By Andrew Ganz
Wednesday, Dec 21st, 2011 @ 11:45 am
 
It was hard not to be pulling for Saab over the last few years, but even the most hardened enthusiast had to admit that the small Swedish automaker had an uphill battle akin to climbing Mt. Everest while wearing Rollerblades and a straight jacket.

For much of its life, Saab was recognized as a pioneer and an innovator that went about things its own way. As an advertising tag line the automaker used in the 1990s put it, Saab chose to find its own road.

Unfortunately, that road ran out earlier this week as would-be Saab savior Victor Muller announced that, after more than two years of trying, he couldn't save the brand from collapse. What caused Saab's precipitous decline? The answer is hardly simple, and we'll readily admit that our explanation glosses over much of the essential minutia.

Despite a series of successful products in the 1980s, Saab's small product lineup made ongoing success unlikely without a major partner. In 1990, General Motors, intent on expanding its global presence, invested in Saab with the intention of taking on BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Despite fully acquiring the brand in 2000, GM never made good on its promise. Whether Saab was profitable under GM is debatable; GM leaned heavily on Saab's engineers but rarely rewarded with new products.

Although GM slipped closer and closer to its own bankruptcy, Saab was granted increased power and products. The results were easy to see: GM got advanced turbocharged engines and Saab got a new flagship sedan and a crossover. Had the markets not crashed in early 2008, Saab would have one of the industry's freshest lineups today. Instead, GM closed several brands and, after a 13th hour ordeal, Muller-run Spyker swooped in and nabbed Saab. Despite his best intentions, Muller learned the hard way that a tiny, independent automaker doesn't face much of a chance, especially since the sale meant that GM had preferred shares with veto power.

GM, rightfully concerned that the 9-5 and 9-4x platforms would fall into the hands of Chinese investors, made it clear that no involvement of Chinese investors was feasible. And thus Saab's fate was written; rather than go the way of Volvo, Saab is, for now, an orphaned brand.

Rocky road
Over the years, Saab produced cars that were generally more memorable than forgettable, although not always for the right reasons. As it chased the higher volumes that it hoped would translate into profitability, Saab's lineup became increasingly muddy.

We've compiled a list of what we feel are five of the Saabs ever, as well as the five worst cars to bear the Griffin badge. Our criteria were simple: The best Saabs needed to bring something new and exciting to the table. The worst Saabs were those that illustrated the brand's decline.

Our lists are not exhaustive, since we could have included greats like the angular Saab Sonnets and the underwhelming V6-powered 900s. Tell us what Saabs would make your lists below:


Five great Saabs
1960-1980 Saab 96. The picks of the litter here were the 850 Saab Sports, which offered unparalleled rally performance - especially at the hands of Erik "On the Roof" Carlsson. These quirky two-doors stayed in production for two decades and their bulbous style and two or four-stroke engines make them among the most recognizable European cars ever made among automotive cognoscenti. Jay Leno has one.

1984-1998 Saab 9000. The result of an unusual Swedish-Italian collaboration, the 9000 was by far the most successful of its platform mates (Alfa Romeo 164, Lancia Thema and Fiat Croma, none of which were especially good). The 9000 was ludicrously spacious, exceedingly fast when equipped with a turbo and highly refined. That it lasted over a dozen model years was a harbinger of things to come, as well as a sign of how hard it was for the Saab to invest in new products before GM stepped in.


2010-2011 Saab 9-4X. The last all-new Saab introduced offered great hope for the brand's future. Its GM DNA wasn't toned down enough, but it boasted excellent dynamics and a decent value in one of the most lucrative and fast-growing segments in the industry. If GM had let Saab launch the 9-4x back in late 2008, the brand probably would have survived because we can't think of any reason why Saab couldn't have sold 40,000 of these annually in the U.S. given the chance to properly market them.

1968-1984 Saab 99. The 99 helped bring Saab into the then-modern era of the 1970s, but it began life as a fairly ordinary car. Then fuel injection arrived in 1972 and, more importantly, a turbo was fitted in 1978. Once again, Saab was viewed as a producer of true driver's cars, and not solidly utilitarian cars like Volvo was churning out. The 99 Turbo was the world's first "turbo for everyone," a car that offered lots of torque without having to buy a Porsche.

1978-1994 Saab 900. The classic 900 still defines Saab today, although, frankly, it shouldn't. That's not to say it wasn't a terrific car - it was hugely practical, reliable and fun to drive. But that so many continue to associate it with Saab today, nearly 20 years after the last one was built, is a sign that the company just didn't have the chops to keep up with a fast-moving market in subsequent years.

Five terrible Saabs
1984-1987 Saab 90. Admittedly, the 90 wasn't a bad idea. It combined the front half and engine of the then-new 900 with the rear half of the outgoing 99 to offer a budget alternative. But its execution was subpar compared to rivals and its styling was contrived at best. Buyers might have wanted a small Saab, but a warmed-over model from the late 1960s wasn't on their agenda. The 90 was such a weak performer that Saab limited it mainly to northern European markets and even an enthusiast site calls it "an embarrassment to everyone concerned."

2005-2009 Saab 9-7X. What could go wrong with a truck-based Saab SUV made in Ohio? Possessing none of Saab's hallmarks aside from an ignition key in the center console, the 9-7x was laughably poorly thought out. Ironically, it was the best GMT360 platform variant (think Chevrolet Trailblazer and GMC Envoy, among others), but that still meant that it felt more like a gussied up Chevy than a Saab. Imagine if Saab had been granted a version of GM's still-excellent three-row Lambda platform crossovers when they debuted in 2008.

1980-1982 Saab 600. In exchange for providing the Italians with an excellent large sedan platform, Saab received a Lancia-engineered small car. Only problem? It was a rebadged Lancia Delta, a mediocre hatchback that rusted before it even got to Sweden. Luckily, Saab only tried to hawk the uninspiring 600 in a few Nordic markets, so most of us never knew it existed. In fact, there's a good chance that no 600 still exists. We'll offer up a prize to anyone who can prove that there's still a 600 registered and on the road somewhere.

2004-2006 Saab 9-2X. Badge-engineering was back again, this time under a short-lived relationship with Subaru, which was briefly part-owned by GM. The 9-2X was a modestly reworked Subaru Impreza and Impreza WRX (9-2X Aero). Like the 9-7X, the 9-2X was actually a pretty nice car but a laughable Saab. It felt about as "premium" as a sale at Wal-Mart, and most wound up serving as service loan cars for dealers before they were deeply discounted. Random fact: Saab nearly got its own version of the Subaru Tribeca, but GM sold off its shares just in time.

2010-11 Saab 9-5. Saab's last new sedan was undoubtedly its most advanced ever, but it never quite felt right. From its relentless use of GM switchgear to its gargantuan, Buick-based proportions, it offered a poor glimpse into what Saab was set to become under GM: Simply another division with way too many shared parts. All things considered, it was a nimble-handling car with a set of excellent turbo four-cylinders that would have worked better in a smaller car.