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Posts filed under ‘Saab’

Swedish Bolide: Saab Sonett III

April 22, 2014 by Matt

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Green

I think it’s time to feature another barely-imported, obscure-yet-cool classic. I considered putting the Sonett III in my FWD Champions series, but somehow—I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason—the car just doesn’t manage to elevate itself into that category. I’ve already featured the original Saab 900; maybe one Saab is enough? Who knows.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Orange

Regardless, the Sonett III, a front-wheel-drive coupe produced by the Swedish automaker between 1970 and 1974, ticks more than enough of the boxes on its “cool” application. It’s rare, classically quirky, not unattractive in a sort of hybrid Scandinavio-Italian way and blessed with an uncommon engine configuration: A 1.7l, Ford-sourced V4 blessed with 65 pavement-rippling horsepower. Fortunately, they only had 1,950 lb to haul around, so the 0-60 time of around 13 seconds, while glacial by today’s standards, was at least semi-peppy for its day.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Engine Motor

Like the Corvette, the body is constructed of fiberglass mated to a metal frame. While lightweight and trendy, the material had some problems: Saab’s relative inexperience with mass-production of fiberglass meant that most cars left the factory with slight (but perceptible) waves in the bodywork. Also, just because the body panels were made of a rust-free material didn’t mean the chassis couldn’t be afflicted with automotive cancer; indeed, rust is a major concern for those looking for a good Sonett III on the market today. Furthermore, the needs of the material meant the all-of-a-piece front bodywork only allowed a small door for engine access, a real bummer for maintenance and service.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Dash Cockpit Console Interior Inside

The owner of the car shown above has added additional instrumentation below the center console, but the aircraft-inspired quirkiness of the Sonett III’s interior is still apparent. Note the pull handle operating the manually-concealed headlights, the clear bank of instruments and the large red buttons to the left of the steering wheel. It’s clean and very cockpit-like.

Saab Sonett Sonnet Sonnett Sonet III 3 Console

Naturally, against all common sense, I really like the car and would love to own one. I admire the little details like the sliders and toggle switches on the console, the ultra-wide 5-bolt lug pattern and the “cupped” door handles. And I appreciate the car’s overall proportions, which make it look like absolutely nothing else on the road. Add a dash of handling flair, and rarity—only a little over 8,000 were made; with an unknown percentage of that making the trip to the US—and I’m sold.

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Interesting Engines:
Saab’s Variable Compression Engine

March 13, 2013 by Matt

Saab Variable Compression Engine Motor SVC

This engine had real promise.

Killed by Saab’s GM overlords due to budgetary reasons, the Swedish automaker’s variable compression engine, or SVC, had one of the most favorable risk/reward ratios I’ve ever seen. In other words, for the small amount of new, unproved technology used, the potential benefits were phenomenal.

As with most new engine technology, the touted benefits of the SVC included (much) more power from a given displacement, along with substantially increased efficiency. The proof-of-concept engine, shown in the accompanying images, was a supercharged 5-cylinder displacing only 1.6l, yet it delivered a remarkable 225 hp, with 30% less fuel consumption than a conventional engine of similar output.

Saab Variable Compression Engine Motor SVC

The secret to the SVC’s capabilities was the movable “Monohead” that allowed the engine’s compression to vary dynamically between 14:1 and 8:1. The engine’s control unit would raise the compression toward the higher setting in low load situations in order to squeeze the most energy from a given amount of fuel. And when higher power was required, the compression was lowered to accommodate the boost delivered by the supercharger and avoid engine-damaging detonation.

Saab Variable Compression Engine Motor SVC

The Monohead was hinged on one side, and actuated from the other with a stepless hydraulic crank (shown above). In practice, the system moved the cylinder head alternately closer to and farther away from the top of the pistons at top dead center, decreasing or increasing the “squish” volume, thereby varying the compression ratio.

Simple, robust, effective: The Monohead was really the only innovation introduced by the SVC; everything else—pistons, ignition system, intake and exhaust, supercharger, etc—was proven, off-the-shelf technology. As I mentioned, given the engine’s promise, the amount of R&D required was shockingly low.

So what happened? After being unveiled at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show, Saab’s corporate overloads at General Motors decided the project would consume too much development capital, and pulled the plug. They apparently thought badge engineering Subarus and GMC Envoys as Saabs was a better direction for the brand than potentially groundbreaking new engine technology… Given the Swedish automaker’s demise last year, we’ll never know if the SVC would have secured Saab’s future, but we know for certain that GM’s pathetic and shameful marketing strategy didn’t.

Check out Saab’s promotional video for the engine:

Further reading: SaabNet article, autozine.org article

Image credits: autospeed.com, carenthusiast.com, autocentral.com

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series examining unique and significant powerplants. Read the other installments here:

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Will BMW buy Saab?

February 22, 2012 by Matt

BMW Kidneys Grille Nostrils Blue Saab Grille Fascia

Saab’s body isn’t even cold yet, having just filed for bankruptcy and liquidation a few months ago, and yet, as Left Lane reports, BMW appears to be in the running to be the one to perform a Dr. Frankenstein-style reanimation of Saab’s cadaver, jolting new life into the Swedish automaker.

The article points out:

The association between the two companies wouldn’t be as random as it might seem. In 2010, BMW agreed to provide Saab with 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines. The cooperation between the two was supposed to start this year.

Furthermore, the Munich-based company has announced recently that it needs extra production capacity in order to expand its MINI brand. Picking up the Trollhättan facility could be a viable solution to the problem.

If they decide to acquire Saab, BMW would undoubtedly be a better partner than GM had been. During its 20-year partnership with the Swedish automaker, GM drained from it every last ounce of brand identity, shamelessly rebadging Cadillacs, Chevys and even Subarus as Saabs in a series of flailing attempts to create a successful model. BMW’s history of alliances with other automakers is a bit spotty (Rover got the shaft), but chances are much better they’d give Saab more autonomy and restore at least some of its brand identity, as the German concern has done for Rolls-Royce and MINI. BMW would likely supply engines and provide engineering assistance when needed, rather than completely manhandling Saab’s product line, a la GM.

Unfortunately, GM holds the patents to many key Saab engine and chassis components, since all recent Saabs have been built on GM platforms, and for any sale to proceed, the American giant would have to give their blessing to the union. That said, I can see GM being a bit less hesitant about a BMW purchase than one by a Chinese firm, given the fast and loose relationship between many Chinese companies and international copyrights and patents, and thus the increased likelihood of GM having to compete against its own innovations in the Chinese domestic market, an area of exponential growth for the American automaker. BMW faces off a bit less directly with GM, and access to certain proprietary GM technologies by BMW wouldn’t put the former at as much of a competitive disadvantage.

We’ll see what happens. I for one hope BMW goes through with the sale and keeps Saab alive.

6 Comments

It’s Over: Saab to Liquidate Assets

December 19, 2011 by Matt

Saab Logo Badge Emblem

The long arm of General Motors came back to haunt Saab, even as the company fought for survival, and proved to be the Swedish automaker’s undoing. As I reported back in July:

[O]n the verge of liquidating their assets and shuttering their factories, a pair of buyers emerged, in this case the Chinese firms Youngman and Pang Da.

What looked like the potential for a relatively secure line of credit for Saab has been nixed by GM on the grounds that patents arrangements could be used to further the interests of GM’s competitors in China, an exploding market for the American giant. So although GM no longer owns Saab, technically, a great deal of proprietary technology was shared, giving GM a certain amount of legal, if not financial sway over Saab’s activity.

And so, having been shunned by every major and minor automaker, it seems Saab’s quirkiness will be exiting stage left. The turn of events obviously means the end for Saab’s only current offering, its well-executed and distinctive second-generation 9-5.

What conclusions to draw from Saab’s demise? If I were going to be snarky, after the death of Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn, Daewoo and now Saab, I’d strongly advise struggling automakers against hitching their wagon to the General. Especially compared to the success of, say, former Ford partnerships—Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin and Mazda immediately come to mind—GM’s track record of putting companies on a successful trajectory looks poor indeed.

Also, the increasingly oppressive regulatory climate, both here and across the pond, is squeezing out smaller, more unique automakers in favor of larger, more financially-stable firms better able to absorb lawmakers’ capriciousness. It’s a sad state of affairs when outfits that bring so much color to the automotive world are sacrificed in order to free up the capital needed to comply with new emissions and safety laws, not to mention the overwhelming amount of gadgetry de rigeur in even a basic mid-level car. Now, of course I can’t prove a direct connection between the two; after all, many companies are done in by good old-fashioned mismanagement and stupidity (see: TVR), but it’s almost always the case that when the list of requirements for a product grows, the chance of companies designing very similar “solutions” grows proportionally. Everything fades to gray, and Saab is the latest color to dim.

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FWD Champions: The Saab 900

September 12, 2011 by Matt

Saab 900

I had originally dismissed this one as a pretender…until I took a closer look at its mechanicals. It has something of a cult following, too, and I’d like to believe at least part of the enthusiasm is based on some degree of dynamic ability. I can’t think of another FWD car that enjoys the Saab 900’s level of devotion without a fair amount of fun-to-drive factor. A test drive would elucidate the issue, to be sure; I should track down an owner’s club in the area. Hmm.

Saab 900 mechanical cutaway

To clarify, the car under consideration today is the ’78-’93 “true Saab” car, not the GM-ized ’94-’98 platform-sharing jellybean. The former had mechanical uniqueness to match its looks; the second-generation 900 was built on an Opel Vectra chassis and was depressingly conventional. A couple of under-the-sheetmetal features set the first-generation car apart: Double wishbone front suspension (the best configuration for handling) and a unique powertrain orientation that enabled much of the engine to sit behind the front axle line for better weight distribution. In the case of the second mechanical quirk, the engine is turned 180°, with the transaxle underneath and drawing power from the front of the engine. It doesn’t allow the powertrain to be located fully behind the front axle line, but it’s certainly superior to, say, Audi’s practice of hanging the entire engine out over the front axle. The rear suspension, for its part, is a simple beam axle of the type that has served VW’s hot hatches well over the years.

Saab 900 Interior

All that said, I’d never buy one for the dynamics alone. I can’t imagine that the car really offers a fundamentally different feel than a standard front-driver. However, other factors, including a very tunable turbo engine and general quirkiness and uniqueness, deepen its appeal considerably. The cockpit is businesslike and cool and the styling, while it wouldn’t win a beauty contest, is at least consistently unique. You certainly can’t examine its contours and conclude the designers chickened out anywhere—they were determined to create something that looked like nothing else on the road, and they succeeded. It’s weird, but it’s all weird, and it works—a statement that could apply equally well to its engineering, and for that, I give the whole package props.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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Know Your Car Design Details

September 2, 2011 by Matt

We see these terms batted around car magazine articles from time to time. Let’s clear ’em up, focusing today on named and/or brand-specific design features.

BMW Hofmeister Hoffmeister Hofmiester Hoffmiester Kink Kick Knick

BMW’s Hofmeister Kink. Bowing on the ’61 BMW 1500 sedan and named for the former design director responsible for the feature, every BMW since (except for the ragtop convertibles and certain wagons) has sported the turn-back at the forward base of the C-pillar. Allegedly, it gives the rear of the car a more planted, established look, and highlights the equal contribution of the rear wheels (read: RWD) to the car’s motion. Of course, other manufacturers have styled cars with this feature, before and after its initial appearance on the 1500, but the Bavarian automaker has such a prolific relationship with the detail that it bears their designer’s name.

Saab Hockey Stick

Saab’s hockey stick. I’m unsure if this styling feature is so-named because of the popularity of the sport in Saab’s native Sweden, but form-wise, the moniker certainly fits. More built-in to the car’s contours than BMW’s Hofmeister Kink, the Saab hockey stick is a bit harder to pull off, demanding more from the rest of the car’s design in order to accommodate it. Nevertheless, the automaker has been faithful in attempting to integrate at least a suggestion of the feature into each of their cars since the Saab 96, introduced all the way back in 1960.

Kamm Tail Kammback

The Kamm tail. A bit more functional than the preceding two, the Kamm tail still probably wouldn’t have been as widely adopted had there not been some sort of aesthetic justification. After all, there are a myriad of even more functionally-beneficial design elements that don’t see the light of day because they would render the car in question butt-ugly. In any case, the abruptly truncated tail of the car supposedly creates turbulence and airflow vortices that reduce aerodynamic drag and can even push the car forward, so to speak. So there’s some use to it.

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The Third Owner’s the Charm

July 7, 2011 by Matt

2010 Saab 9-5

Is Saab back for good?

After GM decided to divest themselves of the company in late 2009 as part of their restructuring program, the Swedish automaker was rescued in early 2010 by the Dutch firm Spyker in a truly 11th-hour deal. Despite Spyker’s lack of financial muscle compared to GM, I had high hopes Saab would regain more solid footing under their auspices. Especially with the long overdue release of the second-generation 9-5 (by all accounts a very good car, if not the automotive equivalent of a killer app), I started wondering whether a Jaguar-in-the-’90s-style renaissance was in the works.

Unfortunately, Saab’s problems today are different than Jaguar’s were back then. The British company’s main failings were on the manufacturing efficiency and quality control fronts, two areas that their then-new owners, Ford, were amply able to help them address. Jaguar never suffered from a lack of distinctiveness, and their basic design and engineering had always been on par with the standard-bearers in their cars’ categories. But those are precisely the two main issues facing Saab today. Saab needs make a car that can hang with a BMW 3-series, Lexus IS or Infiniti G, and they need to distinguish themselves from their competition (something GM’s platform sharing antics did not help). Accomplishing those two things would help the brand win converts beyond just the diehard loyalists, or those who define themselves first and foremost as nonconformists.

2010 Saab 9-5 Rear 3/4

All that said, in spite of the competence of the new 9-5 (pictured above and at top) Spyker couldn’t do much with the Swedish company, and put Saab up for sale. And yet again, on the verge of liquidating their assets and shuttering their factories, a pair of buyers emerged, in this case the Chinese firms Youngman and Pang Da.

Here’s hoping they pull through. If they do eventually go under, the automotive landscape will be a bit less unique for the disappearance of the quirky, and in many ways pioneering, automaker.

Saab has been at the vanguard of a number of automotive innovations; just to name a few: wastegate-controlled turbocharging, coil-on-plug ignition, and my personal favorite: the variable compression engine. Unfortunately, with that last advance, they lacked the capital to fully develop what could have been a game-changer, a real breakthrough that would have given them technical distinctiveness and leadership, in addition to all the little peripheral idiosyncrasies they maintain.

On another personal note, as much of a nonconformist as I like to think I am, I’ve never been a huge fan of the brand, mainly because their entire model range is front-wheel-drive. There’s just no way to achieve a well-balanced, classically fun-to-drive car with that mechanical configuration. It’s unfortunate, really, since Saabs are generally very handsome, and manual transmissions are offered on most cars in their lineup—two big positives.

If nothing else, this post allows me to coin what I will call Spannerhead’s 1st Law of Automotive Blogging: “You can’t call yourself a true automotive blogger until you’ve written a post about a Swedish automaker.”

So at least I’ve arrived, even if Saab hasn’t quite yet.

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