Saab promises 'different' SUV; mid-sized truck will fill big void in model lineup By DIANA T. KURYLKO | Automotive News (08:30 June 30, 2003) In an answer to its dealers' prayers, Saab will get an SUV based on the Chevrolet TrailBlazer for the 2005 model year. The mid-sized truck will fill a huge hole in Saab's buyer-retention numbers - 25 percent of buyers who leave the brand each year do so to buy an SUV, according to Debra Kelly-Ennis, CEO of the U.S. sales arm. "These numbers are compelling," Kelly-Ennis said last week in a roundtable with Automotive News editors and reporters. "Our dealers sit there year after year watching other makes get SUVs." Kelly-Ennis said Saab originally wanted to use the platform of the new Cadillac SRX for its vehicle. But after a year of discussion, the project was scuttled because of the costs involved. "For the first time in Saab's history, we are looking to develop and bring to market a vehicle that would rely almost solely on one market," Kelly-Ennis said. "Therefore, the costs couldn't be spread over 50 markets worldwide." The automaker also hopes to get a sport wagon based on GM's Epsilon car platform, she said. But that project, which could come to market in three years, is awaiting approval. The SUV, to be called the 9-7, will have different exterior design, interior trim and chassis refinements than the TrailBlazer and its derivatives, said Saab product spokesman Kevin Smith. "It will have very different handling, with excellent braking and performance," he said. "It will be significantly different than the GMC Envoy, Chevy TrailBlazer, Oldsmobile Bravada, Buick Rainier and Isuzu Ascender." Smith said sales likely would be between 5,000 and 15,000 units annually. "It is too early to divulge volume, but it would be nothing near 25 percent of our sales," he said. Rather than try to compete with car-based vehicles such as the Volvo XC90 or the Lexus RX 330, the Saab SUV will be pitted against other truck-based vehicles, Smith said. Chris Cerrina, a member of the Saab Business Team and owner of Parkfield Motors Inc. in Bergenfield, N.J., said dealers were shown the 9-7 recently and were "amazed" at the degree of differentiation from other GM models. "We didn't expect the extent of the changes that were put into the model," he said. The 9-7's truck platform will not be an issue with buyers, Cerrina said. The vehicle will attract new buyers to the brand in the same way that the 9-3 has, he said. Saab expects to sell more than 40,000 cars this year, a level it hasn't reached in 16 years, largely because of the 9-3 replacement, which debuted last fall. Saab sold 37,805 vehicles in the United States last year, up 0.7 percent,and sales through May are up 24 percent. Because the 9-3 is a sedan, rather than a hatchback like its predecessors, Saab has attracted new buyers, Kelly-Ennis said. For the first time, 42 percent of buyers of the 9-3 rated exterior styling as the major reason they purchased the vehicle, she said. Traditionally, design has rated lower on the scale, she said. A convertible version goes on sale in October. The hatchback will return to the Saab range next year when two versions of a small all-wheel-drive car, the 9-2, premier. The 9-2 is based on the Subaru Impreza. The base 9-2 will be the only Saab without a turbocharged engine. It will use Subaru's 2.5-liter H-4 engine, while the Aero model will be powered by a 2.0-liter turbo version.