BARCELONA - Saab has returned to a market segment it abandoned 20 years ago with the launch of the 9-5 station wagon.
'This is such an important car for us,' said Bob Hendry, president and chief executive of Saab Automobile AB. 'We have been watching the premium station wagon market for some years. We have been out of the market for too long.
'I sometimes wonder whether people stopped buying wagons, or whether the auto industry stopped making them in favor of minivans and off-roaders.'
Saab plans to build 25,000 9-5 wagons in 1999. Capacity for the version at its Trollhattan plant is 35,000.
Although Hendry retains overall responsibility at Saab, he was recently appointed chairman of General Motors' Opel subsidiary.
'Saab Automobile has had a good year in 1998,' he said. 'I fully expect the company to be profitable from 1999.'
The addition of the 9-3 and 9-5 have driven the sales increase.
'By August, we had beaten last year's totals in many markets, including our major ones in Germany and the UK,' Hendry said. 'We should pass 120,000 units this year. We are well on the way toward our target of 150,000 units a year by 2000.'
New Saab registrations in Western Europe rose by 35.7 percent in
September to 4,946. The January-September period saw an increase of 25.2 percent to 56,346 as the company's market share rose to 0.5 percent from 0.4 percent.
Sales are also up in the USA. Saab sold 2,562 cars there in October, 85 percent more than in the same month last year. That raised sales in the first 10 months to 24,471 units, 2.5 percent higher than in the year-earlier period.
'We have also been successful with the 2.2-liter 9-3 diesel, particularly in Mediterranean and French markets,' said Hendry. 'We are looking at a diesel option for the 9-5. But we do have capacity restraints on the 2.2-liter diesel engine, so we are looking at some other options. We have two engines under evaluation.'
Hendry said Saab had also restructured its dealer network. It now has fewer, but better quality, dealers. This strategy has been a particular success in the UK, where the company has doubled sales in the past two years. It plans to sell 19,000 to 20,000 units there in 1998.
'We have been concentrating hard on building the Saab brand value,' said Hendry. 'It has a unique heritage in that it combines both performance and safety. We will be pushing these values with the 9-5 wagon. Our first wagon for 20 years comes at a vital time. The segment for premium wagons has been increasing steadily over the past five years.'
Hendry said there are no further plans for the 9-5 platform. But he did not discount future variants, such as a coupe. Neither did he reject the idea of using the platform outside Sweden, for an Opel.
'We are looking at different things we can do with the platform,' he said. 'It is possible to use it elsewhere within GM.'
The first 9-5 models, the 2.0-liter and 2.3-liter turbocharged cars, will arrive in both left- and right-hand-drive European markets over the next few months. The 3.0-liter V-6 version is expected later in 1999.
Hendry said he was still getting used to his new double role at Opel and Saab. 'The appointment was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone,' he said. 'I have given myself 60 days to get on top of the situation, so that I can feel comfortable running the business.'
Hendry said he was spending about two-thirds of his time with Opel and the remainder with Saab. He is moving to Germany, but will still have an apartment in Gothenburg.
The day-to-day running of Saab will now be the responsibility of newly-appointed Chief Executive Officer Peter Augustsson.
He joined Saab from SKF, the Swedish industrial bearings group, at the end of November. Augustsson worked for Volvo between 1978 and 1994, and was project manager for the 850 program..
'I am delighted that we have persuaded Peter to join us,' Hendry said. 'I know he can do an outstanding job for us.'