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Saab goes green and draws on heritage to get sales

Mean and green: The Aero X concept car is powered by a 100 per cent ethanol-fuelled Alloytec V6 and previews many styling cues for Saab's next-generation 9-5 sedan.

Turbo-diesel, BioPower engines to join Saab line-up in quest for sales

Saab logo19 Sep 2006

IN a direct move to increase its brand awareness and sales, the new director of Saab in Australia and New Zealand, Parveen Batish, will promote green power alternatives, Saab’s healthy performance-per-dollar equation and its Scandinavian aircraft heritage.

And the former Saab UK executive isn’t excited by recent figures that show Saab doubled its month-on-month sales in August and so far this year lies 43.5 per cent ahead of 2005 figures – largely on the back of stronger 9-3 sedan demand – because he admits Saab sales were lacklustre last year due to over-pricing on some models.

"We 40 per cent up this year, but if I can sit here next year and say the same I will have succeeded," he said.

Saab recently confirmed it would introduce its first diesel models Down Under in January in the shape of the 9-3 TiD sedan and (SportCombi) wagon, powered by a 110kW/320Nm 1.9-litre DOHC turbo-diesel.

Both variants will be available with six-speed manual and automatic transmissions and a 9-3 TiD Convertible may follow. Saab expects the TiD variants to comprise between 10 and 20 per cent of 9-3 sales.

Last week Saab kicked off a national advertising campaign to launch its "Pilots wanted" slogan that, for the first time, combines the company’s aircraft manufacturing tradition with its performance virtues in the same message, which hopes to position the Swedish car-maker as a unique alternative to premium German brands.

"On average we have the best performance for your dollar," Mr Batish told GoAuto in his first series of interviews from taking over the Saab Australia/NZ helm from GM Holden stalwart Ralf Stevenson in June. "Saab doesn’t just offer a $39,990 price point, it stands for performance and high levels of specifications too."Late last month Saab also announced it would trial the company’s BioPower 9-5 sedan in Australia from November. Launched in Sweden late last year, the E85-powered (85 per cent ethanol/15 per cent petrol, with the ability run on 100 per cent ethanol or petrol) 9-5 has this year become that nation’s top-selling environmentally-friendly car and helped drive record 9-5 sales in Sweden.

Australian 9-5 sales remain static despite a facelifted model being launched here in May, while 9-3 convertible sales are up 12 per cent and 9-3 sedan sales are 100 per cent year-to-date.

"It’s tough when you’ve got a product that old when it’s priced at $68,000," admitted Mr Batish.

Some 400 ethanol outlets now exist in Sweden following government directives to fuel retailers and tax concessions for green car buyers.

Mr Batish said that by early November two BioPower 9-5 models, followed by a further two examples in December, will aim to communicate the benefits of renewable energy such as ethanol to media, industry and government representatives as the first step in planning the BioPower rollout in Australia.

Available in both 155kW/310Nm turbocharged 2.3-litre (2.3t) or 133kW/280Nm turbocharged 2.0-litre (2.0t) four-cylinder guises, Saab says its BioPower engines deliver up to 20 per cent more power and 16 per cent more torque than their petrol-powered equivalents.

"Everyone finds performance sexy," he said. "But BioPower combines performance with greenness. Saab’s future sales growth will come from a combination of new products as well as being a leader in green cars. Talking about alternative fuels like BioPower will improve our brand awareness."

 center imageLeft: Director of Saab in Australia and New Zealand, Parveen Batish and the 9-5 BioPower sedan.

Saab also hopes to give its Aero X concept car - which is powered by a 100 per cent ethanol-fuelled Alloytec V6 and, according to Mr Batish, previews many styling cues for Saab’s next-generation 9-5 large sedan - its Australian debut at the Sydney motor show in October.

"People want green. Petrol’s going to run out eventually. Sales of diesel models in the premium sector have doubled year on year. Ford talked about LPG but it will run out too. Why isn’t the government subsidising fuel companies to offer ethanol?"It’s a very difficult position for the oil companies. They need to be at the forefront of technology, but that also threatens their core business."Mr Batish said Saab’s current V6 was not ethanol-compatible but future versions will be, and said that if claims ethanol caused durability/longevity problems in alloy engines were true Saab would know about it by now. "We don’t let anything out until it’s fully tested – for between five and 10 years," he said.

Born in India and raised in the UK, Mr Batish is a 10-year Saab executive who served as the UK marketing director for the past seven years but also spent time at Renault and Volvo.

After three months in the job, Mr Batish said Australian Saab sales should reach 2000 in 2006, following just 1500 sales in 2005, and that slow US sales prevented the company posting a profit globally last year. Worldwide, Saab sales were up six per cent in 2005.

"Saab will break even this year for the first time I’ve been with the company. (But) we need to get the US back on track too and we’ll be flying. There’s a long-term plan in process."Saab UK sales dropped from a 1999 high of 19,500 to just 13,500 in 2002.

"Five years ago we were in the same position as Saab Australia. What we used to do pre-2002 was all tactical – there was no brand image, no emotional attachment. What we really needed was someone who really understood the brand. We’re not talking to a massive audience, so we need to appeal to them in a different way. We have a 75 per cent repeat buyer rate, but the challenge is to get conquest sales."Mr Batish said Saab’s $39,990 "Swedish Sven" advertising campaign was finished. "Sven’s dead, and so is poking fun at our heritage while spruiking a $39,990 car. That’s what Harvey Norman does. We need more equity in the brand, we need to stand for something and we and our dealers need to make some money.

"You can either sell through price or brand equity, which is a longer-term proposition. We will enagage people in the brand and give them more reasons to consider us and I don’t mean by discounting but real ownership benefits."

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