Victor Muller (left) and Jan Åke Jonsson: the new men running Saab

Victor Muller (left) and Jan Åke Jonsson: the new men running Saab

CAR interviews Saab's bosses: Victor Muller, Jan Åke Jonsson (2010)

By Tim Pollard

Motor Industry

15 March 2010 07:00

CAR recently interviewed the two men running newly independent Saab: Jan Åke Jonsson, Saab's chief executive officer who's carrying on running the Trollhattan business, and Victor Muller, the entrepreneurial CEO of sports car maker Spyker. In a frank, half-hour interview, Jonsson and Muller talk about their plans for Saab, future models and what went wrong under GM. JAJ is Jan Åke Jonsson and VM is Victor Muller.

CAR: Congratulations on the takeover of Saab. Great news and we haven't met anyone yet who's not happy to see you survive! But last year you built just 39,000 cars. There must be a huge mountain to climb... 

JAJ 'Saab – like everyone else – suffered from the financial downturn last year. The outgoing 9-5 was 12 years old in its run-out phase and we were in desperate need of a new vehicle. Then the rumours about Saab impacted on customers and dealers – everyone hesitated. Sales were also driven down by GM's decision to limit production. We took 20,000 units out of our inventory, which is a good thing to do. But it had an impact on our sales volumes. In the US, for example, we had less than 500 units in the whole country. It should have been 10 times that volume.'

What are your first steps now as a fledgling independent?

JAJ 'What we are doing right now is moving the 9-5 to Trollhattan, rolling out the sedan and then in 2011 the 9-5 SportCombi. We have relocated the [9-3] Convertible to Trollhattan and will start production in the spring, and then in 2012 we will roll out the new 9-3. Suddenly we will have an entirely new portfolio. And that means we have dimensioned our costs towards a volume around 100,000 to 120,000. By doing that, we are driving down the breakeven point. Today the breakeven is a little bit over 100,000 units, but by 2012 it will be down to 80,000 to 85,000 cars. Which means that if we are building 100,000 to 120,000 cars again, we will have a great return on our investment. That's how we see us moving into the future. Driving down the breakeven point is a key task. Traditionally as part of General Motors we had a volume focus - that's how GM as a big company is driving their business, and understandably so. But unfortunately, we have been dragged into that from time to time: the UK or US are good examples where we were working the wrong way. But now if the demand is not there, we at the factory have to be sure we are flexible enough to reduce our production volumes and lower our costs. That's the strategy we have.'

Saab in recent years became that quirky little brand from Sweden. It was always low on GM's list of priorities and today's product line-up perhaps reflects that. How do you position the new Saab? Is it premium against the Germans? Or will you come up with innovative new models?

VM 'You are so right, so right. That was the price Saab paid for being part and parcel of a large OEM like GM. We weren't the priority. I read an interesting article this morning in which Nick Reilly admitted the focus wasn't on Saab and they could have been a better shepherd. Which I think is a very frank statement to make – and a very impressive one. This is admitting to something everyone knew about, it was hardly a secret. The wonderful thing about Saab being on its own is that it will be in charge of its own destiny; it will be able to set its own priorities and it has its own fully funded business plan based on the new 9-5, which is already much more premium than its predecessor. I mean just look at it! This is what I call a "Saab Saab". The 9-4X is our new crossover that Saab lacked so badly before – and it will come within the year. The 9-3 will definitely arrive in 2012 and its design DNA will be revamped to become more in line with the 9-5 and 9-4X. And then, if we manage to pull it off... if you ask Jan and myself what our biggest wish outside the business plan is – it would be the introduction of a Saab 92. A small car, a quirky car, a Saab in the truest sense of the word.'

Which segment would the new Saab 92 be in?

VM 'That would be in the A-segment, slightly north of the Mini. Let's be very clear about this: I don't think a Saab 92 would compete with the Mini. It will be as iconic a design as the Mini though. There are just a few cars that qualify as all-time design icons that you could simply relaunch: the original Mini, the Fiat 500, the Citroen DS. A new Saab 92 would not be retro – it would be a massive mistake to make it into a retro car. But to have all the Saab DNA in it and to be a very modern Saab – that would be our wish.'

I hear you have a sketch of the new Saab 92 in your pocket! Can I see it?

VM 'Unfortunately, the CEO has taken my phone! [Cackles and ignores our request, but he shows it to Gavin Green later the same day]. Listen, the past three months have been extremely tough. Nothing like what Jan Åke and his team have been through, because they've been at it for 15 months. I am just the new kid on the block. But the situation we have all lived through wasn't very pleasant. One of the things I did when I was away from home for almost 93 days, and working 20 hours a day on the deal, was designing what I thought was the new Saab 92. I think it came out really nicely! But this is nothing more than a sketch. It's a nice sketch, but it's such a long way from being a car on the road. An advantage of being independent is that we can make our choices for technology partners now. The choice of a tech partner is imperative if we come to do a Saab 92. There are so many things that need to happen before you have a proper design, a clay model, to an engineered product to a car in production.'

>> Click 'Next' to read more of CAR's interview with Spyker CEO Victor Muller and Saab CEO Jan Åke Jonsson