Saab Is Back (Well, Sort Of)

The Saab 9-3 Aero Sedan Courtesy National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB

Attention, Saab lovers. After a two-year hiatus, cars are once again rolling out of the factory in Trollhättan, Sweden. Just don’t expect to buy one, unless you live in China or Sweden.

Saab’s new owner, a Chinese-Japanese joint venture called National Electric Vehicle Sweden, is relaunching the brand after the automaker declared bankruptcy in 2011. The first new Saab 9-3 Aero sedan, which sells for upwards of $42,650, came off the assembly line Dec. 2.

To start, the factory plans to produce only about 10 cars a week. It’s now being produced with a gasoline engine, but Saab plans to launch an electric version of the car next year. All will be shipped to China, apart from a “limited number” available to Swedish customers, the company said in a statement. “Over time we will develop our customer base to expand into more markets where we see potential for growth and profitability.”

That could take a long time. For one thing, the market for electric cars is still tiny, especially in China, where government subsidies have failed to build sales.

Reintroducing Saab in Europe and the U.S. could be even more complicated. The company no longer has a distribution network in those regions and would have to make big investments to meet safety and environmental regulations. “They’ll obviously look at rebuilding in former key markets, but the prospects of it happening in the near term are very remote,” says Ian Fletcher, an auto analyst at IHS in London.

Saab’s new owner has said it could sell as many as 120,000 vehicles by 2017. “We’re quite skeptical about that,” Fletcher says, noting that even in its best years, Saab never sold more than about 133,000 cars worldwide.

If it’s any consolation to Saab’s small but devoted global following, the new 9-3 Aero is a bit of a throwback. “This is a decade-old technology,” Fletcher says, noting that the cars’ engines were among the assets acquired by National Electric Vehicle in Saab’s bankruptcy proceeding.

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