GM's Saab story and other car tales

Mid-priced Swedish brands languishing, China's love affair with the auto continues.

GM's decided to keep Opel, for now. But they're still trying to jettison the Saab brand. Now there's a report that a Dutch company could be interested. Currently Saabs are built in a plant in Sweden.

Meanwhile, Ford's still trying to unload its Volvo unit. Not good times for those once-proud Swedish brands. I am old enough to remember when Volvo and Saab were big brands among safety-conscious suburban families. Weren't all those 1980s soccer moms supposed to drive Volvo wagons? Those were the days when fuel prices were not a concern among most car buyers. The potential buyer of Volvo is a Chinese automaker, a sure sign of future times.

Neither Volvo nor Saab have been players in the hybrid car market nor moved aggressively toward electric cars. It remains to be seen if either brand will succeed in the next decades with their traditional enigneering, or if the new owners will shift design toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. In markets like China the gasoline price is heavily subsidized so it's not sure that fuel efficiency will matter to cars brands there. For example, Prius may be a good seller in the U.S. but it has gained little traction in China.

If fuel efficient and electric cars ever do become popular in China, there's a homegrown billionaire there preparing to exploit that market. If last month is indicative, China is now the center of the global auto market. It accounted for one-fourth of all car sales. We Americans can get used to seeing the new cars debut in Japan or China, then finally get delivered here to the new auto hinterlands. We've had practice, for decades our cell phone industry trailed the Japanese, Korean and European markets. Japanese teens were texting long before we even Americanized the word.

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