Saab launched its 9-3 with little fanfare and with expectations of a sell-out.
Deliveries began to Finland in early January. All Finnish sales are to order, so there were no supplies of the Saab 900 in stock. By mid-March, said spokesmen, the car should be in all major markets in Europe. US sales are expected to begin on 14 April.
Saab would not reveal how much it will spend to market the 9-3, but European sales manager Allan Smith said the bigger 9-5, launched last October, is getting most of Saab's attention. 'The 9-5 is very good for us, very good indeed,' he said. Saab has a three-month backlog of orders for the 9-5, and it will stop building the 9000 in May to try to increase capacity to about 50,000 this year.
The 9-3 has 1,100 changes from its predecessor, the 900. Changes range from a new grille to new software in the climate control system. The change that almost guarantees reaching the 72,000 sales goal is the addition of a 2.2-liter diesel to the engine range.
Customers who wanted a diesel in the past had to choose a Saab competitor. That means most of the diesel sales will be conquests. 'There will not be much cannibalization,' said Smith.
Last year, the company sold 34,653 Saab 900s in western Europe and 70,000 worldwide.
About 18 percent of the cars Saab plans to produce through July will have diesel engines. The mix will then be adjusted according to demand.
This year, Saab hopes to sell 72,000 9-3s worldwide, and 50,000 of the more expensive 9-5s. The 9-3 comes in three- and five-door configurations, as well as a convertible assembled by Valmet in Finland.
The convertible made up about 15,000 of the 1997 sales and should remain at about that level.
Saab made changes to the convertible mechanism, and changed suppliers at the same time, from ASC in the USA to CTS in Germany, a Mercedes-Porsche joint venture. The new mechanism uses hydraulics instead of electric motors.
New seats supplied by Lear Corp. have built-in side airbags. The car also offers new instrumentation for the driver and new anti-theft measures, including lock cylinders that can't be forced.
Smith said Saab is beginning to benefit strongly from its relationship with GM, which is a 50-50 partner with the Swedish Investors Group. Saab President Robert Hendry announced that Saab should return to profit in 1999, for the first time since 1994.
Saab says its breakeven point is about 130,000 units. A new 9-5 station wagon ready to debut at the Paris auto show in October is expected to push 1999 sales over that mark, with a goal of 150,000 total for Saab in 2000.
Smith credits GM investment and leadership for the growth.
'With Bob Hendry,' he said, 'we again have a very, very clear view of the role Saab should play in GM's portfolio, as the European premium brand.'