By Jim Motavalli
2:31 PM EDT, September 26, 2011
Does the life or death of Saab mean something to you? It's perfectly possible to live an exemplary Connecticut life without ever having this carmaker impact your life. But maybe you owned a trusty (and maybe rusty) 900 or 9000, or even a more modern 9.3 or 9.5, and the thought of this venerable Swedish automaker exiting stage left brings a tear to your eye.
Few remember that Saab was, for many years, a Connecticut-based company. Its distinctive blue logo was a familiar sight off I-95 in Orange. In the lobby were often fascinating one-of-a-kind prototypes, such as the "UrSaab" (the very first one) from 1947, and the GT 750, a sporty variant circa 1958 that I drove around the office building once. Saab even asked me if I wanted to work there as a PR guy, but that is a road not taken.
Saab relocated to Georgia, and is now in Michigan. The company has been in a cliffhanger role since being sold off by an ailing General Motors in 2009. But as Saab chairman Victor Muller is fond of saying, "We're not dead yet!" And, indeed, the company isn't.
The latest news, last week, is that an appeals court has given Saab a breather with protection from its creditors, who are owed $207 million. The company's 3,600 workers haven't been paid for August, and the assembly line has been mostly shut down since April.
Saab is hoping for a $334 million cash infusion from Chinese partners, Youngman and Pangda, but that deal has to be approved by Asian regulators (and that may not happen until November). Meanwhile, Saab snared emergency $95 million financing backed by Chinese guarantees.
What went wrong with Saab? In the GM years, the company benefited from the cost savings of access to GM platforms, but the cars also lost much of their distinctive character and European feel. They weren't terrible, but there wasn't a whole lot of reason to buy them, either. Some were just "badge engineered" GM cars, like the 9-7X that was really a Chevrolet TrailBlazer underneath.
But Saab innovation wasn't dead: The company investigated biofuels, and developed a 9-5 "bioethanol" car that could be powered by biomass. And it went electric, too. The full story of Saab's electric vehicle foray is told in my new book High Voltage, which is to be published next month by Rodale. It's an interesting tale, because to make its EVs Saab teamed up with Boston-Power, an American battery company headed by a vivacious Swedish woman, Christina Lampe-Onnerud.
The Saab EV is an electric version of the 9-3 SportCombi called the ePower, and it claims a zero to 62 speed of 8.5. seconds, a range of 124 miles and a top speed of 93 mph. I wish I could say I'd driven it, but the car hasn't made it out of Sweden so far. Obviously, the ePower is on hold along with the rest of Saab.
I hope the ePower survives, and Saab, too. Boston-Power will thrive with or without Saab. Like the rest of the auto industry, it's looking at what is now the world's largest car market, China, and just announced $125 million in new financing. The new money "will help drive Boston-Power's solutions more deeply into China," the company said. And if Saab emerges from the quagmire, its future, too, has a distinctly Chinese cast.
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