Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lord of the Trolls
By in large I try to stay away from commenting on news coming out of Saab Automobile. In general, it would be an impropriety, and besides, there are lots of other venues for such comment. I would prefer to spend the little time I have for composition writing about product or spinning yarns about the Saab experience.
In the past days there has been some troubling news—delayed salary payments to white-collar workers—from Saab which has been reported widely. I will state up front that I am still optimistic about where this will all end up. I do not believe that anybody at Swan or Saab is endeavoring to do anything other than to solve all the various challenges and get their ship righted. I also do not believe that Victor Muller intended for anything other than full on success for Saab, or he would not have embarked on what he knew would be an arduous journey.
Some time back I had decided to stop living and dying by the day to day, hour to hour news flashes coming out of Trollhattan. It was too distracting, too upsetting. I have a job to do, customers to be served, employees to be attended to and a family to support and love. There was a time, in 2009 and through the sale of the company when all we did was pay attention to daily machinations. I wasn’t going to put myself through all of that again. This is not to say that I have shuttered my eyes, blocked my hearing and stopped my internet perusal. I still have SaabsUnited and InsideSide as open tabs every day on my desktop, and I don’t at all mind having a notion of what is going on. I just read the news pieces differently, especially at SaabsUnited. I hit the headlines, scan some of the pieces, but I don’t bother trying to really understand and digest the minutiae—that’s where the nausea and heartache can come from. (This is also why InsideSaab is my favorite read, for Swade provides a relieving antidote for all those maladies.)
For reasons I don’t understand, there are many who still choose to mire themselves in the goo of every piece of bad news. In scanning the front page of SU yesterday, the top-of-the-page story was on the delay of salary payments to white-collar workers. There was the one paragraph press release, followed by a few sentences of commentary. I would have expected, in the context of all the recent Saab news, that said story might have generated a couple dozen comments. However, over the course of the day I saw the comment total kept escalating, fast. By the time it reached eighty-some, I had to have a look and what was so fascinating to so many SU readers. I read through the comments quickly, and I may have this a bit off, but my impression was this: the early comments were critical of Swan/Saab, then the mob turned its venomous comments toward SU and its caretakers, and finally the rock throwing got very personal among the users. Reminded me of Lord of the Flies. For a time, it only got worse (I’ll admit that at this point I was drawn by morbid curiosity) and I believe there were ultimately well over 200 comments. Finally, a moderator stepped in and banished one user, which seemed to have a cooling effect, and—far too late, in my opinion with the advantage of hindsight—comments were closed.
I believe that the challenging news from Saab over the past few months has had a very deleterious effect at SU. I feel for the new ownership, which tries to deliver lots of news posted there along with the Saab-interest stories. Someone I once worked with, noting rancor among employees during a slow period, told me that peace among the troops would return as soon as there was an up-tick in business. “Everything’s funny when you’re making money,” he would say. He was right. Likewise, I fear that as bad news remains the order of the day at an enthusiast site like SU, that hostility will keep fomenting among the users. I hope I am wrong. There are good people running that site doing a job that I’m sure feels very thankless at times. Still, if the caustic tone remains, many of the more civil users will simply stop showing up, which may make the barbarism even worse.
Then again, when production starts up next month, followed by the release of the 9-5 Combi and the anticipation of the 9-3 replacement, perhaps the good news will soothe the savages and civility will be restored. “Everything’s funny….” Let’s hope.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

First impression: 2011 9-4x

Because the world works the way it does, and because I cannot cloister myself from the written opinions of others, I know that when I have a first impression of a new model that it is somewhat sullied by everything that I have already read or heard about that model. I guess, barring a paradigm shift, it will always be that way. Thus, having read many accounts of the 9-4x already, and having seen it in New York in April, I took my first drive in our new model yesterday.

The 9-4x I drove was one of two Aeros we received last week. This one is silver with a gray interior. I am not yet versed enough to know which of the features are standard and which are optional, and I chuckled when I tried to read the Monroney sticker to find out that the window tint is so dark as to render the sticker illegible. First stop was at the trunk, which I had to open to hang the dealer plate. I really like the “U-Rail” divider in the trunk. Of course, never willing to let any concept be good enough as it is, my mind immediately saw that it would be extra cool if the fence extended not only horizontally but also vertically to accommodate parcels of varying heights. Still, it is a very Saab feature, and the attached pictograph instruction sheet looks like it was prepared by the folks at IKEA. When I opened the trunk floor, I was surprised at the size of the sub-floor storage, but that’s the upside to having no spare tire. I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, to see that the floor was a composite and not wood as is found in many of my favorite Saabs. I played with the remote release and power closing tailgate. While technicians in the shop did test and pass the “anti-crush” feature of the auto-closing, I can say that when I just grabbed the tailgate and tried to restrain it, it kept closing undeterred. I did find it odd that the auto-close button was on the bottom lip of the tailgate and was a reach for me. Being short, I am sensitive to height issues, and I could see that for those even shorter than me it might be difficult to reach that button when the tailgate is fully opened. However, there is a second control for this on the driver’s door panel.

Stepping into the car one is greeted by a dash and console that are, if one has driven the 9-5, very familiar. Overall, I like the execution and prefer some of the detail work over that of the 9-5. Truth to tell, I had to keep looking between the two to see the subtle differences. In all, despite any minor criticism I might have for the interior styling, I am relieved to see that Saab is staying with a uniform design strategy across the model range. Seats are great, and the ventilation was appreciated given the heat-wave we are enduring at the moment. The steering wheel, right out of the 9-5, is magnificent. I don’t actually like the look of it, but when I’m driving, I only know the wheel by its heft and tactile sensation, and in that regard it is beyond reproach. The dead pedal is perfectly positioned. While a carry-over from GM, I do still like the shift lever in this car.

For a vehicle which is fairly compact, there are some facets which are enormous. On the Aero, the 20” wheels look almost too large, but as such enhance the overall appearance. The sunroof is one of those panoramic wonders, again like the 9-5, and when seated in the rear, the view is glorious. What a way to give someone a tour or, say, Manhattan where they could actually see the skyscrapers from very comfortable confines. Lastly, the A-pillars bother me some. I’ve seen smaller tree trunks. This is where reading other reviews might compromise my objectivity. While I didn’t get into the 9-4x and look right at the pillars, I had just read Swade’s account and as soon as my eyes noted the A-pillars, they were all that I could see. Was I predisposed to this from my having read his account? Perhaps, but fat pillars have bothered me before. The B-C-D pillars do not bother me. I use mirrors exclusively for rearward and side views, and when properly positioned are far more reliable than looking directly out of a car. When driving the 9-4x, I did encounter a corner where the pillars really impeded my vision and I had to crane to the right so see where I was going. The last new model which left me feeling pillar-phobic was the 1994 900, whose pillars were a bit larger than the C-900, but more importantly were positioned such that they encroached the driver’s visibility, which was very disconcerting at first. If I could make a suggestion regarding these large pillars, and this does nothing to help visibility, only perceived visibility: make the pillar trim dark so it disappears against the backdrop.

Speaking of visibility, the backup camera arrangement is excellent. This is not a unique system, but a first for Saab. It has trajectory indicators which I find to be reassuring. I have seen these in other cars, and for those who are concerned about backing in a larger vehicle, I would highly recommend this system.

The driving experience offered no surprises. Again, though this car sits very high in comparison, it feels, as it should, like a sibling to the 9-5. For those who haven’t driven a modern CUV, the real surprise is in the handling. While higher, the handling is not only sedan-like, but sport-sedan-like. I instructed once at a Porsche event, and had the pleasure of thrashing lots Boxers, Caymans, 911s and a Cayenne GTS. Once I got over my initial apprehension, I found I could be virtually as aggressive in the Cayenne, which appears slightly taller and larger than the 9-4x, as I could in the sports cars. In my jaunt, I did challenge the handling prowess of the 9-4x in a few spots, and it was very sure footed and predictable, with lots of reassuring feedback and an overall sense of great stability. There was one bit of weirdness on one corner which surprised me. I was taking a hard left, accelerating moderately and ascending. I did not engage the ESP, but it almost felt like I did, and there was a bit of tug at the steering wheel. I don’t know if I was sensing some torque redistribution by the XWD, or maybe I just did something wrong. I could not reproduce the sensation, so maybe….

I have two disappointments with the 9-4x. One is weight. As with the 9-5, the weight seems disproportionate to the overall size. There is no positive that comes from more weight, whether it’s around my waist or in the chassis of an auto. Weight reduction in a car feeds on itself—lighter weight means smaller brakes means less unspung weight which means lighter control arms etcetera. Likewise, being overweight has the opposite effect. Now if the 9-4x came in at a weight more in line with the RX350 or the Q5, then instead of the 3.0 V6 perhaps Saab could have put the 2.0 T4 from the 9-5. Oh, and that would have saved more weight . More importantly, it would have kept the line more consistent with current offerings and Saab tradition. I long argued that despite its shortcomings, if the 9-7x had been offered with a turbocharged I5 version of the 4.2 I6, we might have warmed to it more. As it is, Audi does offer their 2.0 I4 in the Q5, so why not us!

The other disappointment is the absence of a head-up display. I have quickly grown fond of this, especially with navigation as the approaching directions are indicated in the display. On a positive note, the multi-color screen for the Driver Information Center is so much better to look at than the green-monochrome screen in the 2011 9-5 (the 2010 9-5 was multi-color) and as such is a very attractive and readable focal point for the instrumentation. [Note: the website picture of the 9-4x instruments shows a monochrome display.]

In all, I am very pleased with the results of the 9-4x. I only hope that there is enough in the coffers to promote it, as it deserves to be seen and considered.

[For MUCH more information on the 9-4x, and significantly better pictures than I could ever take read Swade's three recent posts about the 9-4x at InsideSaab .]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beware the light at the end of the tunnel

My youngest son, Marcel, though he won’t have his driver’s license until the end of the year, recently bought his first car, a 1995 900SE 2.0T from a former neighbor. Last Sunday, we took advantage of the glorious weather to return to Ipswich to go to the beach (where Marcel works) and afterword we stopped in the former neighborhood to see some friends. I had heard that the couple that sold the car to Marcel wanted something more fuel efficient, so I was curious to see what was in their driveway. Indeed, except for some repairs it needed, I was sure the couple hated to part with the car. I knew they liked it, and it was the first car they had purchased together.

High Street in Ipswich often looked like it might have the densest concentration of Saabs anywhere outside Trollhattan, even if one discounted the several Saabs parked in front of our former home. Sadly, that has changed over the years. The new car which replaced the 1995 900 was a surprise to me—I was guessing Prius. It was instead a Golf TDI. Not a bad choice. Further up the street, another neighbor who commutes to the Berkshires had likewise traded his NG 900 for a Jetta TDI. Hmmm…..a pattern, perhaps?

While at the beach, we encountered a friend with whom we spent some time. Her former husband had been a customer here, and he had logged, last I heard from him last year, about 150,000 miles on his 2005 9-3. He struck me as the perfect demographic for Saab: educated, active (runner, cyclist, hiker…) and well heeled. Our friend informed us that he had traded his Saab for a Lexus? Really? He seems way to hip to be driving a Lexus.

Through these adventurous times for Saab, there has to be great concern about where their customers are going, and someone smarter than me needs to figure out why Saab owners become Lexus or VW buyers. Certainly, the 9-4x will bring us some fresh customers, which in turn could help sales in the long run of our other models. However, given the passion that many Saab owners feel, or felt, if they are former owners, Saab needs to zero in on why the defections occur. In the case of the friend who left for a Lexus, I can say that his car was virtually trouble free. Outside of warranty, there was almost nothing required beyond brakes, tires, bulbs and maintenance. Plus, I noted when I took his car in for service that even with an automatic transmission that he averaged, per his SID, 32 mpg. What’s not to like?

In the case of the defections to the VW’s, it is clear to me that Saab simply did not have an offering that satisfied the High Streeters desire to achieve greater fuel efficiency. I know all the rational arguments against importing the TTDI engine. However, who is to say that if Saab didn’t make that the cornerstone of the brand in the US that Saab might not be surging in sales right now, both with former and conquest customers? It would be a risky gambit, but shouldn’t that be one of the beauties of being a flyweight company, that you can make bold moves?

As much as Saab needs to know where they are losing their customers, the conundrum they face is that in light of the difficult business climate, they can barely afford to manage daily logistics, and it is likely not in the budget to hire analysts and a cadre or researchers to query consumers, mine data and formulate a strategy. It’s the old chicken-egg conundrum. Without that research, perhaps they can’t sell the cars they need to; without selling more cars and making some money, Saab won’t have the money to do any research. Yet, if Saab doesn’t put its ear to the rail and listen, how can it gauge that light at the end of the tunnel?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The View from Mount Washington

Last weekend saw the culmination of months of extraordinary work as my sons, Marcel and Pascal, put forth their 1985 900 SPG hill-climb car at the 2011 Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds. Pascal drove the car admirably on a circuit that, frankly, terrified me even at the posted speed limit. If you’ve ever driven up Mount Washington, you understand. Pascal completed the 7.6 miles in 8:20, averaging just under 55 mph, and kept the “shiny side up.” Just as impressive, the Saab, which was completely rebuilt by these young men, experienced no breakdown, which is even more impressive when you consider that the car was driven 100 miles each way to the event: I believe it was the only car of 70 not to arrive and depart on a trailer. How Saab.

Being the only Saab at the Climb, in a sea of Subaru Imprezas, Mitsubishi Evo’s and tube frame specialty contraptions, the car garnered lots of attention. Many fans and participants in the paddock area stopped by for a look and a chat. Some were current Saab owners; some former Saab owners who looked longingly at the four Saabs we had parked (besides the race car, there was my 1992 900T, AndrĂ©’s 2001 9-3 and the Charles River Saab 9-3X shuttle vehicle). There was one other Saab in the paddock. Parked next to the Team Libra service area and their Hyundai Tiburon rally monster was a new 9-3 Sport Combi Aero 6-speed. How odd, I thought. Later that day I would learn the story behind that car.

One of the joys of participating, even vicariously, in such an event is all the people one meets. After the Saturday practice, we happened upon Paul Choiniere, one of the most storied and credentialed American rally drivers from the 1980s and 1990s. He saw the Saab shirt I was wearing and that got the conversation started. Only a few minutes into the conversation I realized who he was—not for his rally exploits, but because he is the dealer principal of PJ’s Auto Village of South Burlington, Vermont, which is a Mazda and Saab dealership—the Sport Combi Aero was Paul’s daily driver. He was gracious, charming and self effacing. My wife, Susan, also noted he has great eyes. This self-effacement and general humility is something I’ve noted in lots of rally types. They don’t have the obnoxious swagger or condescending attitude I might have expected, and most seem very pleased to chat with us mere mortals. I first noted this at the New England Forest Rally last summer, when even such luminaries as Travis Pastrana and Ken Block were accessible and very much “regular guys.”

Another chance encounter was had with New England rally legend and instructor Tim O’Neil (who opines that now what he drives is a desk) of Team O’Neil and the O’Neil Rally School. Susan and I were looking at the cars in the paddock at the end of the day, and were scrutinizing the Ford Fiesta FWD rally car being raced by Chris Duplessis, whose brother, Forest (who is also a rally champion and head instructor at Dirt Fish Rally School), we met in one of the viewing areas. We were approached by Tim, who again saw the Saab shirt and that got him talking. Turns out that in his earlier days he was a Saab technician, his early rally car of choice was a Saab 99 (with lots of 900 pieces applied, he said). Again, he was completely friendly, chatted at length with us, and perhaps coincidentally, one of his employees phoned Pascal last night to see if Pascal would co-drive a Team O’Neil car in the NE Forest Rally in two weeks.

One of the headliners for this event was Mike Ryan and his 2000 hp Freightliner truck. Clearly a ringer and attention getter, I didn’t necessarily expect him to be a nice friendly guy. I expected a conceited prima-donna who hid from people except when he was putting on his very impressive show. Wrong. While he looked a bit like a vain over-the-hill Nascar driver, with poofy hair all nice and dyed, Pascal states that he was very friendly and talked to whomever came by. Nice surprise!

There were a number of others there who were completely gracious and just plain nice. Some more interesting than others, to be sure. Susan even got Warren Elliott, New England Region Rally Cross champion, who was a spectator, to help us understand the leader board, and then got him excited enough that when Pascal was staying atop the leader board for a time he was giving her high-fives. What a marvelous time….

At the end of it all, I came away from the event much as I have other rally type events, that is that I find these drivers to be friendlier and much more collegial than I would expect from a group which is by nature competitive. I can’t say I’ve hung around a race track much, but I’ve hung around lots of racers, and you hear things…stories….complaints. This guy cheated…that one ran someone off the track…they’re running illegal this and that. Not so with the rally guys and gals. They seem much more apt to root for one another, help each other and be appreciative of those who come out to cheer them on. Good for the rally drivers!

If you haven't yet seen it, here is the link to a onboard view of the Saab dashing up the mountain.