Brisbane Motor Show: interview with Parveen Batish, director of Saab and Hummer brands in Australia

Parveen Batish introduces the Saab BioPower. Click on the image for a gallery of high-res images of the Saab 9-5 BioPower.

Parveen Batish has recently taken on the role as the director of both Saab and Hummer in Australia - two very different brands with very different focuses. AutoblogGreen sat down with him at the Brisbane Auto Show to ask about the environmental strengths of each brand.

ABG: You are looking at bringing the Saab 9-5 BioPower model to the Australian market and you're expecting that will come on-line sometime later this year?

PB: What we've done at the moment is we've got four demonstrator vehicles here being used by Queensland government and Q-Fleet for a month or so just to see how it reacts to the Australian market. And if those trials go well, and if there is a demand for it, then we're ready to introduce that car. Really, our message is to the government, to the community, to petrol companies, we've broken the chicken and egg situation, we've got the car, what we need now is the fuel.

We can't invest in putting the tanks into the ground, someone else has to do that. We can't invest in bringing ethanol to the bowser, but we're happy to work with anybody. We're working with three or four ethanol producers already and some of them are very close to having the first E85 filling stations. But that's all we can do, is work with them. We've just said to everybody, "look, we've got the product, sell us the fuel."

Interview continues after the jump.

Someone asked me the question, "you're just a small manufacturer, how much of an impact can you make", and my response was, "well, if we were one of the big three manufacturers here then everyone would be running off to the government and saying "you've got to invest in E85, you've got to put it into the ground and those kind of things." And, sure, we're never going to sell thousands and thousands of cars so not everyone is going to be running around in a BioPower car, but I think what we can do is we can raise the awareness of ethanol, we can raise the awareness of the fact that this is more than just a price of petrol debate, which it seems to be half the time.

When you look at the concessions that have been introduced on LPG [editor's link: Australia to offer $2000 for drivers to convert to LPG], I'm not going to be disparaging of LPG, but if those kind of concessions were bought on for the BioPower, people would buy that car. Because we're not asking for people to pay for the technology or anything else, in fact there is very little technology involved, just engineering. And all we're asking for is just for that engineering money back, so that the price will probably be around $1,000 to $1,500 more than the normal petrol version. And what we're hoping is that people will just invest in those cars. So that if they're looking to buy a 9-5, they'll buy a BioPower knowing that they can just run it normally anyway until the fuel is available.

ABG: Being a flex-fuel vehicle, there are some E10 ethanol products available on the market now, but you have not seen any E85 available on the market at this point?

PB: No, not in Australia. In Europe, there is one other manufacturer that sells an E85 car. As you'd expect me to say, its not as good as our car. The great thing about the Saab is that when you run it on E85, and I just think this is spot on for the Australian market, you actually get 20 percent more power and 16 percent more torque from the same engine. So, a lighter engine giving you more power is a win-win. Because you're not going to use up any more fuel and you're just getting more power for your money.

ABG: Did you do any surveys, studies, demographic testing before you considered bringing the BioPower to the Australian market to test the waters? To see what customers or consumers reaction to such a model would be?

PB: We haven't done any specific tests in Australia at all. But you know, I think the car buying public is the same where ever you go around the world. People naturally gravitate to some brand, be it local, be it international, and we've got a lot of experience now from what's happening around Europe. That there's a huge acceptance of E85. So if you take Sweden for example, if you go back three years, they probably had half a dozen filling stations. They now have over 500 filling stations.

BioPower is now making up 80 percent of all 9-5 sales in Sweden. 80 percent! They sold 11,000 BioPower vehicles last year. They're outselling LPG and hybrid vehicles, ten to one in Sweden. There's a huge acceptance of that [E85]. And the reason it came about is because the government almost forced the petrol companies to put in E85 bowsers, and there's two companies, in fact three companies that sell E85 vehicles and Saab is taking up over 40 percent of that market in Sweden.

In France, the government and unions have just announced that they're going for a target that I believe is around 500 filling stations by the end of this year. So they're beginning to take off. In the U.K., we launched BioPower in the U.K. earlier in '06 with one filling station. Now there's thirteen. There's a supermarket chain called Morrison's who have opened up some filling stations. And in fact the European Union is doing some testing in the U.K. down in a place called Somerset with a fleet of cars which are actually by another manufacturer, but we've got some cars running in that area.

The same thing is happening in Italy, in Spain, in Germany. In Norway, they sold 500 BioPower cars with only one filling station. In America we haven't started to sell the BioPower yet, we will I'm sure in the very near future. But there are thousands of filling stations in the U.S. There is a vehicle part [estimate] for ethanol around two million vehicles. So there are already two million vehicles on the road using ethanol.

So, I'm not sure if we really need to do any specific tests here. I think what is happening around the world speaks for itself. There is a feeling of becoming more green. We see it on the news every day, every single day on the news there will be something about the environment, from droughts over here to no snow in the Alps for skiing, to polar bears drowning. You hear stories all the time. I think people have to understand the connection between what we're driving, how we use energy and actually what kind of energy we use and the impact that's having on the environment.

So, I don't think we need to do any testing. I think people are well aware that there is an environmental issue, and all we're really trying to do is encourage the debate, get more people onto E85. Get more people to talk about ethanol. We shouldn't stop at ten percent. Ten percent is great but we should go a little bit further than that. And actually stop our reliance on importing oil. We spend something ridiculous like a billion dollars a month on importing oil into this country. And yet, we have crops being destroyed because there is not use for them. And we can actually use those to make fuel.

ABG: It sounds like the BioPower has been a very successful vehicle for Saab so far. Is that leading Saab to consider introducing similar E85 technology to other models?

PB: Absolutely. At the Sydney Motor Show we had the Aero-X which is a 100 percent ethanol powered car. Its actually based on the V6 engine produced down in Port Melbourne, so its local [Australian] technology. That's a concept car. We also have another concept car based on our convertible which is the first fossil-free fuel car because its actually an ethanol hybrid. It uses 100 percent ethanol and its a hybrid, so basically it charges up its own batteries. And that's a concept car, and that's were we're going. We're going towards actually producing cars which can run on 100 percent ethanol or any mixture below that. So yes, in the near future I'm sure you'll begin to see the other models in our range which will take that [ethanol]. But that's still yet to be decided.

ABG: Does Saab see the opportunity to offer something like BioPower as a chance to gain leadership in environmental aware automotive technology.

PB: Yes. If we talk about Australia for a moment, we've certainly tried to use BioPower to show our green credentials. We've just launched a diesel engine into our 9-3 range and its the most fuel efficient diesel range in the premium sector. Our convertible, and we're the first to introduce a diesel engine into a convertible in this country, is the most fuel efficient car of any convertibles in this country. We checked on everything, two seaters, four seaters - its the most fuel efficient car. So for us its hugely important.

What we've also done in Australia is we have a partnership with Greenfleet. Basically what Greenfleet do is they will plant 17 trees for every car that we sell this year, so our customers can drive their cars safe in the knowledge that the CO2 that they will emit in one year will be absorbed by those 17 trees that we've planted. And that's an investment from us to the environment, so we're going to do that for every car that we register this year, be it a demonstrator, or a new vehicle. I think that's leading as far as the environment is concerned. I'm not by any means suggesting that we're holier than thou and we're there. But what we are trying to do is to make small steps into the environmental debate. Because we all use cars to get around from A to B, but there are things we can do to help [the environment].

The Hummer - officially launched in Australia at the Brisbane Motor Show

ABG: I understand that you're now in charge of the Saab brand in Australia. And also the Hummer brand in Australia. Do you have any thoughts on the Hummer from an environmental standpoint?

PB: Every brand has its own specific area within the marketplace. For Saab, which is driven by a particular kind of customer, the environment is a big issue and really that's what we're trying to raise with this product. The Hummer itself appeals to a different group of people, but actually, in its class, its by no means the worst as far as energy efficiency is concerned. In fact, its average compared to our competitors. Its not the big tank that everybody assumes it is, its actually smaller than a Ford Territory, its lighter than a Discovery. And the fuel efficiency is in line with all the products that you see. Its around 13.7 L per 100 km which is very good for that kind of vehicle. And there is a specific role for the Hummer in Australia, its a great country for off-roading, and its a fantastic off-road vehicle. You just have to look at the statistics for it, its probably the best off-road vehicle that's around. So it has a particular job to play. Its a great car, and it has a particular marketplace, and a particular niche.


Analysis: Its great to see the E85 chicken and egg problem being tackled in Australia as Mr. Batish said with the future introduction of the Saab 9-5 BioPower. As more ethanol fuel comes on line, Saab at least will be ready to take advantage of it. As for the Hummer, it sounds like it isn't necessarily the fuel guzzler I assumed it was. But by the same token, I think that entire segment needs some closer scrutiny regarding fuel economy and efficiency.


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