Saab Phoenix

By Guy Bird for CAR Magazine, Mar 2011

On Tuesday March 1 Alfa Romeo and Saab unveiled their new icons. One is a sensation the other a misfire

Shock. Shaken heads. The design community’s reaction to the Saab Phoenix concept at Geneva was a big thumbs down. Instead of rising from the flames, Saab and its design director, Jason Castriota, the golden boy of noughties design with smash hits including the Maserati GranTurismo and Birdcage concept, were engulfed by a firestorm of disapproval.

His Audi TT-sized Phoenix is a 2+2 coupe with gullwing doors, a showcase for future Saab design cues and technologies including an infotainment system by Google and a BMW-supplied engine. But doesn’t the design scream Max Power project car, with its sills and diffuser peeling away from the busy bodywork, which itself is slammed down over modder-style, 20-inch rims?
Standing next to his creation in Geneva, the 37-year-old Italian-American seems sanguine about the criticism. ‘I think a showcar, in fact car design in general, should be provocative. Some people might love it, some people might hate it, but there’s very rarely indifference to the projects I’ve worked on. Indifference is death for anyone who’s creative. When people say “I don’t like that”, I’m like “that’s okay” –which surprises them.’

“I think a showcar should be provocative. Some people might love it, some people might hate it, but there’s very rarely indifference to the projects I’ve worked on. Indifference is death for anyone who’s creative”

CAR’s first glimpse of the Phoenix concept came four days earlier, and was as far removed from motor show glitz as you can get. Walking into an anonymous studio on a Turin industrial estate, the dry ice, rousing soundtrack and press scrum are conspicuous by their absence – as is the concept’s interior. Large sections of bodywork are covered with brown paper to stop the new paint job getting scuffed, as the team rushes to finish the car. It’s more like a visit to your local bodyshop – but with Saab’s critical Geneva PR opportunity at stake rather than a battered 900. Castriota, casually attired in a big cable-knit cardigan, smart jeans and some limited edition Nike Air Force 1s, is seemingly taking it all in his stride. ‘This is an obtainable dream car, and a promise of what’s to come. The Phoenix’s volumes and forms will directly translate into Saab production cars of the future.’

And the future’s closing in fast. Castriota has been finalising three variants of the new 9-3, set for launch in less than 18 months, as well as masterminding the three-month build of the show car. ‘It’s not just been an intense few months, it’s been an intense last 12 months since Victor Muller met me at the last Geneva show, slammed the table and said: “You have to be design director of Saab!”’
In the absence of a finished car, Castriota offers up some computer-aided images in the studio’s anteroom. The Geneva buzz was that the Phoenix didn’t feel like a Saab: where was the trademark purity and understatement, the Saab DNA? Castriota is adamant it’s there, and his presentation references numerous iconic Saabs.
‘The idea was to really tap into the original [late-1940s] Ursaab concept,’ he says, pointing to an overhead view of the Phoenix. ‘The new car is composed of this teardrop form that encapsulates the engine, passengers and luggage compartment with a liquid skin. We took that form, put it in the wind tunnel and shot mercury over it.’

Castriota is engagingly nerdy about aerodynamics in the way graphic designers can be about fonts, and he always seeks to ease air flow around his creations for optimum progress. The fanciful detached buttresses – running outboard of the roofline and forming the high-mounted wing mirrors at the front – have technical purpose in channelling turbulent air directly onto the Phoenix’s rear Kamm tail (itself a nod to the old Saab Sonett sports car), to enhance high-speed stability and reduce rear lift forces. The result is an amazing drag co-efficient of 0.25; today’s 9-3 scores 0.28.
So the aerodynamic aspect of Saab’s aeronautical past is referenced, and the clamshell bonnet harks back to the 900 and the bulbous nose cone sits back like the Ursaab’s. But where did that calm and much-loved leftfield Swedish feeling go? ‘This car is about pushing as far as we can go and testing the limits. We would never go more than this, and certain things are there just for show,’ states Castriota. ‘It would be very easy – and cheap – to build off Saab’s existing design language and make another classically beautiful showcar like the Aero-X [the ice white 2006 supercar concept].’

“You can’t just drop a bomb on the public, you need to prepare them. The Aero-X, which is directly related to the 9-5 and 9-4X, is the closure of a cycle. And the Phoenix is the beginning of a new one”


He continues: ‘We really wanted something that reflected the passion of the brand, that very few people think exists around Saab. It’s had this cool Scandinavian geometric aesthetic for so long but the outpouring from real Saab diehards, guys like [the blogging site] Saabs United, shows they’re totally hooked into its heritage and rally cars. So that’s why this car gained some muscularity and a more fluid and emotional design aesthetic.’
Some of that new passion is evident on the more convincing interior. A great-looking orange/red material covers the seats and is echoed in the colours of the driver’s dial, footwell dot patterns and ambient lighting. There’s cool tech too, with a claimed world’s first Google Android operating system fitted to a car, which will allow developers to create apps and stream music into the cockpit. Saab is adamant this system will be fitted to the 2012 9-3.
The Phoenix runs a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain, again slated for production. A turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine sits in the nose, sending 200bhp to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. At the back, a 35kW electric motor spins the rear axle, giving the Phoenix all-wheel drive capability. The system, complete with generator and regenerative braking function, was designed in a joint venture between Saab and American Axle, and Saab has an exclusive six-month window to introduce the technology. Engineers estimate the hybrid drivetrain will return 56.5mpg and emit 119g/km of CO2.


So the Phoenix’s powertrain, infotainment and front end point to the next-generation 9-3. The big news is the revival of the Saab hatchback – ‘it’s clear we have to return to that,’ says Castriota – alongside the convertible and wagon. Will they be as dramatic, as provocative, as the Phoenix?
‘I make no bones about it, the production cars are drawing from this language,’ says Castriota. ‘And you can’t just drop a bomb on the public, you need to prepare them. On one side you have the evolution of Saab over the last two decades, from the 900 series onwards to this very sheer, planar aesthetic that’s been carried through with the Aero-X and the other showcars touching on aero heritage but keeping that clean, cool Scandinavian aesthetic. But we needed something to push us in a different direction. As we create more products we want to differentiate them. So the Aero-X, which is directly related to the 9-5 and 9-4X, is the closure of a cycle. And the Phoenix is the beginning of a new one.’


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