Getting it right at precisely the wrong moment.
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
“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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 General Motors gained full control of Saab AB in 2000, at which point, the carmaker’s fortunes would be dictated by its US parent.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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