June 13, 2012
Consortium to Buy Saab Automobile
By DAVID JOLLY
PARIS — More than a year after it last made a car, Saab Automobile of Sweden was sold Wednesday to a group of Chinese and Japanese investors who plan to convert the company into a manufacturer of electric vehicles.
Saab’s bankruptcy administrators, Anne-Marie Pouteaux and Hans L. Bergqvist, said in a statement that the company was being acquired by National Electric Vehicle Sweden, a company set up for buying Saab assets. The price was not disclosed.
“We will match Swedish automobile design and manufacturing experience with Japanese E.V. technology and a strong presence in China,” Karl-Erling Trogen, National Electric Vehicle’s chairman, said in the statement. “Electric vehicles powered by clean electricity are the future, and the electric car of the future will be produced in Trollhattan,” Sweden, where Saab is based.
Saab was sold by General Motors to Victor R. Muller, a Dutch entrepreneur, in 2010. But it never recovered from years of underinvestment and the shock of the financial crisis.
Production at Saab’s main factory in Trollhattan ground to a halt in the spring of 2011 as cash dried up. Established automakers examined the possibility of buying it, but declined, and potential Chinese buyers were discouraged from bidding by G.M.’s claim to key technology rights.
The company and its 3,000 workers ran out of time in December, when a Swedish court pronounced it insolvent.
“The sale to N.E.V.S. is our most important action to realize the assets of the estate,” the administrators said. “From the outset, it has been our ambition to find a comprehensive solution by the summer, so we are very pleased today, having reached this agreement.”
National Electric Vehicle said its first model would be based on the current Saab 9-3, with the addition of Japanese technology. It said it hoped to have its market debut by the end of 2013 or early 2014. It will also be working to roll out an all-new electric model initially for the Chinese market.
Mattias Bergman, a spokesman for National Electric Vehicle, said: “The plan is not to sell only to China. There is a global plan, but China is the initial focus.” He said during a conference call that the Trollhattan facility was the right place to be making cars, even as other carmakers are seeking to move production out of Western Europe to Asia and elsewhere to cut costs.
Some analysts are skeptical.
“We’re struggling to see how this enterprise is going to work,” said Ian Fletcher, a senior analyst in London for IHS Global Insight. “Do they have some kind of magic bullet?”
The market for electric cars, Mr. Fletcher said, “is tiny.”
He also said that because of the challenges of battery storage, most electric cars were small and designed for city driving, while the Saab 9-3 was a midsize car, something that could leave it with a short driving range in its usual environment. And exporting cars to China is expensive, because of import duties, he said.
“The only reason I can think of to make them in Trollhattan is that maybe it would take too long to get the necessary approvals to make them in China,” Mr. Fletcher said.
Mr. Bergman, the spokesman, declined to discuss the size of the investment in Trollhattan, and he declined to identify the Japanese companies with which Saab’s investors would be working, though he said Japanese manufacturers would be called on for both parts and licensing. And the batteries, a critical component of electric vehicles, “will be based on Japanese technology and imported from Asia,” he said.
The new investors will have their work cut out for them. The arrival of the electric vehicle era has been hindered by technological obstacles, including a lack of infrastructure, high costs and slow acceptance at a time when hybrid vehicles are already well established.
In the United States, the administration of President Barack Obama has set a target of getting a million electric vehicles on the road by the end of 2015, and has invested about $2.4 billion in the effort. The Chinese government had sought to be able to produce at least 500,000 hybrid or all-electric cars and buses a year by the end of 2011. Both countries’ efforts are well behind schedule.
Some Chinese companies that initially had invested heavily in electric cars are now hedging their bets with hybrids.
National Electric Vehicle Sweden is 51 percent owned by National Modern Energy Holdings, a Hong Kong investor in alternative energy. The rest is held by Sun Investment, a Japanese venture capital firm founded by Sanefumi Sammy Shoji, a former Goldman Sachs banker.
National Modern Energy Holdings’ founder, Kai Johan Jiang, is a Chinese businessman with Swedish nationality. He is also the founder of Dragon Power, a Chinese biofuel company, and an economic policy adviser to the Shandong provincial government.
Saab’s new lineup “will recognize the values of the company,” Mr. Bergman said, drawing on the company’s iconic aviation-inspired designs.