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Saab 9-5 still on ice

Still waiting: A Sydney-based distributor is the favourite to take on Swedish brand Saab in the wake of its sale to Spyker.

Buyers can order new 9-5 in Europe, but Saab remains in limbo Down Under

26 Mar 2010

SAAB has opened the order books for its redesigned 9-5 in Europe, but the Australian future of the newly independent Swedish brand and its first new flagship sedan in more than 12 years remains in limbo.

Although full details of the production 9-5 line-up were revealed when it debuted at the Frankfurt motor show last September, the protracted sale of the historic Scandinavian maker by General Motors to Spyker has prevented the new 9-5 from entering production at Trollhattan until this week.

The 9-5 range will hit European Saab showrooms in June, but its local fate remains uncertain until the new owners of Saab Automobile AB appoint an Australian distributor to replace Holden’s GM Premium Brands division.

GMPB discontinued the previous 9-5 in Australia last October, when 27 versions of Saab’s only other local model – the 9-3 – were also eliminated, reducing the number of 9-3 variants available here to 34.

38 center imageFrom top: 9-5 sedan, 9-4X off-roader, 9-3 convertible and the Sportwagon-based 9-3X.

Australian Saab dealers have sold just one 9-3 sedan so far this year, with sales down by almost 43 per cent in 2009 to only 663 examples, including 50 version of the 9-5.

Saab this week recommenced production of the 9-3 sedan and convertible, and the vehicle pipeline between Sweden and Australia has remained empty since the GM-Spyker deal was closed on February 23.

That is unlikely to change in the next few months, as Saab Automobile concentrates on re-establishing its brands in key global markets led by North America and Europe.

But while no potential Australian importer will confirm it is in discussions with Saab, Ateco Automotive has emerged as the front-running contender to distribute Saab cars here, including the 9-5, existing 9-3 and, possibly, the 9-3 SportCombi-based 9-3X and Cadillac SRX-based 9-4X crossover built in Mexico.

Saab has committed to replacing the current 9-3, which is based on GM’s Epsilon platform, with an all-new model by 2012 – the same year it expects to return to profit – and has said it hopes to develop an all-new “92” small-car, which could emerge on GM Opel’s Corsa around 2013, for which it will need to access more funding.

Saab dealer sources have confirmed to GoAuto that “a large Sydney-based distributor” is likely to take on Saab locally, and Ateco is easily the best fit as it already has a ready-made national retail network of Citroen and Alfa Romeo outlets.

The fact the majority of them already co-exist in most metropolitan and large regional centres makes the addition of a third competing premium European less of a problem, and industry sources suggest Ateco – which is also the Australian and New Zealand distributor of Ferrari, Maserati, Great Wall and, perhaps, BYD vehicles – is likely to retain many of Saab’s current Australian dealerships.

“When a new wholesaler is appointed all contracts pre-existing become null and void and must be renegotiated,” one industry insider told GoAuto.

“That said, most of the remaining Australian Saab dealers are hard-core supporters of the brand with a solid customer base, so any new distributor would think twice about losing any existing Saab dealers.”

Sydney’s two other large automotive importers – Sime Darby and Inchcape – are less likely to take over Saab distribution here.

Inchcape has previously distributed Ferrari, Maserati, Volkswagen, Audi, Peugeot, Jaguar and Proton vehicles in Australia, but now imports only Subaru.

Adding another brand would go against the London-based multinational’s global shift towards retail sales and away from wholesale distribution, which it sees as increasingly falling under the control of car-makers. Inchcape owns a number of vehicle retailers in Australia, including Subaru, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Kia dealers.

Sime Darby, meantime, is the Australian distributor for Peugeot and SsangYong, which remains under bankruptcy protection but has embarked on a court-approved restructuring plan and hopes to relaunch the Korean brand Down Under with its all-new C200 compact vehicle in the third quarter of this year.

Industry sources say the addition of Saab to Sime Darby’s already busy schedule, which would require a significant company restructure, is unlikely.

While that leaves Ateco as the most likely – and indeed only remaining – contender for Saab here, we understand the deal could still be up to six months away as Saab and its retail partners gauge the success of the new 9-5 in Europe.

“Australian sales volume will have no bearing on the success or failure of Saab as a global player and any distributor will be held to account for (potentially lucrative) Saab servicing, parts and warranty liabilities for 10 years,” said a source.

In the meantime, GM Holden says the Saab dealer network in Australia remains unchanged.

“Saab still intends to operate in Australia and New Zealand and is looking for a new distributor,” said Holden external communications director Emily Perry.

“However, in the meantime, Holden is helping to facilitate this process to support the dealers and Saab customers manage the transition.

“The ongoing commitment from the dealers and our customers show the strength of Saab brand and the new products on the way.”

As we’ve reported, the 2010 9-5 range will initially comprise just two trim levels in Europe – Vector SE and Aero – while six engines will be on offer.

They include 1.6 and 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines (the latter available in E85 ‘BioPower’ guise), plus four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo-diesel and twin-turbo diesel engines.

At the top of the 9-5 range is Holden’s 220kW 2.8-litre turbo V6, which powers the current 9-3 Aero XWD sedan and SportCombi, but joins the 9-5 range for the first time – with the same torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system as standard. The 9-5 SportCombi is due to appear in the first half of 2011.

For the record, the new 9-5 is now available to order in the UK, with prices opening as £26,495 ($A43,373) for the 2.0TiD Vector SE diesel, and rising to £28,195 ($A46,156) for the 2.0T, £31,195 ($A51,077) for the Aero 2.0T and £37,995 ($A62,210) for the Aero 2.8T XWD.

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