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Saab's soft-roader on track

Share and share unlike: The Pontiac Aztec 4WD, above, will spawn an America-only Saab model, while a "soft-roader" based on the new 9-3 is due mid-decade.

Saab has been told by GM bosses to double production within a decade

Saab logo27 Jun 2000

By BRUCE NEWTON in SWEDEN

SAAB'S ambitious plan to double its annual sales from 130,000 to more than 260,000 within a decade will be bolstered by a four-wheel drive 'crossover' wagon as part of the all-new 9-3 range to be unveiled late in 2002. The 'soft-roader' will be one of "five to eight" new Saabs to be built on GM's mid-size Epsilon platform, including the complete 9-3 range which will expand to include the wagon, a sedan and coupe model, as well as the hatchback and convertible presently offered. The second generation 9-5 luxury range will also be built on the Epsilon platform later in the decade. The all-wheel drive wagon is a different project to the Saab sport-utility considered for development off the Pontiac Aztek/Buick Rendezvous platform, and built in Mexico. Saab insiders insist this is a North American-only program and would be more truck-like in appearance to suit US tastes. The 9-3 'soft-roader', however, would be much more in the style of Volvo's V70 XC Cross-Country and Audi's Allroad, and designed for worldwide sales in an attempt to cash in on the luxury market all-wheel drive boom. Saab is also expected to build a two-wheel drive version of the wagon. The arrival of the new generation 9-3 variants will be staggered like BMW's E46 3-series has been. The wagon will not be the first model introduced. The confirmation of the expansion program comes just months after General Motors took 100 per cent financial control of Saab Automobile AB, after buying 50 per cent of the company in 1990. Last year Saab sold 131,240 cars worldwide, a far cry from the crisis days of 1993-94 when sales dipped below 80,000. The ambition for 2000 is 135,000-140,000 worldwide sales, with current projections placing the end result at 137,000. Most of that growth will come from Sweden. Australia ranks ninth in sales worldwide for Saab. This has shrunk for the past two years and will need to kick significantly to get anywhere near the 3000 sales target set for 2000. The GST and the ageing 9-3 range are being blamed for slow sales here. GM boss Rick Wagoner and Saab Chairman Bob Hendry told journalists in Italy last week the company must at least double its sales within a decade, thus ensuring its profitability and position as GM's prestige European brand. The profitability drive will be aided by the extensive use of the Epsilon platform, which rather than being a traditional pressed metal platform is a highly flexible modular manufacturing system. This strategy will eventually allow Saab to build both the 9-3 and 9-5 on the same production line at its headquarters in Trollhattan. Saab has sunk 2 billion SEK ($A400 million) into the Trollhattan facility recently and about the same amount will be spent to renovate the facility for more production capacity. In addition, Saab has confirmed it is considering an entry level car under the 9-3, to be built on GM's new Delta small car platform, which will also underpin the next generation Astra. "It's on our wish list," said Saab's Deputy Director Corporate and Product Communications, Niklas Andersson. "But it's a very long wish list." If the small Saab is given the go-ahead, it could be built in Germany at an Opel plant. But it is thought Saab's radical variable compression engine production debut could be set back as development funds are poured into new model development. As part of Saab's planned expansion, production of the next generation 9-3 convertible will be moved from the Valmet factory in Finland to the Steyr-Puch plant in Austria. Production of the high performance Viggen will stay at Valmet. If you fancy a Saab Viggen you had better be quick. Saab will launch the more powerful 2000 model year performance flagship in August and expand the range to include a five-door, but supply will dry up soon after - permanently. Saab's plan is to build the Viggen only for the US, where it has met solid success. At least part of that success is attributed to the fact the 9-3 and 9-5 Aero models are not sold there.

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