Saturn Falls Out of Orbit

Chris Paukert
by Chris Paukert

Despite the capable stewardship of GM Grand Pooh-bah Bob Lutz, Saturn is quickly falling out of orbit. That's the unavoidable conclusion after learning that General Motors plans on pushing its resident flower child upstairs, to an office from whose door a janitor is hurriedly scraping the "Oldsmobile" appliqué. Oh, how the flighty have fallen…

Remember when Saturn was 'A Different Kind of Car Company'? From Day One, the brand was a utopian marketing and social experiment in need of decent product-– a calamity that grew more acute over time. Apparently, the powers that be finally realized the Bohemian goodwill of its dealers and a no-dicker sticker weren't grounds enough to sustain a brand. As a result, over the past few years, GM has been steadily reeling in its wayward progeny, with an increasing percentage of its operations falling under the corporate umbrella.

Ergo its revised marching orders: abandon ye dent-resistant plastic body paneling, broom the 'Minnesota Nice' act, and fall into lockstep with the Brave New General. At the cost of a few lousy billion dollars, the General's Saturn mission will soon consist of a mildly differentiated Relay minivan (a homely offering bungeed to an unremarkable chassis that could take charm lessons from a Ford Freestar), a rear-wheel-drive roadster whose crest is an anathema to enthusiasts, and yet another mid-size front-driver to capitalize on all the warm-fuzzies garnered from those legions of L-Series devotees. Yippee.

And from what stylistic and dynamic wellspring is GM seeking to gloss Saturn's rings? Opel. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that; the EuroGeneral's recent automotive efforts have possessed of a surety of design and constitution not seen out of the company's overseas outposts in quite some time. However, given the EuroGeneral's less cluttered stable of divisions, Opel enjoys a comparatively open playing field for its products. Back in America, things are more complex.

Stateside, Lutz's grand blueprint sends Buick Lexus-hunting, Cadillac dicing with BMW for the 'sporting executive' dollar, Pontiac reasserting its affordable performance heritage and Chevrolet underpinning the GM constellation as the 'everyday' line. Given this overstuffed cornucopia of brands, there exists precious little soil from which Saturn can (re)cultivate an identity. Hence GM's decision to aim Saturn at Oldsmobile's old market segment.

So, the General is proudly crowing about relocating what was once its most promising division into the digs of one of its most spectacular failings, Oldsmobile. Doesn't this strike anyone as disingenuous, or at least odd? Despite blustery talk of better product and expanded dealer networks, no statement has yet been made of anything remotely approaching a brand strategy or market placement. Apparently, a little Mercury has found its way into Saturn's watercooler. Poisonous logic, indeed.

To his credit, car czar Lutz has repeatedly rammed home the virtue of "Product Uber Alles". It's a message clearly ignored by Saturn execs, who thought they could make bank by foisting the disastrous Ion and L-Series appliances on an ignorant public. Said Lutz: "The idea behind the product was that it would be used as a tool… that's totally wrong. It's all about the car." True dat. So why the Relay, a rolling half-measure but a badge-swap away from being a Chevy Uplander or Pontiac Montana SV6? What audience will a Saturn roadster reach that a performance-branded, platform-sharing Pontiac Solstice won't?

If the consequences weren't so dire, the whole thing would be comical. General Motors is cribbing product-planning strategy from Lincoln's bastard stepchild. Take a basic platform, spackle on some fresh insignias, forge some new alloys, and voila! Wait a second. Didn't a pre-Lutz GM already try this with Oldsmobile? Hell, didn't all of Detroit try this throughout the entire '80's? Amazingly, GM execs have apparently blotted from their collective cortexes the 'badge engineering' slur that's played such a pivotal role in defining the Big Three's current malaise. In fact, most of Detroit has yet to digest this fundamental automotive truth: "trim and tape" operates uncomfortably close to "tar and feather."

Okay, so things have changed. With its noble Saturn mission, GM has learned the hard way that there's little money to be made in small cars. That means Saturn is no longer going to be GM's Cheap and Cheerful Automobile Factory, or the car buyer's moral refuge. However, all of this does little to temper the reality that the gaps in Saturn's revitalization plan threatens to dehisce like the panel fitments on an SC2 in winter. Just what will Spring Hill offer consumers that another GM brand doesn't already do with greater conviction? Who, exactly, is the brand's prototypical buyer?

It boils down to this: Whatever latent goodwill engendered among early buyers of the 'Brand with a Heart of Gold' is slowly being quashed as consumers cotton on to the reality that Saturn is gradually devolving into another GM 'me-too'. What a pity.

Chris Paukert
Chris Paukert

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