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Saab's counter punch

Pipeline: Saab's facelifted 9-5 appears at the Melbourne motor show.

Struggling Saab says it remains committed to Australia and promises new models

17 Feb 2006

EMBATTLED Swedish brand Saab may be in a corner but it is not about to pull up stumps in Australia.

That is the message from Saab Australia director, Ralph Stevenson, despite the marque being hamstrung by a lack of new models and facing increased local competition in the competitive prestige segment.

At the recent launch of the new 9-3 SportCombi, Mr Stevenson remained buoyant about the Swede’s future, despite sales slumping 20 per cent last year to just 1510 vehicles year in what again was a boom year for just about every other car maker.

Saab sales have drifted from a high of 3294 vehicles in 1997 and down to 1848 last year.

With an overall market share hovering around 0.2 per cent Mr Stevenson acknowledges times are tough but the recent pricing realignment of the entry 9-3 model to $39,900, a cut of $8000, and arrival of the 9-3 SportCombi had helped put the brand of a good footing for 2006.

Although he would not talk about sales forecasts he was confident this year would be "significantly" better than last year’s 1510 total.

The 9-3 price cut had helped lured more showroom traffic and interest was building in the brand again as newer product arrived, he said.

"At this stage we’ve only got limited 2006 models in stock, the cars are still on the water ... but the dealers are pretty comfortable that they’re getting good traffic because we’re talking about the price to get forward orders," he said.

He also believed the brand would need time to build back up to sales levels it enjoyed in the mid-90s as well as restore strong residual values.

However, he denied there was any pressure from GM for a quick sales turnaround, nor a timeframe for success.

"GM has clearly stated that Saab is a global brand and is committed to it as part of the GM activity in Australia and globally," he said.

Even the spectre of the return of Cadillac to Australia, and possibly its 9-3 based BLS sedan does not worry him.

"To the extent that it is one more car in the marketplace I guess it does change the dynamics," he said.

However, he believes the brands were distinct and had distinct buyers. A Saab buyer would not necessarily move over to Cadillac, nor would a Cadillac buyer move over to Saab.

A recent on-line survey of Saab owners had reveal a strong depth of loyalty and "Saab-ness" about owners, Mr Stevenson said.

Mr Stevenson said there was also still strong interest in the franchise from prospective dealers.

Saab spent last year re-organising its dealer network with 30 dealers in Australia and New Zealand.

The subsequent pricing action on 9-3 was also part of its strategy to "get the volume back up to where it needs to be by having all our products competitive", Mr Stevenson said.

"And based on that, that’s one of the objectives - to ensure we have a volume throughput that we believe will sustain us going forward."The recent integration of Saab and Holden backroom business – in areas such as financing and purchasing - had also afforded the Swedish brand greater operating efficiencies.

Apart from the arrival of the $47,500 2.0-litre Linear SportCombi and the $72,400 Aero V6 SportCombi, Saab has just added the Aero V6 9-3 sedan and cabrio to the lineup.

A facelifted 9-5 will be unveiled at this week’s Melbourne motor show, a other models are planned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Saab convertibles.

Saab expects SportCombi buyers to be mostly Linear buyers with 20 per cent opting for the turbocharged Aero V6. It has conservatively forecast 200 wagon sales this year.

Saab is also known to be working on a model below the 9-3 and possibly a crossover all-wheel drive.

"Both of those would be great. We’d pick the segments we could go after," Mr Stevenson said.

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