Penske's Saturn Under NYT Macroscope

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

So, Roger Penske is going to buy Saturn from GM. “Is going to” being the operative words. With the US automotive market sinking to record lows, musical chairing towards a long-overdue “contraction,” one wonder if Mr. Penske is playing the “waiting is winning” game. The New York Times article on Penske’s Saturn plans doesn’t pierce the veil surrounding the devilish details. But we re-learn the fact that Saturn is working towards that glorious day when it no longer sells badge-engineered Opels. “’We’re going to have GM to start with in this business, and then we’re going to move on to another manufacturer in the future,’ he said in his call with analysts.” Which raises the obvious question: whom? “Speculation in the industry has centered on the French carmaker Renault, which has ties to both Nissan in Japan and Samsung in South Korea, and several Chinese auto companies as possible partners for Mr. Penske in the venture. But would Saturn loyalists consider a Chinese-made car a Saturn?” Renault, no. But it’s still an excellent question. The answering of which depends upon The Big One: what IS a Saturn?

Where Saturn fits into that [American automotive] landscape is anyone’s guess. Other, newer brands like Hyundai are capturing buyers who once gravitated to Saturn, and G.M. itself is pushing hard to lure Saturn owners into its Chevrolet showrooms. The novelty of the Saturn sales experience may have worn thin, and there’s little to distinguish the products from models in other G.M. dealerships.

Not quite right. Saturn’s sales and service experience didn’t wear thin as much as GM forgot to nurture it, while its competition narrowed the customer satisfaction gap. Point taken though: is the Saturn brand dead, and if it’s not, does Penske have the money (i.e., time) products and people to resurrect it? Enough with the questions, how about some answers? Damn, that was another question.

The Times, rightly, highlights ten-minute GM Board Member Jerry York’s admonition to dump Saturn. Better yet, the Gray lady return to Mr. York for a prognosis. You might want to sit down, Mr. Penske.

Mr. York, the former G.M. director, says he pushed the automaker to unload Saturn three years ago but the company resisted selling off any brands for fear of losing more market share.

Now Saturn has even less value in an increasingly crowded marketplace, Mr. York notes.

“It’s like you go to the grocery store and you have 40 brands of toothpaste,” he says. “Well, the world doesn’t need 40 brands of toothpaste. I think Saturn falls into the same category. The world doesn’t need it.”

Sad. Saturn coulda been a contenda.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

More by Robert Farago

Join the conversation
2 of 47 comments
  • Anonymous Anonymous on Sep 21, 2009

    "3. Safety of french and norwegian cars;" I am sure France makes a lot of cars, but I never heard of French cars having a reputation for safety. The only thing comes to mind is old Citroens, when they are not in the shop, being able to rider on three tires if you the fourth is shot by a would-be assassin. And... Norwegian Cars? WHAT Norwegian cars? That "THink" golf cart? LOL! MAybe you meant SWEDISH? As in "Volvo"s? "4. Styling and comfort of american cars;" Like the Edsel and its worthy Successor, the Aztec? or such mass produced wonders as the Chevy Lumina?

  • GrandCharles GrandCharles on Sep 22, 2009

    Ear me out mr.Penske, strike a deal with toyota for Nummi, get the recently killed Vibe under Saturn...You win on all front; you get an american construct car, reliable, very fuel efficient(1.8 liter), that already have a non-gm follower (go see GenVibe if you doubt), 6 airbags, 5 star crash test, esp standard, onstar fixed, already approved for sale here. Slap a saturn logo on the front wait for the next redesign to put some plastic panel and Boom you get the bitch slap GM twice (killing Saturn, killing Vibe) about that eh?

  • Pau65792686 I think there is a need for more sedans. Some people would rather drive a car over SUV’s or CUV’s. If Honda and Toyota can do it why not American brands. We need more affordable sedans.
  • Tassos Obsolete relic is NOT a used car.It might have attracted some buyers in ITS DAY, 1985, 40 years ago, but NOT today, unless you are a damned fool.
  • Stan Reither Jr. Part throttle efficiency was mentioned earlier in a postThis type of reciprocating engine opens the door to achieve(slightly) variable stroke which would provide variable mechanical compression ratio adjustments for high vacuum (light load) or boost(power) conditions IMO
  • Joe65688619 Keep in mind some of these suppliers are not just supplying parts, but assembled components (easy example is transmissions). But there are far more, and the more they are electronically connected and integrated with rest of the platform the more complex to design, engineer, and manufacture. Most contract manufacturers don't make a lot of money in the design and engineering space because their customers to that. Commodity components can be sourced anywhere, but there are only a handful of contract manufacturers (usually diversified companies that build all kinds of stuff for other brands) can engineer and build the more complex components, especially with electronics. Every single new car I've purchased in the last few years has had some sort of electronic component issue: Infinti (battery drain caused by software bug and poorly grounded wires), Acura (radio hiss, pops, burps, dash and infotainment screens occasionally throw errors and the ignition must be killed to reboot them, voice nav, whether using the car's system or CarPlay can't seem to make up its mind as to which speakers to use and how loud, even using the same app on the same trip - I almost jumped in my seat once), GMC drivetrain EMF causing a whine in the speakers that even when "off" that phased with engine RPM), Nissan (didn't have issues until 120K miles, but occassionally blew fuses for interior components - likely not a manufacturing defect other than a short developed somewhere, but on a high-mileage car that was mechanically sound was too expensive to fix (a lot of trial and error and tracing connections = labor costs). What I suspect will happen is that only the largest commodity suppliers that can really leverage their supply chain will remain, and for the more complex components (think bumper assemblies or the electronics for them supporting all kinds of sensors) will likley consolidate to a handful of manufacturers who may eventually specialize in what they produce. This is part of the reason why seemingly minor crashes cost so much - an auto brand does nst have the parts on hand to replace an integrated sensor , nor the expertice as they never built them, but bought them). And their suppliers, in attempt to cut costs, build them in way that is cheap to manufacture (not necessarily poorly bulit) but difficult to replace without swapping entire assemblies or units).I've love to see an article on repair costs and how those are impacting insurance rates. You almost need gap insurance now because of how quickly cars depreciate yet remain expensive to fix (orders more to originally build, in some cases). No way I would buy a CyberTruck - don't want one, but if I did, this would stop me. And it's not just EVs.
  • Joe65688619 I agree there should be more sedans, but recognize the trend. There's still a market for performance oriented-drivers. IMHO a low budget sedan will always be outsold by a low budget SUV. But a sports sedan, or a well executed mid-level sedan (the Accord and Camry) work. Smaller market for large sedans except I think for an older population. What I'm hoping to see is some consolidation across brands - the TLX for example is not selling well, but if it was offered only in the up-level configurations it would not be competing with it's Honda sibling. I know that makes the market smaller and niche, but that was the original purpose of the "luxury" brands - badge-engineering an existing platform at a relatively lower cost than a different car and sell it with a higher margin for buyers willing and able to pay for them. Also creates some "brand cachet." But smart buyers know that simple badging and slightly better interiors are usually not worth the cost. Put the innovative tech in the higher-end brands first, differentiate they drivetrain so it's "better" (the RDX sells well for Acura, same motor and tranmission, added turbo which makes a notable difference compared to the CRV). The sedan in many Western European countries is the "family car" as opposed to micro and compact crossovers (which still sell big, but can usually seat no more than a compact sedan).