In Defense of… Saturn

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
in defense of 8230 saturn

Does the head of Saturn have photos of important movers and shakers with goats? How else can you explain Saturn’s survival? All that’s left of GM’s “different kind of car company” is the same old spray of red ink. From import fighter to importer of Americanized Opels, Saturn’s been an abject failure for decades. And yet, GM’s has deemed Saturn one of their three “sales channels.” While there are few (non-goat-related) “image” reasons for Saturn to continue, a close look at the numbers shows its defense lies in what can be done, not what people [re]think.

There’s no two ways about it: Saturn has lost its “mindshare.” All those fond memories of American pride, homecomings, dealer barbecues, friendly sales folk and dent-proof plastic panels have faded away. Spring Hill has sprung. But then,let's keep Saturn's lost branding in perspective. GM’s “gang of three” (Pontiac, Buick, GMC; Saab, Hummer, Cadillac) doesn’t have much brand equity either.

Pontiac is defined by a handful of hot cars built because division-heads grew tired of flogging posh Chevies. Buick has history, but it hasn’t been a credible “luxe” car for anyone under 60 for 30 years or more. GMC is another exercise in “keeping the Chevies down.” And Cadillac is wandering all over the map, offering gilded pickups, bling SUVs and Nurburgring-fettled European-style sports sedans.

Equally important, Saturn hasn’t pissed in its customers’ cornflakes. Saturn remains relatively free from the incendiary “I’ll never buy a GM product again” consumer frustration with lousy build quality and disinterested dealers (a.k.a. the "perception gap"). In that sense, the brand’s amorphous rep offers a far better recovery point than the rest of GM's brands (save Hummer).

In fact, Saturn dealers have consistently exceeded their customer’s expectations. In customer satisfaction surveys, Saturn’s dealer network scores well above GM’s other brands– and many imports. Saturn dealers are carefully chosen (even company-owned where the law allows). And best of all, there aren’t too many of them.

In today’s fragmented car market, a small number (435) of single-franchise dealers (90 percent) is a very good thing indeed. While Saturn’s sales aren’t setting the world on fire, their per-dealer sales are comparable to Chevy’s (about 550 vehicles per dealer a year). In comparison, the combined averages of Buick/Pontiac/GMC (BPG) dealers rack-up about 400 vehicles sales per dealer (Toyota and Honda average well over a thousand).

Fewer, stronger dealers make controlling image and holding the line on promotions a much easier proposition. It’s worth noting that the Saturn Sky has nowhere near the lot problems of its near-relation the Solstice. With only 400-odd dealerships, a Saturn dealer would have confidence that if he asked for a Sky, he would get it. Pontiac dealers, less sure of new supplies, marked their first Solsti to the skies and killed sales momentum dead.

Saturn dealers may be strong, but it’s there are some real heavyweights in the BPG mix. The top 400 “combo” dealers– the top 20 percent– are at least as big as the Saturn dealers. So why would GM cull its BPG dealers— a rumor currently swirling around Motown– to protect a brand they’ve never really liked or understood?

Simply put, if The General kills “any” dealers, they have to kill all of them. There’s no legally defensible way to separate “good” B/P/G dealers from the deadweight. The [epic] legal bills involved in killing 2000 dealerships would be far greater if GM tried to only kill the “worst” 1500. Whole lines have to be killed en masse.

Turning Saturn into “Opel West” may have been one of the least successful product strategies GM’s launched in a long time (and that’s saying something), but it has a silver lining. It separates Saturn from Chevy. Without B/P/G, without having to worry about stepping on corporate toes or badge-engineered clones, Chevy could begin to resemble the “full” car line it claims to be– instead of diving for the bargain basement.

Saturn would have space to become… something. This website has suggested Saturn become GM’s “green brand,” offering a range of all alt. power vehicles (the plug-in Saturn Vue is scheduled to proceed the Chevy Volt). Alternatively, Saturn could become the “stylish” alternative for more discerning (and well-heeled) buyers, a sort of “Atlantic Mazda.” Yes, this would place Saturn close to the classic Oldsmobile image, before that brand was killed off. But tempus fugit.

Simple mathematics suggests it’s not time to give up on Saturn. Despite its incoherent branding, misfiring marketing, non-competitive products and declining sales, GM executives must know that the division looks more like where they want to go than any of GM’s other stores. Of course, to get from here to there, GM needs to find a way to make money off Saturn— a goal that has eluded them since January 7, 1985, the day the brand was launched See? There’s always a catch.

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2 of 59 comments
  • Rudiger Rudiger on May 15, 2008

    One of the supreme ironies of the Saturn project is how after Roger Smith was gone and Saturn was left to flounder, Spring Hill was very slow to pick up on any current market trends. I'm speaking, of course, how long it took Saturn to get into producing profitable SUVs in addition to small cars. Then, when GM finally gets around to addressing the situation and Saturn gets their own versions of GM corporate SUVs (beginning with the 2002 Chevrolet Equinox-based Vue), the bottom quickly drops out of the SUV market.

  • Leftyhd Leftyhd on Feb 03, 2009

    While I do agree with some of what Geotpf had to say

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