GM Deserves to Fail

On January 12, 2009, in Doing It Wrong, by Rob Levandowski

For a decade now, I’ve been a Saab owner. When I got my first Saab, a leased 1999 9-5 sedan, GM had a large stake in Saab, but the Swedes were still calling the shots.  My 9-5 had a lot of GM parts, but it was still a Saab.

I fell in love with that car.

When I next had the opportunity to choose a car, I bought a used 2000 9-5 wagon.  The 2000 model year was produced before GM finished buying out Saab, but by the time I bought this car in 2004, the buyout was complete.

Although I still love many things about my Saab, it hasn’t exactly been reliable.

I bought the car as a “certified pre-owned Saab” from the local dealer, Roberti Saab. It turns out that “certified” doesn’t mean that the car is any better than any other used car; it just means that the dealer has essentially bought an extended warranty on your behalf. When I took delivery, the car was missing some parts and had inappropriate tires installed, with a speed rating too low for the car.  It took a bit of work to get the dealer to make those things right, “certified” or not.

For two years, I was tied to that dealer for my repairs, so they could be done under warranty. When Roberti could find the problem (“gee, it didn’t do that for us,”) they did a ham-handed job of fixing it. I almost always found some tool or tube of lubricant or something in the car after I got it back from them, an unnerving indicator of carelessness.

When the car’s 60,000 mile service was due, I shopped around, because I didn’t trust Roberti to do this critical major service.  On the V6 9-5, the engine timing belt must be replaced at 60,000 miles; that’s on the service checklist, and Saab even pays for the cost of the belt. However, the tensioning pulleys for that timing belt have a tendency to fail after 65,000 to 75,000 miles of service, and when they fail, they take the belt with them… and that destroys the engine.  GM doesn’t list the tensioning pulleys on the 60,000 mile service checklist.  Knowledgeable Saab owners, and knowledgeable Saab repair shops, replace them at 60K anyway.

So I tried the next closest Saab dealership, Brownell Motors in Fishkill. Upon arriving with the car for the appointment, I double-checked that they would replace the tensioner pulleys. The supposedly factory-trained service supervisor acted as if he’d never heard that such a thing existed, and told me they’d replace the tensioners on the serpentine belt.  That’s an entirely different belt in a wholly different location.  When I tried to explain what I wanted, no one there seemed to know what I was talking about.  Scared, I left, and took the car to Roberti instead.  Roberti at least knew what a timing belt tensioner pulley was.

Once the “certified pre-owned warranty” was up, though, I stopped taking the car to Roberti.  I found a local Swedish-car specialist garage, Especially Swedish in Saugerties, NY, and I’ve been taking it there ever since.  On my first visit, I noticed a pair of engine valves on the desk—one normal, one horribly bent.  I observed, “Let me guess… V6 tensioner pulley?” DJ, one of the mechanics, smiled.  I was right. He keeps the valves out to demonstrate to reluctant V6 owners why the extra $300 for the tensioner pulleys is a good investment.

Time and time again, I found that the GM-trained Saab dealerships knew less about the car than I did! Apparently none of them frequent sites such as SaabNet, where owners share information.

Worse, GM set out to destroy the properties of Saab that made it unique.

They started with an idea that wasn’t bad, but implemented it terribly.  At the time, GM owned a big chunk of Fuji Heavy Industries, the company that makes Subaru cars. They decided to make a version of the Subaru Impreza as the Saab 9-2x. I’ve owned Subarus; they’re good enough cars. I thought that the Swedish engineers at Saab could turn an Impreza into a nice small Saab.

GM, however, decided to simply change the nose of the car, the gauges, and a few badges. The car was almost entirely a Subaru with Saab stickers on it.  It had virtually no Saab to it.

It didn’t even have one of Saab’s most iconic safety innovations: the ignition key between the seats, where it won’t damage your knee in an accident.

The 9-2x sold poorly, and was discontinued when GM sold off its stake in Subaru.

For years, Saab engineers had resisted GM’s desire for four-wheel-drive models. They believed that a well-designed front-wheel-drive car with proper tires and traction control could do the job just as well, and more efficiently.  Four-wheel drive adds a lot of weight and complexity to a car.

Once GM was in control, though, they got their way. Saab was to have an SUV! Somehow, to GM executives, this made sense: Saab owners, who purchased a fuel-efficient, usually four-cylinder, relatively compact European car known for its advanced technology and handling… really wanted a rebadged Chevy TrailBlazer with a gas-guzzling V8 engine and heavy four-wheel-drive system. Thus was born the Saab 9-7x.

GM listened to the complaints about the ignition switch, and put it in the console where it belongs on a Saab.  However, the 9-7x looks like a Chevy, inside and out. (In fact, some of its body panels are identical to the discontinued Oldsmobile Bravada.) It’s missing even more Saab features, like the active head restraint system and the night-panel display mode. It was, however, the most expensive Saab ever offered for sale.

Not surprisingly, the 9-7x didn’t sell so well, either.

In the meantime, the 9-5 came under GM’s cost-cutting knife.  For years, GM deleted features of the car that made it special.  Gone were the umbrella holders in the B-pillars. For a while, rear seat heating pads went away.  The door handles were replaced with unnervingly flimsy plastic parts.

As the design aged, GM’s design department pulled out the corporate playbook: Chrome! People who buy a Scandinavian car really want chrome accents and bling! Isn’t that what Scandinavian design is all about? (No.)

Gone was the understated instrument cluster with the linear speedometer that had 65 MPH positioned at 12 o’clock.  Now there is chrome bezels!

Gone was the admittedly unreliable Saab Information Display at the center of the dash, with its exceptionally legible aircraft-style amber LCD. Now it’s a GM-corporate green vacuum fluorescent display set under the speedometer.

Gone was the large radio that could easily be operated by a finger wrapped with a ski glove, a practical design choice for a cold-climate specialist car. Now there’s a GM corporate radio with many tiny hard-to-distinguish buttons that can’t possibly be operated with a glove on. Plus, the radio now sits jarringly off-center in the dash, because it doesn’t fit the double-DIN space that Saab designed the dash to accept.

Gone is the classic understated front grill of the car, replaced with a chrome monstrosity that screams “Buick!”

Heck, the latest Saab 9-3 Aero even eliminates the Saab Trionic engine control computer, a system that is considerably more advanced than most of GM’s electronics, in favor of a Bosch system.

GM bought a unique and advanced carmaker in Saab. They’ve systematically dismantled the brand, attempting to replace it with “rebadged” cars and corporate parts. The “Born from Jets” history of innovation has been discarded.

By comparison, Ford bought Volvo around the same time that GM completed its purchase of Saab.  Recent Fords, like the Five Hundred/Taurus, have considerable Volvo technology in them. In some ways, the Taurus is now more Volvo than Ford.

GM has instead made Saab more Chevy than Saab.

This short-sightedness and complete willful ignorance of the market is why I think GM deserves to fail.


One Response to GM Deserves to Fail

  1. Peter says:

    I have a 9-2x Saabaru, and it’s more reliable and much more fun to drive than either of the real Saabs that I had before it. Saab dealer service has been good although it’s really a “foreign car” to them.

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