Saab's future is getting even murkier

August 17, 2011: 2:44 PM ET

Its new parent company is having trouble paying the bills. And now a motley cast of characters from around the globe wants the brand's considerable intellectual property.

By Doron Levin, contributor

Saab 9-4XFORTUNE -- A few years ago, Saab eagerly launched a marketing campaign that referenced the company's distant past, portraying its cars as "born from jets." These days, the Swedish car maker is looking more like an albatross.

Swedish Automobile NV, the Netherlands-based company that owns the storied brand, is just about out of money. European creditors are banging at its door, and it sold 4 million additional shares to GEM Global Yield Fund this week in hopes of raising cash so that it can pay workers at its idled assembly plant in Trollhaettan, Sweden.

It's been a rough decade for Saab. Bought by General Motors (GM) in the 1990s to bolster the American manufacturer's luxury and foreign divisions, the brand never became the international sales juggernaut hoped for. GM couldn't build on the company's legacy of producing quirky, upscale vehicles that appealed to English professors and suburban aesthetes. Instead, it came out with models like the low-end 9-2X hatch and 9-7X SUV that were roundly panned by critics. Annual global sales reached their peak in 2003, when Saab sold 132,000 units, and have shrunk drastically since. In early 2010, GM unloaded the troubled brand to Spyker Cars NV. Spyker, which changed its name to Swedish Automobile.

Now, Sweden's Debt Enforcement Agency says it will start collection proceedings against Swedish Automobile unless it pays two suppliers $620,000 immediately. Production at Trollhaettan was suspended in March. Like Volvo, another Swedish car brand that struggled on its own and later as unit of the Ford Motor Co. (F), Saab is deemed by many automotive experts to be too small to survive the rising capital costs of developing technology and acquiring global distribution. (Ford ultimately sold Volvo to Chinese auto maker Geely last year for $1.8 billion.)

"We can't see Saab making a go of it without a major automotive partner," says Aaron Bragman, an analyst for IHS/Global Insight in Northville, Michigan. Swedish Automobile "was able to buy Saab for very little, maybe $20 million. But that's nothing compared to the cost of developing new models, engines and technology. Not very many companies view Saab as having a compelling market position or business case."

That has left the company desperately looking for partners abroad. In June, Swedish Automobile agreed to sell a 29.9% stake to Zheijiang Youngman Lotus Automobile Co. for €136 million. Pangda Automobile, a Chinese distributor, said it was willing to pay €109 million for another 24% stake. According to Steve Keyes, a Saab spokesman, the Zheijiang deal requires Chinese government approval. GM must agree to both deals as well.

GM is watching Saab's travails closely. The Detroit-based auto maker doesn't want to lose control of the extensive intellectual property that helped to create Saab's current models, the 9-3 and 9-5, as well as the all-new 9-4X SUV. If GM isn't careful it could find itself competing against its own technology in Asia.

The Russian financier Vladimir Antonov is also interested, but faces an objection from the European Investment Bank, a creditor of the auto maker. The EIB has declined to say why it is objecting. A Saab spokesman, Eric Geers, has said the auto maker isn't aware of any suspicions against Antonov and wants him to invest. Assuming Saab can replace the EIB loan with money from another lender, Antonov could be in.

That's a big cast of characters for a brand that's had more than its fair share of ups and downs. There is some hope for Saab though. A few hundred of its new midsize crossover, the 9-4X, have been assembled at a GM plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. The 9-4X is based on General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac SRX. "Our U.S. dealers are getting the first 9-4Xs from the factory," says Saab's Keyes. "We still have 196 dealers in the U.S., we've only lost a few since 2009.'' Sales in the U.S. have actually doubled from last year, to 3,820. Still, one promising new model may not be enough to rescue the troubled auto maker.

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