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Saab to reinvent itself as EV brand

ePower: An electric car based on the Saab 9-3 ePower now looks set to enter production within 18 months.

Australian distributor hopeful of Saab comeback under new electric vehicle deal

Saab logo14 Jun 2012

THE resurrection of Saab took a new turn overnight with the announcement that a Chinese-Japanese consortium had agreed to buy the bankrupt Swedish car-maker and plans to specialise as an electric vehicle manufacturer.

Negotiations are still underway for use of the Saab brand name, but the consortium, known as National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS), has paid an undisclosed sum to secure the main assets of Saab Automobile including its manufacturing facilities in Trollhattan, Sweden, and rights to the current 9-3 and the new vehicle platform known as Phoenix.

An electric vehicle based on the 9-3 and built at Trollhattan – albeit with a heavily reduced workforce of around 200 staff, down from the 3500 Saab previously employed – will be the first model produced under the plan and sold primarily in the fast-growing Chinese market from late next year or early in 2014.

However, NEVS has confirmed it has global sales and marketing aspirations, and that a second Phoenix-based model will follow using “additional cutting-edge technology” from Japan.

Saab Cars Australia (SCA) managing director Stephen Nicholls, who currently oversees the sale and distribution of Saab parts in Australia and New Zealand to 23 independent repairers – a vital cog in keeping some 37,000 cars on the road – told GoAuto that SCA would likely be involved in any plan to bring the new EVs to the Antipodes.

“I haven’t had any discussions with the team in Sweden yet, but that would be a fair assumption,” he said.

 center imageFrom top: Saab Cars Australia managing director Stephen Nicholls, Saab Phoenix Saab 9-4X and 9-5.

While Mr Nicholls said he did not believe there would be any change in the Australian operations in the short-term, but was excited by the prospect of Saab turning into an EV brand and being part of the movement.

“It does seem like a very exciting prospect,” he said. “In the short-term term ... we have the same structure here to continue supplying parts and technical support service to the Australian and New Zealand authorised repairers.

“If we start to look years ahead, who knows? There could be some changes as and when the new company starts producing the new range of vehicles.

“I think that pure-electric cars are still a very, very new concept and that starting off with hybrids and moving in that direction is definitely the way of the future.

“The timetable is still up in the air a little bit and that’s really the key issue – but the direction itself I find very interesting, and I’m sure it’s one that people who know and love the Saab brand would also support.”

In addition to Saab Automobile, the NEVS purchase agreement includes Saab Automobile Powertrain and Saab Automobile Tools.

It does not cover Saab Automobile Parts, which is now owned by the Swedish government, nor does it include rights to the larger Saab 9-5 and 9-4X SUV and related technology, which are still covered by licences owned by General Motors.

Mr Nicholls said the first 9-3-based electric vehicle would be based on the ePower, which was first shown at the 2010 Paris motor show in SportCombi wagon form and has subsequently undergone fleet trials in Sweden.

The vehicle was developed by a consortium of companies to showcase their technologies, with the 35.5kWh battery pack supplied by Boston Power and the powertrain by Electroengine in Sweden.

A 135kW electric motor drives the front wheels through a single-speed transmission, with the ePower claimed to offer 0-100km/h acceleration in 8.5 seconds, a 150km/h top speed and a driving range of up to 200km.

“Frankly, that sounds very exciting – a sort of a hybrid concept but in a Saab way – and obviously we’d be looking to see what the timetable would be for the export program and getting that thing certified and Down Under as it were,” Mr Nicholls said.

“I guess it’s going to be a little while yet, but that allows us then to put our plans in place and to understand which direction we’re going in.”

Saab signed a deal with BMW a couple of years ago for use of its 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine (as seen in Mini models), which has the potential to turn up in a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle built under the new consortium.

German auto technology giant ZF also struck a deal with Saab last year to develop and deliver chassis components for the next-generation 9-3, which was due to have entered production this year, and other models based on the Phoenix platform.

Among these was an anticipated ‘92’ compact car.

The NEVS consortium is 51 per cent owned by Hong Kong-based National Modern Energy Holdings Ltd – a company that designs and builds biomass energy powerplants for China – and 49 per cent owned by Japanese investment firm Sun Investment, which has a particular focus on hi-tech, eco-oriented projects.

NEVS said this week that “good business relations” with previous and future suppliers were a priority.

Although China is a key destination for the new EVs, Mr Nicholls told GoAuto that the global nature of the Saab brand meant its distribution should go well beyond what is now the world’s biggest automotive market.

“The market in China is extremely interesting for this type of vehicle and given the ownership and the structure of the new company, I’m sure that China will be a very, very important part of the future strategy,” he said.

“But what you get when you buy Saab is a global brand – in whatever state it’s in, in the different markets. It’s still a global brand and if they were looking purely to build cars for the Chinese market, they wouldn’t actually need the Saab brand, I don’t think.

“Now, that’s not to say it’s all going to happen overnight. The Chinese market does seem like a very, very interesting opportunity and maybe a quick win for them.”

NEVS said in a statement that it aims to become “a leading manufacturer of electric vehicles” and is currently recruiting automotive engineers to work at the Trollhattan site to bring the ePower to market in collaboration with Japanese and Chinese engineers.

It also said long-term financing has been secured to implement the business plan, and that “no approvals from the Chinese or Japanese authorities are required to begin with the implementation”.

“We will match Swedish automobile design and manufacturing experience with Japanese EV technology and a strong presence in China,” said NEVS chairman Karl-Erling Trogen.

“Electric vehicles powered by clean electricity are the future, and the electric car of the future will be produced in Trollhattan.” Founder of majority shareholder National Modern Energy Holdings, Kai Johan Jiang, said: “China is investing heavily in developing the EV market, which is a key driver for the ongoing technology shift to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“The Chinese can increasingly afford cars however, the global oil supply would not suffice if they all buy petroleum-fuelled vehicles. Chinese customers demand a premium electric vehicle, which we will be able to offer by acquiring Saab Automobile.” The Saab brand is jointly controlled by the former car manufacturer and the separate aerospace and defence group of the same name, from which the car-maker split in 1990.

Saab stopped production last year and filed for bankruptcy in December after Chinese suitor Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile withdrew its offer to invest in the company because former Saab owner and major stakeholder General Motors refused to permit the transfer of technical licences to any restructured company involving Chinese manufacturers.

This is understood to have been one of the sticking points during negotiations between NEVS and Saab administrators, with GM unprepared to give ground on technology or vehicles which could count against its own Chinese partners, such as SAIC.

GM sold off its controlling interest in Saab to Dutch supercar-maker Spyker early in 2010, which ran a valiant salvage operation for almost two years before the bankruptcy administrator stepped in.

A number of parties subsequently registered interest in buying the company, including NEVS, Youngman and Indian auto giant Mahindra.

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