Keith Adams ruminates about some of the not-so-great cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.
Here, in the third article of this occasional series, we look at the second-generation Saab 9-5 and compare its fortunes with the Rover 75. Were we really that bad?
Saab 9-5: Killed before its time
Timing, as they say, is everything. Get it right and the world goes with you as one – cock it up, and you’ll be fighting all the way. Consider the second-generation Saab 9-5 and the events that rumbled on in the background while it was launched and it’s no wonder that the Trollhättan manufacturer’s last chance saloon failed to succeed after such a promising start. As they say, misery loves company, and the 9-5’s production figures put the model alongside some seriously unsuccessful cars.
The Saab 9-5’s lack of commercial success cannot, of course, be entirely blamed on events – we’ll delve into that in a moment – but there’s no doubt the writing was on the wall after almost two decades of General Motors (GM) mismanagement of this innovative Swedish marque. The product itself wasn’t unpromising – it was built on the Global Epsilon II platform which underpinned some very interesting and capable vehicles spanning the Vauxhall Insignia, Cadillac XLS and even the Roewe 950.
Launched at the Frankfurt International Auto Show in September 2009, the writing was already on the wall, as it became clear that GM wanted rid of Saab, allowing the vultures to circle. Within months we knew the company’s fate – Spyker bought Saab on 26 January 2010 literally as the new generation Saab 9-5 was being readied for production in Trollhättan. Introduction followed in April, we had out first drives weeks later and, although many reports compared it unfavourably with its German rivals, there was more than enough Saabishness to make it an appealing proposition – even if its American underpinnings made it inappropriately sized for the UK market.
Not that much of this mattered. Production of the 9-5 ended months later, in March 2011, with a mere 11,280 rolling off the line in Trollhättan – and, with it, that was that. The Saab 9-5 was dead.
So, Saab 9-5 or Rover 75?
If we’re speaking Last Chance saloons, the Rover 75 (and MG ZT) proved far more successful – it its six-year production run, more than 200,000 were made, with around 20,000 left on UK roads today. In reality, the two cars aren’t directly comparable, they didn’t cross in the new car price lists, and were also in different market sectors – and the Saab’s considerably larger…
However, their positions in their respective makers’ histories are pretty much the same, encompassing the hopes and aspirations for a future that was denied them. In the case of the Rover 75 and MG ZT, it was afforded time on the market and some development – so we enjoyed the V8 versions and the arrival of the Tourer version. The 75 and ZT also enjoyed some European sales and, because a reasonable amount were sold, there are enough left now to ensure a vibrant Owners’ Club scene which is successfully seeing the models transition into classic car status.
Saab’s ownership under Spyker lasted far less time than MG Rover’s under Phoenix. So there was no development afforded to it. Just like the Rover 75, the Saab 9-5 range was designed to encompass an estate-bodied Sportkombi version, which didn’t make it into production as events conspired against it. A few of these Sportkombis have made it into the wild and they look fantastic, affording a tantalising insight into the Saab’s future life we were denied. As it was, both makers’ destinies lay in China.
Thus, in commercial terms, the Rover/MG outshone the Saab and by a considerable margin for the reasons stated above. It’s also likely that the British car was more profitable given that Spyker’s Saab would have been privy to licensing payments for its technology to General Motors. The 75/ZT also came part way to sharing its underpinnings with the all-new mid-sized MG Rover RDX60, which might have afforded its maker some kind of future. It’s unlikely that would have happened to the 9-5.
Still, the question remains: was the Saab 9-5 worse than the Rover 75? As stated they’re not strictly comparable, other than being ‘Last Chance Saloons’ but, given the choice between an example of the pair, it’s hard not to argue for the Saab. It’s good to drive, still feels modern in a way the Rover never did, and it turns more heads, too. However, as a classic car to own and run on British roads today, the 75 definitely gets the nod thanks to good parts availability and club support – even more so, if it’s a V8.
Having said that, a vibrant Saab scene means you’ll always be welcome at any events in a 9-5 – especially an Aero. Decisions, decisions…
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