Canadian sales looking like a Saab story
Posted Apr 27th 2011 1:52PM
By Vernon Clement Jones
Vicious rumors about Saab selling just two cars in Canada during the first three months of the year have been greatly exaggerated. The manufacturer, once the darling of yuppies from Yellowknife, NT, to York Harbour, NL, actually sold 20.
The string of Canadian dealers now offering the European brand - newly released from its 13-year prison term with GM - can be forgiven for not rushing to set the record straight. Whether it was 20 or two, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants (DAC), the only Canadian market research firm tracking automaker sales from one end of the country to the next, Saab sales still finished dead last.
Of the 27 automakers hawking their wares in this increasingly lucrative market, the re-launched Swedish carmaker sold the fewest vehicles in the first quarter of 2011. Jaguar, another European lux brand cast off from a Detroit parent (Ford) came in a distant second from the bottom, selling 166 vehicles in the same three months. Even the niche market Smart bettered that performance, shifting 262 putt-putts, while Jaguar stable-mate Land Rover - which Ford also sold to Indian manufacturer Tata in 2008 - shifted 683 vehicles.
Perhaps the most disappointing comparison for Saab fans in this country is the 426 cars Fiat sold in the first quarter, a whopping 417 of them coming in March. Like Saab, 2011 marks the Italian nameplate's first full year back in Canada, after a hiatus from the North American marketplace. It's much healthier performance was only limited by the availability of its celebrated 500, with hundreds of additional buyers now queued up, deposits in hand, to buy their own versions of the re-imagined classic.
Creating that kind of buzz around Saab's own iconic lineup - headlined by the all-new 9-5 (pictured) - has been considerably harder to pull off. It has not been for a lack of trying.
Last year, Saab announced that it would return to Canada by fall 2010 with the 9-5 leading the charge and available through a small network of dealerships, held over from the defunct Saturn/Saab network. New owner Dutch sports car manufacturer Spyker said it would rely on International Fleet Sales to handle distribution. That company performed those same duties in Europe and Asia for Saab's 97x, an SUV based on a GM platform. The 9-5 was lauded as a return to Saab's Nordic roots.
"I think we were very pumped about the real Saab coming back here and taking its place alongside BMWs and Benzes," said Roger Wong, a Saab enthusiast and member of an online chat site devoted to the "quirky" Swedish automaker, famous for its aeronautical roots. "The 9-5 looks good, and I don't understand why it has done better, especially here in Toronto."
The top of the line 2011 Saab 9-5 Aero Turbo6 XWD is as long on high-end standard features as it is on syllables. Its Holden-engineered 2.8-liter V6 pumps out 296 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque at 2,300-5,200 rpm. Hot-rodders have been just as impressed with the Borg-Warner twin-scroll turbocharge technology that puts out that speed and acceleration.
Styling is still a little bland, says enthusiasts like Wong, at the same time carping about Saab's decision to relocate its ignition switch from that most Saab-ish of places - the center console - to some place higher on the dash.
Online Saab sites are full of praise for the flagship model, along with three others already in Canadian showrooms. Yet that inventory is still sitting there despite that praise and the $1,500 incentive Saab offered all current Canadian owners if only they'd commit to driving one of those newbies off the lot. That's after, of course, arranging to buy it.
That lack of movement is now threatening the company's reincarnation. Just last weekend, the now-independent Saab conceded it was facing the real possibility of shutting down shop after a deal to refinance a 400-million Euro loan with the European Investment Bank skidded off course.
Saab needs the money to pay creditors and restart production that ground to a halt in early April. While the Swedish government has offered to guarantee the loan, the bank's "tough terms" have frustrated negotiations. It also wants to cap the money at 280 euros, an amount more than a quarter shy of what Spyker says it need to keep the company on course. An announcement on the talks is expected as early as May 1.
"We have agreement from the EIB, but with tough conditions," said Saab spokesman Eric Geers over the weekend, refusing to elaborate on those onerous terms.
The cash crunch stems directly from the company's very disappointing sales, not only in Canada, but the U.S. and Europe. The company maintains that it can still sell 80,000 cars this year and another 120,000 in 2012, although one of its biggest problems is making sure old and new fans alike know Saab is back open for business.
"Aside from a write up in The Globe and Mail, I haven't seen any ads or commercials or press about the 9-5 or any new Saab," says Wong.