US line-up. Ford really hit the jackpot with that one, and paid back with having Volvo share the second generation Focus platform for the S40/V50 cars.

      Saab on the other hand had nothing when GM bought it. They had the NG 900 in the pipeline, which GM married to the Vectra platform. The 9-5 was an extension of that platform that GM kept right until the end. When they launched the 9-2, the Impreza platform was already ten years old. The 9-7 was built on a body on frame. They sold the 9-5 virtually unchanged for 15 years less a couple of very crude facelifts, while the competition say Mercedes had three different generations of E-Classes for sale, the W210, W211, W212.

      What they could have done but never did was using Saab as a testbed for future tech. The Chevy Volt hybrid originated as a Saab project before GM took it over and gave it to Chevrolet and Opel. None would overpay for a simple Chevy but perhaps for a Saab?

    2. Alexander: I’m not well enough versed in GM insider lore to know definitively, but there is some evidence to suggest that Saab did lead technically on at least one shared model programme within GM’s purview. The 9-4X for instance, which was twinned with Cadillac’s SRX (I think) was apparently lead and developed largely by Saab engineers.

      The rationale larger car businesses use when they acquire smaller, more innovative, resource-hungry ones (like Saab, Citroen, Lancia or Jaguar, to name just a few) has always tended to revolve around the smaller company benefiting from their increased purchasing power and economies of scale, thus allowing the smaller business to not only thrive, but become more fully ‘themselves’. This rationale never survives its first exposure to reality.

  3. Good morning Eóin. Your piece today is a reminder of how the motoring landscape was diminished by the loss of Saab. The GM-era cars were a variable bunch, but the second-generation 9-5 showed promise, had there been time to develop its ride and handling set-up properly. I really like the style expressed in these concepts, which is delightfully calm but still characterful. Here’s the stillborn 9-5 SportCombi:

    1. Not quite stillborn, to repeat what some might find a distressing word.

      The small batch of completed 9-5NG Sport Combis were sold off at auction with a plate stating that they were static collectors items, not to be used on the road. The reason was that they had arrived too late to go through type approval.

      The remarkable Kiel ex-Saab dealership Autohaus Lafrentz became experts in obtaining single vehicle approval for the ‘museum pieces’, sending German temporary registration plates to Sweden which allowed the Sport Combi owners to drive lawfully to Schleswig-Holstein for inspection and certification.

      The Swedish vehicle approval and registration authorities made every effort to prevent the German-certified Sport Combis being registered in Sweden, but were eventually over-ruled in a legal battle with a determined owner, opening the floodgates for all the auctioned cars to be given Swedish registrations based on German certification. I was lucky enough to find a Sport Combi, along with other Saab curiosities when I visited in August 2019.

    2. Hi Robertas. Thank you for that interesting information on the SportCombi, and apologies to anyone I might have upset by my insensitive choice of word above. I will desist from using it in this context in future.

  4. It seems Saab’s problem was that they were never able to develop a more direct C-Segment successor to the Saab 96 to slot below the 99 / 900 prior to GM, as by the time they were looking at such a model under GM it was too late.

    Volvo were apparently in a similar position of being unable to bring the 1955 Wood Rocket study to production to replace the PV444 models, only to have the opportunity to acquire DAF and gain both the 66 as well as the P900 / 77 project later Volvo 300 Series.

    There were said to be sketches at Saab of such a car and there was also an opportunity to further links with Triumph to develop a common 1300-1500cc Slant-Four longitudinal successor for both the 1300/1500 and 96, making use of the same Triumph-based gearbox as applied on the longitudinal 99. With potential for some form of 4WD being developed from the Triumph Pony (or Autocars Dragoon) utility vehicle, built utilising 1300 FWD derived components.

    Rather intrigued by what Saab had in the cupboard before the GM takeover beyond the stillborn Saab V8 and a downsized Finnish spec 91 hp 1.6-litre prototype version of B201. Did Saab look at diesel versions of the H engine, a mk4 Sonnet (possibly with involvement by Reliant as brought up in the Elvis Payne book) or any other little known projects?

  5. Another great article. Lord, I miss SAAB. I think they were really onto something with the design direction laid out by this series of concepts. There seemed to be a long gap between them appearing and the launch of the somewhat watered-down styling of the 9-3 and 9-5. The latter was really rather nice and the Sport Combi version would still cut a dash if it was launched today. Surely there should have been far more potential in the SAAB brand and design bucket than DS, Genesis and even Lexus and Infiniti – heaven knows how much DS must have cost PSA/ Stellantis to date?

    1. Hi S.V. That’s a really good point: given that Citroën launched its DS misadventure in 2009/10, it would have been the perfect time for PSA to pick up at least the Saab marque (if no physical assets) as it still retained a lot of so-called ‘brand equity’.

      That said, I think the reborn Saab would have been pitched at a different type of buyer than those interested in DS. The Swedish marque attracted buyers who appreciated engineering quality and integrity, while DS seems to be aimed primarily at those who like shiny, sparkly things! 😁

  6. I’ve said it before, but the most viable option during those tumulting times for GM would’ve been a combined Saab/Opel/Saturn entity sold off and privatized. That would’ve given them enough muscle to develop bespoke platforms (Opel) and enough brand equity to cover both cheap and premium cars on the US market (Saturn and Saab). These were the times when Opel furnished the lower half of all of GM;s platforms . The only problem would’ve been this new entity would’ve become a strong competitor to GM itself, and they didn’t want that. Lets face it, they ran Saab to the ground than searched for someone to offload it to that wouldn’t become a viable business so they didn’t have to cover the bankruptcy cost themselves. In my opinion, they never wanted Saab to succeed after owning it themselves.

    1. Perhaps a Saab-Saturn-Subaru tie up and spin off would have made the most sense. Combine the Japanese company’s boxer engines and AWD, the American’s space frame and plastic body panel build, and the Swedes’ design nous and “premium-ness” and you get a pretty compelling proposition. Saturn at the low end and Saab covering the Audi-BMW-Merc market, bookending Subaru’s mainstream market position. The SSS company would have production and suppliers in Europe, Japan and the US, insulating it from currency swings.
      However, had GM already divested from Fuji Heavy Industries by the time of the GFC?

    1. … I’m not certain why Padian had to leave, if Mueller could afford to pay a “superstar”.

      That said, and I think Castriota’s proposals were both undercooked, and overcooked if that is possible, I feel uncertain whether he had a proper understanding of Saab’s history, but also doubt that he was given the requisite time and space to do his job properly. This exchange is telling:

      So tragic.

    2. If you’re looking for Mr Castriota’s worst piece of work, may I suggest the Bertone Mantide instead?

      Its creators must’ve thanked the Crayon Gods when the even more spectacularly dreadful Bertone Nuccio arrived some years later, forever casting a shadow of oblivion over the car that should’ve made Castriota the next Scaglione/Giugiaro/Gandini/Deschamps, but made him more of a wannabe-d’Ambrosio.

    3. Hi Christopher, Seems time hasn’t been kind to the Mantide, but Ford announced that they officially hired Castriota in January 2016, shortly after they showed the world this:

      (Pictured: Moray Callum’s personal 2017 Ford GT)

      Perhaps Ford hired Castriota for legal reasons, or perhaps there was a deeper connection?

      Though I find it as ugly as an Aztek, I never forgot the Mantide, and I still find it difficult to look away. So while it’s no Birdcage 75th, might it be a Rainbow?

  7. So it would have been Saab’s version of the much lamented C30. If Volvo couldn’t make it work (or didn’t want to), Saab would have been unlikely to pull it off, unfortunately. I have to say the 9-3 X works best for me. There’s something about the wheel arches, the step in the lower edge of the DLO and the placing of the upper edge of the DLO of the 9-X Biohybrid that I don’t like, but I can’t articulate what it is, exactly.

    It would seem that large automotive concerns and especially their bean counters find it impossible to give small “auteur” marques (or is that unbearably pretentious?) enough freedom to raid the parts bin and come up with something special. Possibly because the likes of Lancia and Saab feel only disdain for the parts bin and instead of using any random ready made part, feel an unstoppable desire to design something new, clever and expensive instead of said part.

    I miss the C30, especially with Volvo’s continued design excellence. One can dream though, even if it is in a bad photoshop:

  8. Is that your own work, Tom? If so, nice work, I really like It! 👍

    (P.S. I fixed the wobbly edge to the photo.)

    1. It is, yes 🙂. Thanks, and for the fix. The programme I use has a nifty tool that lets you distort the image by dragging. Really helps in fixing design flaws 😁, but you do have to remember that you’re dragging the entire image. Anyhow, the manipulation is so rough thah I only uploaded a low resolution image…

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