While the 900 enjoyed sales success, a deal signed between Saab and Fiat yielded the first luxury Saab, the 9000. The model also ushered in the Alfa Romeo 164, Fiat Croma and Lancia Thema. The Saab/Fiat deal saw the introduction of the Saab 600, too, a rebadged Lancia Delta for Scandinavian markets.
Towards the end of the 1980s interest in premium brands took off and GM and snatched Saab from under the nose of Fiat, buying a $600m controlling 50 per cent stake. Saab needed serious investment and modernisation to replace the ageing 900.
That replacement carried on the 900 name. Saab decided the Opel Calibra platform it was required to use needed extensive re-engineering to meet its own safety standards. The resulting car offered poor dynamics, but the car still shifted 68,000 a year. In 1998 it was overhauled with 1100 under-the-skin changes and became the 9-3. Despite GM refusing to fund a restyling exercise, sales increased by around 15,000 a year.
A year earlier, the 9000 was replaced by the 9-5, an executive car which shared some 35 per cent of its components with the Vectra. It was considered by some to be one of the safest cars in the world, but limited by the paucity of GM’s parts bin, a lack of decent diesel engines and four-wheel drive; it was never really a match for contemporary BMW 5-series and Audi A6 models.
In 2000, GM bought the remaining $125m share of Saab it didn’t already own and work began on a new 9-3 which would launch three years later. Sadly, the value of the Swedish krona against the US dollar forced cost-cutting and GM bosses were furious when they discovered how much of the 9-3 was bespoke and strayed from the Epsilon platform Saab was given. The rumours go that GM’s response was to delay the introduction of the 9-3 estate and cancel a planned 4×4 variant.
In 2005 GM boss, Bob Lutz commissioned two new co-developed Saabs to prop up the US dealer network. But the plan failed: just 10,000 Subaru Impreza-based 9-2x and 20,000 Oldsmobile Bravada-based 9-7x units were sold. That same year the second-generation 9-5 was canned as GM pulled out of a deal with Fiat to develop new large cars. GM also walked away from its Subaru alliance, sealing the fate of the Subaru Tribeca-based 9-6 SUV. These – and the delayed 9-3 models – were blows that Saab would, subsequently, never recover from.
By March 2009, Saab was in Chapter 11 administration. Two months later, Koenigsegg, alongside Norwegian backers and Chinese maker BAIC, were poised to buy the company but the deal collapsed the following November – the month production of the newly unveiled 9-5 was to begin.
However, on 18 December, GM announced Saab was being wound up. BAIC reappeared and bought the rights to the second generation 9-3, first-gen 9-5 and the Saab slant-four engines. Total Saab production in 2008 was just 90,000 cars and it lost around £215m.
The following month, GM announced that Spyker had arrived at an agreement to purchase Saab, and in February, the deal was signed. Bosses expected to sell around 50,000 in 2010, but fell short by around 20,000 units.