By on January 6, 2009

When I went car shopping in the early ‘90s, my priorities were fun-to-drive, reliability, and economy. Style— not so much, or so I thought. But the first time I saw a Saturn, I knew instantly what it was, although I’d never seen a photo, since the car was conspicuously absent from the ads. As soon as Consumer Reports gave Saturn a preliminary blessing for reliability, I gave it my consideration. Ultimately, I became so smitten that I didn’t bother to re-look at the Integra after I discovered to my great chagrin, in the dealer’s lot, that the turning circle was nearly as big as the namesake planet’s diameter.

Nonetheless, my Saturn, a ’93 SL2 5-speed, was a hoot to drive. Once a honking Nissan SUV tried to pace me on Cape Cod’s exceptionally scenic and winding Old County Road. He could catch me on the straights, but I lost him easily in the twisties. The Saturn steered precisely and cornered flat with virtually no understeer, aided by its low mass, less than 2500 lbs. Like the vorpal sword in Jabberwocky, the switchgear went snickersnack. The gas mileage: 35 on the road. Although a google search failed to find the quote, some reviewer, somewhere, I swear, had dubbed Saturn “the practical person’s sporty car.”

Yet, within a few years, when people asked me what I drove, I found myself apologizing for the bland… uh, brand. The first time I saw generation-2, I didn’t know whether I was looking at a Hyundai, a Tercel or an Olds. In the same way that peoples’ faces lose definition as the high cheekbones and clear jaw lines of youth disappear under the sagging skin of old age, so the Saturn’s appearance lost its sporty edge.

So did the driving dynamics. On my first drive, on a moderately hard turn which my Saturn would have taken with aplomb, the car leaned way over, and the rear let go.

What happened? My theory was that after the quasi-independent Saturn Corp. was yanked back into the Mother Company in 1994, there had been a turf war between Saturn on Pontiac over which would be the “sporty” division, a status Pontiac had claimed since the first GTO. The evidence: the ‘96 Pontiac Sunfire looked exactly like they’d taken the first gen Saturn, and tweaked the lights.

Dick Danjin, who did two stints as UAW rep in charge at Spring Hill, tells me the problem was far more general (no pun intended). In the vision of GM president Roger Smith, Saturn was to take over where NUMMI left off, teaching old, sclerotic GM all the new Japanese tricks. Collaboration rather than conflict would characterize labor-management relations. This meant, among other things, that the cars would come off of the line properly assembled (a.k.a. “first time quality”) instead of post-assembly fixes, as was the norm on Big 3 assembly lines.

According to “Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry,” GM’s $3.5b Saturn investment made it the object of jealousy among the other divisions. Indeed, the autocratic Smith had practically forced Saturn down GM’s intake manifold. With Smith’s departure in 1990, soon after launch, Saturn lost its patron.

But even during pre-launch, Smith couldn’t keep the bean counters from nickel and diming Saturn. Even after suppliers had been vetted and given contracts, accounting would enlist new ones in their quest to shave pennies per car, and quality would suffer, says Danjin.

Saturn was launched before it was ready, says Danjin, who adds that he and his original corporate counterpart, Jay Wetzel, the vice president of engineering at Saturn, had protested vainly. Brake discs warped easily, and there was an oil use problem.

Soon after his second Saturn stint began in 1994, Danjin found that first time quality was a pathetic 38.7 percent, and 300 people were working in the post-assembly fix-it shop 20/7. The quest to achieve black ink through high production was forcing levels of overtime that corroded quality. Danjin says his letters to Saturn corporate Kahuna Skip LeFauve, with carbons to his UAW boss Steve Yokich and GM president Jack Smith (no relation to Roger) barely boosted first time quality to a lackluster 51 percent.

Bottom line: its status as corporate stepchild prevented Saturn from receiving sufficient financing to successfully launch a new car company. Once Saturn lost its quasi-independent status, it lost its way. The original Saturn sold a record 286k units in 1994, placing fifth in car sales that year. Twelve years later, five Saturn models, the Aura, Ion, and Sky automobiles, and the Outlook and Vue SUVs sold a combined total of just 240k units.

Hacks blamed the genesis of Saturn’s slide on letting the original style go stale, and lack of other models. But nearly 20 years on, the gen-1 styling still looks fresh. Had Saturn remained true to Roger Smith’s vision: an import fighter with steadily improving quality, technology, and driving dynamics, and had they kept the original’s great looks, I’d still be on Planet Six.

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75 Comments on “Editorial: The Truth About Saturn...”

  • avatar

    A friend had a first-generation Saturn, a beautiful burgundy station wagon with tan leather seats. He did mention that he had to have the alternator and charging system replaced at about 30,000 miles. The sort of problem Honda drivers don’t usually have to worry about even at five times that mileage.

  • avatar

    When Saturn initially rolled, I finally had hope for the domestic auto industry.

    IMHO, the US hadn’t come up with a decent looking car since about ’68. But that’s just me.

    The real trick was that there was somebody who actually got it. Somebody at GM, no less. Someone who acknowledged the system was broken, and the only way to fix it was to build a new system.

    Saturn was on the right track. Sadly, the entrenched at GM weren’t going to let this upstart show them internally what the Japanese were showing them externally.

    GM must do C11, fire most everyone and start over. That’s the only way to fix it.

  • avatar

    You know, the latest sedans out of Japan are overweight, soft and their quality is declining. They are becoming the American car brands that they ousted.

    Perhaps when this carmageddon period is over Ford and GM can perhaps make their comeback by Japanese invasioning the Japanese brands.

  • avatar

    Right on, fincar1. The Honda would have the transmission go out, not the alternator and charging system.

    • 0 avatar

      Not to mention the Honda’s requisite timing belt/water pump replacement. I sold Saturns from 1993-1999, and we hammered Honda all the time about that. In fact, a few years ago I sold my wife’s Civic 8000 miles before its timing belt replacement was due, because (a) our family was outgrowing the car anyway and (b) I didn’t want to deal with buyers asking if the belt had been replaced yet.

  • avatar

    Saturn was relatively doomed when the UAW threatened a strike unless Saturn was a UAW shop out of the gate.

    After that, it was only a matter of time before Saturn was on the decline from lack of capital re-investment. Any operating cash Saturn made in its brief heyday was vacuumed out and not re-invested in the brand. The three billion Rick Wagoner figured out how to give Fiat for nothing is a good example of the genius decisions that needed that capital more than Saturn, apparently.

    This is an unfortunate pit-fall in a company like GM, where money from successes can be foolishly poured down a drain on the other side of the brand-verse; punishing success while subsidizing failure. Of course in a capital-intensive business like car-making, you’ve constantly got to keep plowing capital in the operating business just to sustain your viability. Its not like a Micky-D’s franchise or insurance, where you plow the initial capital, get your revenue mousetrap going, and then set cruise control while you count the checks with virtually no additional capital investment to operate the business from then on.

    You’d think they teach that at Harvard Business School. I imagine they do, but Rick was sleeping in class that day I suspect.

  • avatar

    I have several names for someone who would choose a Saturn over an Integra, but RF won’t allow them.

  • avatar

    MattVA: Right on, fincar1. The Honda would have the transmission go out, not the alternator and charging system.

    Those first Saturns competed with the Civic, and those Civics did not have any problems with their automatic transmissions. Civics still don’t today, as a matter of fact.

  • avatar

    nudave: I have several names for someone who would choose a Saturn over an Integra, but RF won’t allow them.

    Like what? Open minded?

  • avatar

    The Gen 2 S-series cars were still pretty well built and reliable. It wasn’t until Saturn started making “GM” cars like the ION that quality suffered.
    My ION has had two major issues but seems OK for now.

  • avatar

    OK, an admission: I worked in a service department of a GM dealer for many years and took early retirement when the dealership went bust a few years ago.

    Mainstream GM dealers DETESTED Saturn, correctly seeing that a new franchise would bleed sales off old, established stores. Originally, Saturn stores were stand alone and were completely focused on CSI and Saturn had some of the best CSI in the business. They had a pretty good product, too. Saturn service departments were FORBIDDEN by GM to sell anything off the maintenance schedule and after years of being ripped off, customers loved that, too. Saturn techs were trained (yes, actually trained!) at Saturn school and the FFV rate was about as good as it got. The cars were pretty simple, too.

    Eventually, GM made a huge mistake and gave into belly-aching dealers, most of which are Mom and Pop enterprises and let them open companion Saturn stores, usually on the same property or close to it. Then they diluted the brand by selling Saab in the same stores, and even Isuzu. These places are what gave dealers service a bad name. Pretty soon the shanegians that GM dealers were famous for started up anew and pissed-off customers left for the Honda store yet again.

    Having worked at GM, I really cannot fathom the business culture of the place. It is a tremendously unpleasant place to work, from the showroom floor, to the factory, to the head office. Nobody is nice to anybody and nobody gives two hoots about the customers. Saturn didn’t fit in that culture which is really too bad. Saturn owners even had clubs and Saturn had bbq parties for its customers. Those customers, like so many GM loyalites, are gone, never to come back.

    And people still don’t get it.

  • avatar

    While I agree that the Saturn story is truly a sad tale, I can’t agree that they (first or second gen) had any style. They were round where they should have been angular and vice versa. The SL just looked like a mini-me, plastic fifth-gen Grand Prix to me. When they came out, all I could see in them was cheapness. The Civic and Sentra of the early ’90s were much easier on the eyes.

    All this talk about the sportiness of first-gen Saturns definitely has me curious. My grandmother once owned a ’99 SL2 with the 124hp 1.9L DOHC I4. Aside from its reliability, which was great, the car was an abomination on the road.

    As you said, the turning radius was akin to driving an SUV. The interior must have been designed/built by Fisher Price. Switchgear was absolutely the cheapest they could find – the turn-signal stalk nearly cracked in two every time it was engaged. The steering was heavy, the suspension soupy, the 4-speed auto never in the right gear, and the engine sounded and felt like it was stolen from a depression-era tractor. Never before had 124 horses felt so sluggish. This even after the 1999 models had received revised engines for improved ‘refinement’. That thing was an NVH nightmare.

    Never before had I hated driving. Of course this was compared to my 5-speed B13 Sentra, which was, even at 150,000 miles (compared to the Saturn’s 50,000) was more refined and far more engaging to drive, not to mention better looking.

  • avatar


    The second gen began in 1996. They were as you say, an abomination to drive. The first gen did have the NHV you speak of, which was as bad as you say. I definitely overlooked that when I bought the car. But the handling and steering were very nice.

  • avatar

    My Mom has a 1997 SC1 with only 72,000 km. The thing is a total POS. With the possible exception of the Vega, it is the worst car I have even driven. At that low mileage, it is falling apart.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    Probably the best was the 95. This was the year that the interior and engine were updated, but still had the gen1 exterior.

    We still have our 95 SC1. 168K miles and counting, and a LIFETIME repair cost of <$2K. And it does handle nicely.

  • avatar
    Rev Junkie

    My mother owns a ’98 SL2 with an automatic trans, and it seems to be one of those cars that was great on paper, but fell short in executing it. From what I had seen, the interior styling got worse from first-gen to second-gen, and the auto lost the cool shift algorithm button that changes from the programming from comfort to sport. It handles well, and the engine is very quiet. The engine sounds like crap, almost like it’s moaning, but it goes well. The steering is completely numb, and is artificially heavily weighted. If you’re getting one, don’t get the power steering, and especially don’t get the auto. It seems to get confused around 35mph, and can’t decide whether it wants to be in third or fourth. It does get over thirty mpg, and is not a bad car to drive, it feels light on its feet, and has a torquey twin cam 1.9L engine. It could have been the import beater GM wanted it to be, if only they could have given it some steering feel, and a good engine sound, and especially a good interior.

  • avatar

    I think the lost lesson of Saturn is that people were buying the cars because of the dealership experience – the confidence of knowing you weren’t going to get cheated, and knowing that your problems would be taken care of.

    People were happy enough about that to disregard the lesser quality of the cars. The Saturn clubs were a marketing marvel. Although I never bought one, they made me take the Saturn idea seriously.

    GM was trying. There was hope for them that they might reinvent themselves. Unfortunately, looking back, we can see that it was too late, even then.

    Every self-interest overrode the good of the organization as a whole. Sad.

    By the way, I agree with the comment that the quality/build content of Japanese cars seems to be falling. I went to an Auto show early in 2008, and I was shocked at the dismal interior and apparent build quality of the Toyota Camry on display. It reeked of cheap.

  • avatar
    Casual Observer

    My mom drives an ’02 SL1. Why does everyone’s mother and grandmother drive one?

    I drive an ’07 Aura, and while I am pleased, it and Saturn’s other offerings have me completely lost.

    What is a Saturn?

    It’s a Malibu before Chevy’s Malibu, an SRX before Cadillac’s SRX, a Traverse before Chevy’s Traverse, and a Soltice before Pontiac’s Solstice.

    Canucknucklehead is right – Saturn used to have a cultish following, with many repeat buyers and the formation fo Saturn families. In my immediate family, we’ve owned 6 of them in 12 years – we are the rare exception, and only so because of the people at the dealership.

    There’s no identity anymore. There’s no personal connection anymore. It’s just another division now.

  • avatar
    montgomery burns

    I remember in the 80’s when Saturn was first being put together wondering why if this is good for a new GM brand why can’t they do this company wide. Silly me.

    Canucknucklehead as has already been mentioned got it exactly right. The one thing GM did right and could have been made to work long-term was destroyed. Another reason why the management at GM needs to go.

    I “inherited” a 98 SC2 via my girlfriend and at 199k miles is still going strong. Biggest thing to go wrong was a starter at about 150k. Had to buy a rebuilt cause that was all that was available which lasted about a year. Replaced with new, no problems since. Other than a window motor before the starter it’s just been routine maintenance, tires brakes, etc.

    I will agree that it suffers from the GM disease of getting the car about 7/8’s or so right and then calling it a day. There are some particularly cheap aspects to the interior.

    Too bad.

  • avatar

    nathaniel…..I completely agree with you. I spent most of my childhood detesting the american sedans my mother would buy (and she had a pretty discerning eye given the choices) and envying my friends who were driven around in Legends, Accords and even the odd Camry. Now, not so much.

    The japanese used to make cars that ranked with the GTI on my attention scale, as in, if I see you driving one I can be pretty sure that you care about your car and enjoy driving it, even if I personally wouldn’t have made the same choice. The old Accord and Legend definitely ranked, as did the Corolla and the Sentra (far too many others to list, especially the sporty models). But now I no longer grant these drivers the benefit of the doubt, and I am completely willing to discount them as lazy idiots when they misbehave on the road. I’d also like to add that I don’t think Mazda has this problem and my complaint is largely limited to Toyota and Nisaan, with Honda showing some early symptoms.

    Saturns however, were always just ugly, but maybe I think that because I never drove a first gen.

  • avatar

    Autocrossers loved the generation 1s, even the wagons since the front struts had adjustable geometry – I ran into a guy tweaking the front struts one day in a stock class – he cleaned everyone’s clock in it on crappy tires (he raced tracks too, so experience was a big factor). I got curious after watching him in the first round knocking out good times and got to talking to him – he said they wanted to race the wagons instead of the coupes on the tracks because the weight distribution was better, but Saturn didn’t want them racing in the SCCA with a wagon.

  • avatar

    No one’s brought up the center mounted instrument cluster on the 2nd gen cars..

    What was that about? I think they were trying to copy the Echo, but who knows, maybe they thought Panoz was the future.

  • avatar
    Ralph SS

    Perspective, please. Can anyone name a better small GM car than the first gen Saturn? I can’t.

  • avatar

    saturn as cult:

    Regarding reliability, mine was nothing special. I had the oil use problem. It started kicking in ~17k, using a quart in 3k. By ~60k, I was using a quart every 1200 or so, and finally failed the oil use test (a prereq to getting something done about it.). The usual solution was to examine the engine and find it needed a ring and a valve job. I asked them how much extra I’d have to pay to just get a new engine. For $700, I did it. But they didn’t replace a bunch of stuff that they should have when the installed the new engine, and the gas mileage, which had gone down considerably, did not pick up much until I found out what parts they’d left in (can’t remember at this point).

    The alternator went around 80k, the radiator maybe 100k, and in the last year I had the car, 2004, in the high 130s to 147k, I had a big repair every two months or so, including an electrical problem that stymied the local Saturn dealer over four visits (they did finally fix it–the tech switched one of the electrical parts with his Saturn, and I didn’t have ht problem after that.

    My ’99 Accord, now with 152k, is far more reliable than the Saturn was at any time over 100k.

    I found the Saturn service to be not so good when it came to dealing with the oil use problem. At one point, the head of service at the dealer where I bought the car forced me to spend $300 to fix a TINY oil leak before they’d give it another oil use test. At some point after that, I started going to a different dealer for service. I got the royal runaround from the Saturn powers that be over the problem. This was in the mid to late ’90s–I got the new engine in ’98, I think. Still, I have no experience with other dealers with which to compare it, except for when I brought the Honda to the dealer for the timing chain.

  • avatar

    The center IP is on the ION, not the 2nd gen S
    It works great
    The old Saturn feeling with owners clubs and great customer service ended up at Hummer. And that’s going away too.
    Ralph SS- compared to the competition? Astra

  • avatar

    When the GM post-mortem is published, the Saturn chapter will represent the Corp’s Rubicon moment. For it all goes down from here. When even a freshman marketing student could have told GM “you have too many (nearly) identical brands.” So what does good ole Rog & Co. do? Create another brand. It cost billions (with a b) and accomplished 0. The cars rarely rose above “ordinary” and in fact, seemed to get worse with each passing generation. The Ion, in particular, seems like it could have been a Lada, so poorly (and cheaply) was it built.
    As a former road warrior who used to log 40k miles per annum in the Pacific Coast states, one thing about Saturns always struck me as curious. Ie, the fact that so many class A RVs seemed to tow Saturns. If someone could afford a half-million (and up) leisure rig, surely they could afford just about any car to tow. After all, how many times do you see such rigs where the car and RV have the same custom paint scheme fer chrissakes??
    So at a rest stop I asked such an owner to ‘splain it to me and I found the answer brilliant. Saturns, it seemed, were the first cars that could be towed on all 4 wheels without the odometer racking up miles. I guess more makes have this ability now. For once, The General had a compelling Unique Selling Proposition. Probably the last time, tho.

  • avatar

    Where did the brand sit, in terms of price, when it was launched? Was it value-focused? Matching up against Honda and Toyota?

  • avatar

    My mom drives an ‘02 SL1. Why does everyone’s mother and grandmother drive one?

    In my case because I talked her out of a Hyundai. She was attracted to Hyundai’s cheap price and long warranty and I wasn’t sure they’d gotten their quality act together. Her Saturn has been fine for her, a decent appliance, no major malfunctions. The dealer’s got pretty good service. Other than tires and brakes, I think the only service it’s needed was an oxygen sensor.

  • avatar


    The reason you saw so many Saturns being towed behind motorhomes is more than the odometer thing (not racking up mileage while being towed) – it’s also because there aren’t that many small cars that specifically allowed long distance, highway speed, flat towing behind motorhomes in the owner’s manual.

    My parents bought an 1999 SW2 just for that purpose. The only Honda that year that could be flat towed was a Civic HX with a CVT, I think. We were wary of the CVT, and my parents really liked the wagon’s utility and the Saturn dealers, as opposed to the Honda dealer’s “Honda’s are great, so if you don’t buy, the person behind you will” mentality.

    They even had really cool aftermarket hidden tow mounts in the front of it…took just a minute to hook it up, and the tow bars were adjustable, so you just had to get it close, not lined up exactly to the hitch.

    You’re right – it was odd to see $250k rigs pulling Saturns like it was some sort of prerequisuite to buying a motorhome, but I have videos of RV parks from their 12 years of motorhoming, and it was the top choice by far.

    When they sold their motorhome 6 months ago at the height of the $4 a gallon gas, they sold it with the Saturn – it lasted on Craig’s list for all of one day before someone bought the pair.

    And really, if you think about it (and experienced it at the time) the original premise of Saturn sort of fit well into motorhoming – the fraternity of ownership type feeling you got from the Saturn dealer was similar to the RV clubs my parents belonged to. But eventually the Saturn product line slipped from unique to just odd/bad, and the dealers also got assimilated into the “GM Way” – and you could kiss that good feeling buh-bye.

  • avatar

    The first-gen Saturn is indeed the only decent GM small car ever.

    I would have bought an Integra at that time or any other time (i.e. mine in 2001), of course.

  • avatar

    There’s lots of good stuff in the comments here, I’d like to see some of that stuff and more turned into articles on Saturn. Besides being an interesting historical footnote it is also like a postmortem on GM.

  • avatar

    MattVA: I must have been lucky, my ’99 Accord V6 had both the transmission and alternator go out at 50,000 miles.

  • avatar

    In 1995 we bought a new SW2, and it gave yeoman service until late 2002. It had ‘adequate’ power for an economy car, but it got great mileage and had tons of grip and great balance. I remember a German friend approvingaly calling it ‘sportiv’ after I took him on a white-knuckle run through some rural twisties.

    The only bit I didn’t like was the 5-speed manual shift gear; very mushy on my example. We finally traded it in after we had kids; YOU try stuffing a baby into a rear safety seat on a 1st gen Saturn!

    If Saturn had kept its autonomy and updated its lineup, it “coulda been a contender” I think. But the body style update in 1996 was just plain fugly. When they finally brought out the LS ‘Large Saturn’ it was ugly too, but nobody cared by then.

    Now they’re the Opel import division, and I like their designs but probably wouldn’t buy one. The Astra got good writeups (even on TTAC) but not as good as the Mazda3. Which is Saturn’s problem today: their cars are good, but never ‘as good as’ the best.

  • avatar

    My experiences with two Saturn Ions, both lemons, and a relation’s Ion now falling apart, suggested that while Saturn sales was unique, Saturn service was not. For us it’s been mediocre at best, with refusals to provide loaners or rentals (Saturn sales did), and butchering the very car they were “fixing”.

    Granted, automotive service inconsistency is part of the haphazard dealer network mess we have in the USA. But seeing it from Saturn was a major disappointment, and the main reason we’re very unlikely to shop the brand again.

  • avatar
    Minnesota Nice

    Those first Saturns competed with the Civic, and those Civics did not have any problems with their automatic transmissions. Civics still don’t today, as a matter of fact.

    Really? So that would explain why the current Civic Si, the former RSX Type-S, and all Accord V6 6MT’s have had transmission issues? Car won’t engage third gear, will resist going into third gear, and, most importantly, will kick out of third gear?

    It took people complaining almost a decade before someone went to the media with it, before Honda released a TSB for it.

    By the way, my 2006 Si STILL kicks out of gear.

    So what were you saying about Civics not having transmission issues?

  • avatar

    So what were you saying about Civics not having transmission issues?

    Hey, coming from the mouth of experience, you build a couple of million of any car a year and you are going to see pretty much every problem that one can imagine. The key is incidents per 100 cars. Have a look at Mr Karesh’s site; you will see definite trends.

    and butchering the very car they were “fixing”.

    A common occurrence at GM service departments. The dealership I worked for was afraid of making their employees angry by getting them to diagnose a problem car. GM would not provide enough diagnostic time so the job usually went to an apprentice: who usually didn’t know his you know what from a hole in the ground.

  • avatar

    Where did the brand sit, in terms of price, when it was launched? Was it value-focused? Matching up against Honda and Toyota?

    This is a very good question I don’t know the answer to. I’ll give my guess and leave the correct answer to others with more knowledge.

    I’d guess that the original Saturn was originally intended as a Civic/Corolla fighter, but frankly in automotive terms I don’t think it ever did that very well. At least not objectively.

    I have always thought that Saturn was (forgive me EEO Lords!) a car for girls who wanted a place to buy a car where they could avoid the whole American (not American-brand!) car buying and servicing hassle.

    Go in and pay a set price and be treated decently.

    Didn’t happen perhaps, but that was the car’s niche I thought, and I believed it could have been quite profitable if the cars had been better developed.

  • avatar

    Perspective, please. Can anyone name a better small GM car than the first gen Saturn? I can’t.

    The Pontiac Vibe. But then, it’s really not, is it?

  • avatar

    Re pricing: my recollection is that the Saturn was competitive with the Corolla. The Civic of that era was smaller, available only as a two door coupe.

    Also, the high end of Saturn–the SL2–was comparable in price to the low end of Integra. I think for 1993 the SL2s were starting around $12k, as compared to around $14-15k for low end Integras.

  • avatar

    I have a 96 Saturn in my driveway. My girl’s dad’s car which he gave her to use as it cannot be sold. I mean maybe you could get $300 for it. It is truly one of the most horrible cars I’ve ever driven. Can’t speak about the gen 1, but everybody in her family has Saturn’s and I’ve driven them all. They all suck badly, including her dad’s brand new VUE, which is probably the best of the lot, but still pretty much a nightmare.

    As for Honda transmissions, they are known to be problematic. Get a stick shift if you get a Honda. Everybody who owns a Honda automatic that I know of has had transmission problems. I myself had a 96 Integra automatic that I loved. I loved everything about that car except for… the transmission. I sold it before it went, but I honestly don’t know how much longer it lasted. Clunky shifts at random times. And the occasional awful noise that made me scared I would be stranded on the side of the road any day. Hopefully they are better now, but the Hondas from previous years are notorious for bad automatics. Their manuals don’t have a much better rep, but are certainly way cheaper to fix. And of course, much more enjoyable to drive.

  • avatar

    I bought an LS300 six cylinder in 2000, and loved it. It was the first of the rebadged/reenngineered Opels to join their line-up, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I got leather, upgraded stereo and antilock brakes all for about $25K. Quite a bargain.

    The steering feel was fantastic. The brakes were “right now”. And nothing ever broke on the car in 50K miles.

    There were, however, two problems: The lack of Saturn dealers, and the appalling quality of Saturn service. I know the Saturn strategy is to have as few dealers as possible in one metro area, but boy was that a pain in the ass. I had to drive halfway across LA to get my car serviced.

    And the service! Wow. Every time I brought the car in, I received it back with something broken that had not been broken before. This was not a dealer-specific phenomenon, as I had the same experience at several dealers in several states. Ironic, since Saturn cultivated a reputation for great service, which was completely undeserved in my experience.

    Quite a contrast with my current SAAB, whose reliability has been downright shameful (though it’s been shockingly reliable for the past year), but the dealer service has been fantastic.

    Why is it so hard to find both?

  • avatar

    I’ve owned two SL2s – a ’95 and (current) an ’02. I liked the ’95 a lot – first drove an automatic, but insisted to the wife we try the stick. That made it. Put on a lot of miles, and enjoyed nearly every one. Our only complaint: seats that got uncomfortable on a long haul (over 4 hours on the highway).

    So when my brother-in-law offered us his ’02 for half blue-book when he got deployed, we jumped on it. And to my chagrin, I discovered the ’02 was not nearly the car the ’95 was. Same driveline, but worse performance and handling. Seems to have been re-geared for better mileage – but doesn’t get it. Some expensive, unexpected repairs on a well-maintained example further soured the taste (especially as that money had been earmarked for the 4Runner project). And a factory defect the former owner never noticed: the front side marker lamps were still twist-tied to the wiring harness, never installed to the bezels. We fixed that ourselves.

    I now refer to this car as the “escape pod”: minimal propulsion and life support, driven only when necessary.

    I imagine it’s no surprise that I’d be highly unlikely to consider another Saturn in the future, even if the brand survives.

  • avatar

    I have always thought that Saturn was (forgive me EEO Lords!) a car for girls who wanted a place to buy a car where they could avoid the whole American (not American-brand!) car buying and servicing hassle.

    I knew a guy with an SL2 who used the Saturn owner’s club like a dating service because there were many female members that were his target demographic too.

  • avatar

    Wouldn’t it remarkable if Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick-Cadillac-GMC-Hummer crashed, and the World GM (Saturn-Opel-Vauxhall-Holden-Saab) survived? Just a thought.

  • avatar

    I have always thought that Saturn was (forgive me EEO Lords!) a car for girls who wanted a place to buy a car where they could avoid the whole American (not American-brand!) car buying and servicing hassle.

    According to Danjin young women were indeed the target demographic.

  • avatar

    Bought a 91 SL1 new, got a great deal. I shopped Civic and the a-hole dealer charged so much for things like a passenger side mirror, radio, hub cabs, etc the price ballooned to 4K more than a Saturn.

    And the Saturn was a better car. Handled better, great ergonomics, nice shifting transmission, 38-40 MPG, dead simple engine (compared to the rats nest of hoses on the Civic) and I happened to love those plastic body panels. Even today you don’t see door dings on them.

    The customer service was fantastic. They washed and cleaned my car whenever I had it in.

    Sure the car had it’s detract ions. Noisy creaky plastic interior parts, a lot of engine vibration at idle, crappy GM brakes and motor mounts,

    But it was a cheap car that got good mileage and was fun to drive. And 4 years later I sold it for 72% of what I paid. Outstanding resale. I had a dozen calls about it and had to have the ad pulled from the paper.

    It’s a shame what GM, the Union, and a nation focused on SUVs did to Saturn.

  • avatar

    The love for those early Saturns is something I will never understand. Lackluster paint jobs, massive panel gaps, rough engines and transmissions, exposed wiring around the center console (SL at least), plastic panels quick to ignite in flames, the loud auto seat belts. Man, I can go on.

    Totally agree that Saturn sold on the dealership experience, which is what prompted my brother in-law to buy his. His wife talked about the easy purchase and the balloons and flowers for years after. GM either thought that was enough to sell lackluster product or forgot to keep improving that buying experience to overcome the product.

    And yeah, Saturn anything over the Integra at that time is just wrong.

  • avatar

    The “love” was based on a car for 10K that looked at least like the imports. It got good mileage, handled reasonably well, and cost about 10K.

    Everyone copied their window switches.
    They used metal timing chains when everyone else (including Honda) had belts that needed replacing.

    I disagree about the paint. Better job than most cars at the time.

    And I know two people that traded Integras in for Saturns because of the A-hole Acura dealers were so smug about pricing.

    The one thing that irked me about the new saturns was the dash lighting. The old ones were backlit and decently lit. I drove a 2004 that had a single bulb shining on the gauges from the outside. Really bad and cheap. The L300 surprised me in how bad Saturn had become.

  • avatar

    David Holzman:

    “Re pricing: my recollection is that the Saturn was competitive with the Corolla. The Civic of that era was smaller, available only as a two door coupe.

    Ummm, the Civic has been available in the US as a 4-door, 3-box sedan since 1980.

    The coupe models were wildly popular (justly so) but clearly the Saturns were meant to take on the Civic, Corolla, and Sentra.


    “And the Saturn was a better car. Handled better, great ergonomics, nice shifting transmission, 38-40 MPG, dead simple engine (compared to the rats nest of hoses on the Civic) and I happened to love those plastic body panels. Even today you don’t see door dings on them.

    I just don’t get it. I’m not saying the Civic of the era was perfect, but it was clearly a more refined compact offering than the Saturns, I’m not sure that’s even possible to debate. I’m not sure the ‘rat’s nest’ of hoses has kept the Civic from being a very reliable car, either.

    I hear you on the door dings, though, I’m appalled at how many folks just don’t give a dang when it comes to opening their doors in a parking lot.

  • avatar
    Nels Nelson

    Mission Impossible or GM’s Edsel

    Good afternoon Mr. Phelps.

    It is increasingly apparent that our company is losing market share to nefarious foreign automakers. It appears they have convinced car buyers that our products are unreliable and lack quality and that their products are better. We must stop this and reclaim our market share.

    Your mission: Create a new company without apparent ties to us. The new company will produce cars at the entry-level end of the market where margins are small. The cars will be manufactured in a new plant with union labor and utilize new production techniques. This will cost us billions of dollars, take needed money away from product development for our existing divisions and ensure that money is lost on every unit sold. The cars will be sold through franchises sold to our existing retailers but the facilities will be separate to further the illusion that we are not connected. The cars will be marketed by fostering a codependent relationship with the insecure buyer. The code name for your mission is Saturn.

    If your mission is unsuccessful, we will self-destruct.

  • avatar

    We’ve had two Saturns in my family. My brother had a 1995 SL2 5 speed which provided faithful service. I drive a 2001 SL1 5speed and it currently has 102,4xx miles on it at the moment. I’ve only had to replace one sensor outside of typical maintenance.

    In my opinion, it was never really the cars that sold Saturn. Back in the day, people bought Saturn because of what it stood for. Now it is just another GM brand judged by its price and quality. I know quite a few families who were repeat Saturn buyers, but they’ve since moved on. In the early 90’s, Saturn represented hope in the American auto industry and they gave customers what they wanted….sales proved that. This was until Saturn left its roots.

    Saturn was revolutionary at the time in their manufacturing process; such as the foam casting of their engines, dent resistant side panels and the dealerships that treated you like a human being.

    The whole Saturn cult is real. I’ve had strangers wave at me who were driving a Saturn. I’ve had Saturn owners chat with me about my experiences with my car in parking lots. I’ve even had members at offer to drive 3 hours to help me replace my clutch….just for covering their gas money as payment.

    The Saturn story is a sad one. In my opinion, Saturn was the last glimmer of hope the American people would ever see in GM. It proved that you don’t even have to build the greatest vehicles to be successful…but people will buy vehicles that make them feel good along with the comfort of knowing they will be treated fairly and with respect. Seems GM never picked up on it. With Saturn, it wasn’t the same old story of, “give us your money and good luck.”

  • avatar

    As an original test-driver for Saturn at the Desert Proving Grounds I have some interesting stories. First of all Saturn was TRULY different from all the other GM divisions. First, the test drivers were hand-picked. You had to have great reviews, and they also considered demographics and what kind of car you drove to work. In my case I was probably the youngest driver, and I drove an ’87 Accord. I was also one of the few people who gave a crap about the cars and would spend an hour after my shift still writing scathing comments about the car I had just driven all night. What was so gratifying about working on the Saturns was A) they really were more fun to drive than anything else GM had at the time including the C4 and F-bodies. (Those were brutal to drive on anything but smooth roads). B) the engineers would literally interview you after each shift and seemed like they cared. They read every word of your report right in front of you and asked you questions if they had them. C) They were the red-headed stepchild from the start at the DPG. They had a double-wide trailer and outdoor sundrellas for technician bays when all the other divisions had palatial offices and grand, huge, air-conditioned garages. Even Hydra-Matic had 3x the facilities as Saturn. D) they had thier own test matrix. We beat the snot out of those little cars 24/7. I never saw or heard of one breaking down. Of course they were prototypes not yet touched by the feeble hands & minds of the UAW. All in all, the original SL was and still is the best small car GM has ever made in the US, and it was a lot more fun to drive than my then-fairly-new 87 Accord. Especially when I had to replace the rotors every few months and the tranny at 90k miles…That, my friends was the worst car I ever owned. If I didn’t have money, I wouldn’t think twice of buying an old Saturn. GM really screwed it up on this one.

  • avatar
    the duke

    Although a google search failed to find the quote, some reviewer, somewhere, I swear, had dubbed Saturn “the practical person’s sporty car.”

    The quote I recall best describing early Saturns is “cars for people who don’t like cars”.

    How’s this for perspective – other cars available in early nineties: Integra, SR20 equipped SE-R, Honda CRX (at least for the first year of Saturn), Mazda MX-3 (how about a 1.8L V-6!!!), Toyota Corolla GT-S with the 4A-GE engine. I can’t fathom picking the Saturn over any of these.

    Funny you mention the book Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry. I read that in the early 2000’s. Methinks the book a little premature.

  • avatar

    the duke,

    If I had it to do over again, I definitely would have bought the Integra, mainly for the much greater reliability, and because the NVH of the Saturn’s engine was so overwhelming. But as far as I was concerned, the SL2 had plenty of power; my previous car was a 1.2 liter Toyota Corolla. I was also much more interested in handling than power, so some of the cars you mentioned just weren’t on my list. I would have at least driven the CRX had they still been making it. I did drive the MX-3, and wasn’t thrilled with it. I still think the gen 1 Saturn was far cooler looking than any of the cars you mention (the Sentra was a downright ugly car), and as I indicated in the editorial, I think I was driven far more than I realized at the time by style.

    In total agreement about the Fall and Rise… Way premature.

  • avatar

    Nels Nelson

    This will cost us billions of dollars, take needed money away from product development for our existing divisions

    But what else were GM doing ? What products suffered because of Saturn ? By the mid-90’s GM were inebriated on profits coming from just about every other division with trucks and SUVs, and the “small car” unit, Saturn, were left to rot until eventually handed a half-heartedly rebadged SUV too. GM spent billions on the GMT900’s which hit the market with a thud just as the buying public were requesting the type of cars Saturn was originally set up to build and sell.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    GM needed to fix the vehicles and brands it had, not go chasing a new get-it-right brand.

    Starting Saturn did soak up a huge amount of capital and talent which could and should have been used to keep Chevrolet on top of its game. Massive CEO Pet Projects almost always eventually come to a bad end.

  • avatar

    I had an ’01 SL1 which was really fun to drive, honestly. Not fast by any measure, but that was the allure. I could beat the snot out of it, and still be at legal driving speeds. It did start burning oil around 90k, and 3rd gear started to grind. And the differential had to be replaced at 45k. So not the most well built car.

    And the NVH was acceptable to me, though I didn’t really realize how bad it was until I was test driving an S2000, and it was quieter than my SL1!

  • avatar


    I know there have been Civic sedans for most of that car’s history, but I looked when I was car shopping in the early ’90s, and all they had was coupes. Those coupes did not drive nearly as nicely as earlier civic coupes (my sister had a ’90), and they did not drive nearly as nicely as Saturn SL2s.

    A google image search for 1993 Civic sedans revealed only 1998 sedans.

  • avatar


    Very interesting account. If you have any more info, please email me at [email protected] Thanks! David

  • avatar

    When shopping for my first car my family and I went to the local Saturn dealership to check out the 1999 SL2. Prior to the test drive, I was sure this was going to be the car for me. The dealer experience was phenomenal. The dealers actually knew what they were talking about, had pizza parties, and were just all around pleasant.

    Then I test drove the car… sorry it just didn’t live up to the dealership experience. I tried to like it, but there was nothing remotely special about it. I ended up with an Escort ZX2 which is still being used by my parents with about 100,000 problem free miles. I should have bought the Mitsubishi Mirage Coupe, it was more money, but was much more polished.

  • avatar

    willbodine- the Saturn was famous for being able to be flat towed without damage to the transmission (automatic)
    On a related note, when the ION was first introduced it came with either a CVT or a 5 speed Aisin auto. neither could be flat towed and RV owners refused to buy IONs. The ION was switched to a GM 4 speed auto in 2005.
    gaycorvette- Lexus seems to be top of the heap regarding reliability and dealer service.
    the duke- people weren’t picking Saturns over those cars you mentioned. They were picking them over Cavaliers, Neons, base Corollas and Sentras, and Escorts. You also have to assume that a lot of people who buy Saturns, myself included don’t like to play the crappy “haggle” game with car dealers.
    The best part about Saturn by far was no “Hey, how are ya, glad to see ya, what can I do ya for today!” “Can I have your SS number so I can run a credit check?” “What kind of payment do you want”

  • avatar

    When it was introduced the 1990 Saturn was indeed the best American small car ever. That is probably not saying much when the competition was the Vega, Chevette, Pinto, and Escort.

    The Astra is the best engineered small car Saturn has ever sold, and it is also the slowest selling Saturn ever!! Saturn can’t even hit the modest 15,000 annual sales goal for the model. I know one Saturn dealer that told me he liked the ION better because at least “it sold”. In its first year Saturn managed to move 101,000 Ions.

    The Astra maybe remembered as the car that brought Saturn down.

  • avatar

    Wow. I just had to register and comment.

    As a car enthusiast, there are many great posts here and much that has been said that I think has been forgotten by many of us about Saturn.

    I remember the build-up to the launch of the brand and how Saturn was going to send the Japanese back to Toyko. When I first saw the cars, I was impressed. I remember those first sedans I saw were all painted in deep, rich colors that were usually not found on small inexpensive cars which made them look more upscale than they actually were. They were an immediate success.

    It’s easy to forget that initially the brand truly did succeed where GM had failed before. Although I never owned one, I knew a variety of people who bought the initial car and they were quite pleased with it. It was fulfilling its mission of conquest sales from the Japanese and keeping buyers happy with an unusual mix of good value for the money, no-haggle pricing, outstanding customer care and the sense of belonging to a club as some have mentioned.

    While Roger B. Smith’s tenure at GM is generally regarded as a failure and as the beginning of the end for the corporation, it is important to remember that they did get things mostly right with Saturn at the launch. It truly was ‘A Different Kind of Car from a Different Kind of Car Company’. While it is easy now to dismiss Smith’s logic of starting another division at a company that already had too many, Saturn was able to do something the other divisions couldn’t and that was to establish a new culture within the organization.

    Smith thought that new culture would take root at GM and revitalize the company. Unfortunately the opposite happened; the culture of GM took over Saturn and destroyed it. All that was unique, different and good about Saturn has largely gone away and today it is just another brand at a company with way too many.

    When GM talks of eliminating divisions, Saturn always comes to mind as one that could go. Unlike Pontiac or Buick with their storied histories dating back to the infancy of the automobile, there is comparatively little history for Saturn. Saturn has no GTO or Riviera in its lineage. There are no real fan clubs and not much love among the public so it would seem the easy choice but one forgets that for one shinning moment Saturn did offer the promise of a new GM and there are many out there who fondly remember the little plastic-sided cars that boldly tried to change the automotive business in America.

    If GM is to live another day, they must recapture the spirit that was Saturn.

  • avatar

    David Holzman:

    “A google image search for 1993 Civic sedans revealed only 1998 sedans.”

    Not trying to be a jerk, but I Googled “1993 honda civic sedan” and the first four hits on the image search were 1993 sedans.

    Here’s a link to a bling’ed out 1993 sedan…

    My parents’ friends owned a ’94 sedan.

    I cried a bit when you described the Sentra as a ‘downright ugly car’ – I thought the B13 chassis (1991-1994) was an awesome looking compact, especially in coupe form. I’m biased, of course, since I owned one, but if I recall the Sentra was well thought of in the car mags of the day (even the GA16DE equipped models were peppy and quite refined) and the SR20-powered SE-R is practically legendary.

    Oh well, we both agree, GM screwed up Saturn royally.

  • avatar


    the license plate on the civic sedan in the pic is not American. In any case, I was more interested in a sedan than a coupe, and had there been a civic sedan, I’m virtually certain I would have driven it. If there was, and I didn’t, it would be because it wasn’t at all sporty.

    Re the Sentra–beauty is, of course, to some extent at least, in the eye of the beholder. And you are correct as far as I can remember taht car mags in the early ’90s liked the Sentra a lot.


    Wonderful account, which fills in very eloquently what I left out of the editorial. Thanks!

  • avatar

    My mother still drives a 1995 SL2 she bought new. Green, leather interior, pretty nice. 1995 was probably the best year for these; before the horrible 1996 redesign, but after the stupid automatic seat belts were replaced with dual air bags.

  • avatar

    No mention of the Safety & durability that Saturn marketed itself on, and the reason why I knew a few people who bought them (because Volvo’s were too expensive comparitively)?

  • avatar

    “Ralph SS :
    January 6th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Perspective, please. Can anyone name a better small GM car than the first gen Saturn? I can’t.”

    Come on, really?

    ’60’s – Corvair

    ’70’s – Vega and Chevette and Monza

    ’80’s – Citation and Cavalier

    ’90’s – more Cavalier and the Sprint

    ’00’s – Optra and Aveo

    GM has consistently developed great cars in the past as import fighters. The above list proves that fact.

    Ha ha, sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

    All the above cars were Chevrolet’s answer to import small cars. Is it any wonder why the General is in trouble?

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, the Corvair was a good car and it sold fairly well before GM pulled the plug on its development and marketing and allowed it to die. Allegations about its handling (which, BTW, only pertained to the 1960-63 models) were proven to be false by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1972 (alas, three years after the last Corvair was made).

      The others on your list were pretty much a disaster thoguh.

  • avatar

    Perspective, please. Can anyone name a better small GM car than the first gen Saturn? I can’t.”

    Opel Kadett GSi

  • avatar

    Perspective, please. Can anyone name a better small GM car than the first gen Saturn? I can’t.”

    The Opel Kadett Superboss.

  • avatar

    We had a 1997 SL-1. In about 30k miles it needed two fuel injectors, the water pump was going, and the heater didn’t. Ever. Decent mileage, but feeble. Replaced it with a 2004 Forester. Everything works.

  • avatar

    I had an ’87 Honda LXi hatchback. Last seen with the original engine and tranny at 325K miles. Looked good too. I wish I could buy another. Seriously… GREAT car.

    Answer me this folks: isn’t the job of a CEO to make the company culture line up and behave just as the CEO wants? Maybe I’m naive but if I was CEO I would make heads roll until I got GM straightened out.

    I understand their dealer network is a real problem though and that the factory caters the products to the dealer’s wants as much or more than the ultimate customer.

    Saturn excited me for a few reasons. One was that they had come to little old TN to build their cars. I was just about out of high school when they came to TN. Secondly I hated (HATED) the domestic vehicles of the 80s so badly that Saturn seemed like real change for the better. The Saturn was really a long way from the Buick Phoenix our friends owned, the Chevy Citation my Mom drove, the Olds something my Dad drove (we called it the CASKET b/c of the interior styling. The door handles looked like casket handles). My parents’ Chevy S-10 Blazer 4WD was a bright spot. Still at 100K carefully driven miles the T-5 tranny had eaten itself to death, the hood paint at cracked oddly, and the truck was not very healthy anymore. Looked good, not as sound as my current CR-V is at 170K miles. Dad babied it for a decade and sold it to a fellow that wrecked it in a week.

    I already admired the GTIs, the Merkur was interesting if a little weird, the Civics/Accords were good, my Dad’s ’84 turbo T-bird was interesting, etc. Meanwhile I split my high school years between a ’66 Mustang six cylinder (not enough brakes or gears, no handling, no heat, HUGE engine and no mileage or power) and an ’81 Mustang (much more refined but same huge engine and even LESS power, not enough gears, etc).

    An example was the Mustang 3.3L six. 90HP. It’s top speed was nearly 90 miles per hour. The speedo on this “sporty car” stopped at 85 and the odometer stopped at 100K miles. My next car was an ’84 Rabbit with a 1.8L liter, same 90HP, WAY better mileage, and a top speed (confirmed several times on the Autostrada in Italy) of 125mph. Would cruise for hours at 100 mph. Sold it and it had 190K miles on it. Ready for alot more. Fellow here in town gets 400K miles on his 80s Rabbits. The Ford came with very, very little standard – AM radio, stiff controls. A Civic or the VW generally came with much more. They were real driver’s cars.

    While we remember that these Saturns were marketted against the Toyotas – don’t forget people were replacing early Ford Escorts, Tempos, K-car derivatives, and even left over 70s cars (then only 15 years old) with Saturns. For alot of drivers the Saturn was a BIG step up the automotive food chain.

    I’m not against basic or plain cars. Plain or basic but GOOD is important.

    So with my background the Saturn was a HUGE step forward in the right direction. Of COURSE GM fumbled it. And they are JUST starting to make the right choices again (current Vue, Astra, Aura) but will likely let Saturn rot on the vine again or kill it off again.

    Currently Saturn is the first GM products I’d shop. Holden/Pontiac is the second and THAT is saying alot since I’ve despised all of the Pontiac models since as far back as 1970 or so. The G8 is compelling, the previous GTO has alot of appeal, and my friend’s G6 coupe is NICE.

    However my other friend’s late 80s/early 90s Firebird was AWFUL, my grand parent’s GrandPrix FWD was AWFUL, and I have pretty much hated every plastic clad Pontiac they ever made. “Rust catchers” a person once called those plastic panels…

    For me it wasn’t that Saturn was that good – it was that they were to much BETTER than what came before them at GM. They really were something distinctly different. Surely they had problems that needed to be solved and they could have done that with a little time, encouragement and support from the mothership but like so many GM products before the they were 80% cars.

    Everyone on my inlaws side has owned Saturns. My m-inlaw and f-inlaw still have a pair of Saturns. Outlook and 1st gen Vue. They offered me the Vue but at 80K miles the CVT is threatening to die. No, can’t afford to fix that even if the vehicle itself is cheap. Freinds of ours have a pair of 2nd gen Saturn cars – wagon and sedan. One needed a tranny and the other an engine. HUGE miles on both. Nearly 200K on one and over 200K on the other. They still look good.

  • avatar

    I had a 1992 SL2, 5-speed. The transaxle broke with about 6,000 miles on the clock. Dealer replaced it with no hassles, loaner included (unheard of for a domestic, proletariat-class manufacturer at that time.)

    After that, the car was wonderful; for fit, finish, comfort and handling, dollar-for-dollar it might be the best car I’ve ever owned. (I currently drive a 2006 CTS, which I would argue is not as well put-together as that Saturn was.)

    Saturn was GM’s last chance, and they screwed it up. A shame, really.

  • avatar

    Another necro post on an old Saturn thread. Besides Corvairs, Saturns are near and dear to my heart. I have owned three of them and still have two, including a 20 year old first gen 1993 SW2. Thanks to the polymer body panels, the car still looks good. Not too many Corollas and Civics left around here in the rusty north from that vintage unless they’ve been imported from the south. The article is pretty good, though I thought the later designs still looked pretty cool, though that of course is subjective.

    As to handling, the suspension parts for the DOHC S-series Saturns was the same throughout production. The only difference was that tire size changed in the sedans and wagons in the second generation from 195/60×15 to 185/65×15 due to customer preference for a better ride. Handling was probably a little bit worse with those tires, though easily rectifiable by going back to the earlier size (which they continued using in the coupes throughout production).

    Probably the best article I’ve found about the demise of Saturn was this one:

    For those who dis the S-series cars, they were reliable and durable and sold very well. Even in the third generation when the auto mags were carping on GM for rolling out the same basic car from 10 years earlier, the complaints were on panel gaps and “refinement”. The car still topped the acceleration in a review by I think it was Car and Driver (where they gave the nod to the Mazda Protoge as the best compact in the group). However, the SL2 had the best acceleration and among the best gas mileage. Not bad for a 10 year old design. Many people have put hundreds of thousands of miles on them. I know of one guy who put over 880,000 miles on a base model SL on the original engine and trans without overhaul before the odometer broke and he’s still going.

    My last Saturn, which I still have is a 2001 LW300 L-series. Nice driving car, and IMHO a very underrated one, but even as a Saturn fan, I knew that that car was really the beginning of the end for Saturn. By that time the UAW partnership was scrapped, the car, though a decent one, was built off an existing GM platform with promises of more of the same, and GM bean counters failed to differentiate the L-series in an overcrowded field of excellent alternatives with established customer bases. Perhaps offering it up in a performance edition with a manual trans with the V6, or a hybrid (the only hybrids around at the time were the butt-ugly first gen Prius and the two-seater Honda Insight) to keep the green crowd paying attention to Saturn. But in the end, Saturn stopped being Saturn and whatever one says of the cars that came later (and many of those cars have their fans), the brand itself became redundant and undifferentiated.

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