GM struggles with 'Saab-ness'

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Saab cars is driving the most ambitious new-model blitz since its founding 57 years ago.

But experts aren't optimistic about the fate of the niche premium brand that has been a one- or two-model marketer until now. General Motors Corp., which has owned all of the Swedish carmaker since 2000, is borrowing from its other brands and joint-venture partners to expand Saab's lineup.

Earlier this year, GM had to fend off a published report in Sweden that it was shopping money-losing Saab. GM denied the report but has other money woes: The giant automaker is trying to get its North American car business back on course after a harsh first quarter.

Coming May 1 is Saab's first sport-utility vehicle, the 9-7X, which draws heavily on GM's Chevrolet TrailBlazer. The base 9-7X model starts at $38,990, and its other version at $40,990. It's the first Saab made in the U.S.-at GM's Moraine, Ohio, plant-to overcome Europe's high currency exchange rates.

The marque needs an SUV, says Debra Kelly-Ennis, who just moved to Diageo North America as chief marketing officer after leading Saab Cars USA as president-chief operating officer. She says almost 30% of buyers who leave the brand do so for a sport-ute and nearly 40% of Saab owners also have an SUV.

Todd Turner, president of CarConcepts, says it's fine if Saab wants an SUV, but the marketer "doesn't recognize it has to be a Saab SUV." He doesn't believe the 9-7X fits the bill.

It's not that a carmaker can't preserve its own identity while using parts from a sibling vehicle. Mr. Turner credits the current Saab 9-3, built on one of GM's European Opel platforms, as "maintaining the Saab-ness" of the brand.

Saab veteran Bob Sinclair, who retired in the early 1990s after leading Saab USA for 13 years, says GM is trying to make Saab a mass-appeal brand, which it isn't. "I see no evidence that GM management understands what the Saab brand is about," Mr. Sinclair says, and he questions who would buy the 9-7X when a TrailBlazer is $10,000 cheaper.

GM's Mark LaNeve, VP-sales, service and marketing for North America, begs to differ, saying "there's a lot of differentiation in the two vehicles."

He says "we have brand differentiation. It's a matter of really executing the products and how we advertise them."

Ms. Kelly-Ennis says that although the 9-7X won't come with the brand's traditional turbo engine, the chassis has been tuned for "driver-in-command performance" that is different than the Chevrolet.

Late next fall, Saab will expand the 9-3 line by launching the new SportCombi hatchback. (Saab says the 9-3 sedan and convertible now account for 71% of its annual U.S. sales). An updated 9-5, Saab's flagship sedan, is due a year from now.

A seven-passenger crossover SUV is expected in either 2006 or 2007, co-developed and built by GM partner Fuji Heavy Industries, in which GM holds a 20% stake. Fuji's Subaru is building in Japan Saab's 9-2X for the U.S. The 9-2X, on sale since last fall and Saab's first all-wheel-drive model, has been derisively nicknamed "Saab-aru" by industry insiders.

The phrase "distinctively designed, independently inspired" is prevalent in the current campaign. Saab pulled out all the stops by licensing a song from the Who. All the TV spots use the song "I'm Free."

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As far as firepower, Saab spent nearly $61 million in U.S. measured media last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence. That's less than some automakers spend on a single model line annually. Saab says it sold just over 38,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year, down about 20% from 2003.

So why is Ford Motor Co.'s Swedish Volvo brand doing so much better than Saab? Volvo says it sold 139,067 vehicles last year in the U.S. Reputation and established brand image may be the key. Volvo was a stronger brand than Saab when Ford acquired Volvo in 1999, says John Casesa, auto analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co.

Pre-Ford, Volvo had more distinctive designs, having changing its boxy look to sleeker models in 1997, say Edward Hellwig, senior editor of auto site Edmunds.com.

"Saab has always been quirky and caters to that crowd, and it's a small crowd," says Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP at Omnicom Group's AMCI. "Saab is getting lost in the GM blender."

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Volvo has held its edge on Swedish rival Saab by hammering the safety position, says Edward Hellwig of Edmunds.com. While Saab pushed convertibles, Volvo ramped up performance, entry-level near-luxe brands and was first to bow the Swedish take on the American SUV. Its XC90 now has Saab's 9-7X as competition.

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