Curbside Classic: GM's Deadly Sin 4: 1991 Saturn SL2

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Friends, we are gathered together to pay our last respects to a fallen brother. Saturn was the love child of Roger Smith and Hal Riney; one was the Chairman of GM, a manufacturer of cars; the other, an ad man extraordinaire, a manufacturer of emotions. Let us savor their own words as we remember the brand that was Saturn, starting with these from Roger: (Saturn will be)“a quantum leap ahead of the Japanese, including what they have coming in the future. In Saturn we have GM’s answer – the American answer – to the Japanese challenge. It’s the clean-sheet approach to producing small cars that in time will have historic implications…(Saturn is) the key to GM’s long-term competitiveness, survival, and success.”

So how exactly does a “clean-sheet” car end up sharing the same styling as a mid-size Oldsmobile that came out one year before the Saturn? The answer to just that one question alone sheds light on why Saturn was destined to fail. It’s not that the first Saturn’s styling was such a significant factor in itself, but it was profoundly symbolic of GM’s inability to escape itself, even when trying to hide deep in the green hills of Tennessee. Escape from stagnation and decline, and attempts at re-invention from the outside-in, are as old as civilization itself. I’m not a historian, but finding a successful model for Roger’s folly eludes me. Weak organizations and civilizations get overrun by dynamic ones, or just peter out.

I do fancy myself a bit of an automotive historian though, but I’d almost forgotten this important tidbit: the Saturn was originally planned to be sold by Chevrolet. The whole concept of a completely separate division and dealer network came later in its protracted eight-year development. Now there’s some serious food for thought: how differently might things have turned out if it had been a Chevy. Because the decision to make the Saturn “A Different Kind of Car Company” not only reflected GM’s hubris and unrealistic expectations, it also directly created the mortal bind that Saturn inevitably found itself in.

Sure, in its heyday, the unique Saturn dealer experience and no-haggle pricing was a breath of fresh air. But these were both ephemeral; the pricing policy went out the window when small car sales weakened, and smart dealers of all persuasion (more typically Japanese brands) began to improve aspects of the dealership experience.

Saturn’s early days feel-good vibes had all the fervor of a quasi-religious cult. It was a triumph of advertising and marketing; a brilliant campaign engineered by San Francisco’s Hal Riney. GM did one thing right with its choice of Saturn’s agency. Riney’s first big claim to fame was commissioning a song by Paul Williams for a Crocker bank commercial. It became the monster hit “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters. And he created the “It’s morning again in America” spot that helped get Reagan elected. Notice a recurring theme?

Yes, America loves re-inventions more than real inventions. But its attention span is short, and moves on the next new thing pronto, especially so when the underlying product is less than memorable. Or the next fad just around the corner is something different altogether, like trucks and SUVs. There you have it, a brief summation of Saturn’s woes. Now for the automotive details:

The Saturn wasn’t a bad car. There, that didn’t hurt so much. Obviously, a distinctive and fresh design rather than an old Olds hand-me-down shrunken tee-shirt might have been in order. If you’re going to plow $5 billion (back when billions were still impressive amounts) into a new car, at least buy it a new suit. Was the Saturn competitive? That’s debatable. It definitely wasn’t as good as its clearly stated target, the Honda Civic. It might have been as good or better then the gen2 Civic when the Saturn project started. But by the time Saturns finally arrived in the summer of 1990, the Civic was already nearing the end of its brilliant fourth generation, and heading for the fifth. That probably wasn’t on Roger’s mind when he spoke the words at the top of this article.

The Civic and Corolla were on a roll in the eighties and nineties, with a new generation arriving like clockwork every four years. And it showed, in their relentless refinement. The Civic engine hummed like a Stradivarius (a Japanese brand of sewing machine). The Saturn engine growled like a coffee grinder. Saturn interiors were always obviously cheap. Corolla interiors (of the nineties) weren’t. Honda and Toyota might have been worried about Saturn initially, as they were briefly about the Neon, but needn’t have. It was GM, after all.

Granted, there are/were many happy Saturn owners out there. It handled quite decently (no better than the Civic though), was commendably light and toss-able, and owners loved the plastic body panels, especially in the rust belt. The Saturn got good fuel economy, although nothing near the ridiculous 45 city/60 mileage EPA numbers GM promised during the long gestation (they ended up at 27/37; 21/31 adjusted). Reminds me of the 45 mpg claims GM was throwing out a year ago about the Cruze. We’ll see about that.

The really big problem with Roger’s big Saturn idea is this: where do we go from here? Was that even considered? Ok, by throwing enough money at it, GM showed that it could make a decent, reasonably-competitive small car. Does that make a viable car company/division? I don’t think so (and didn’t at the time). And that’s where the whole Saturn experiment begins to take its inevitable ugly turn.

When the market shifted away from small cars to bigger cars and SUVs, Saturn, as a separate entity, suddenly looked like an answer to a question that never should have been asked. Now GM felt it had no choice but to develop a whole line of cars, SUVs, mini-vans, and even a sports car to try to back-stop Saturn’s decline – right during a time when development dollars at GM were getting scarce. In the meantime, the S Series soldiered along on the same platform for some ten years. It became an endless robbing Peter to pay Paul nightmare. As well as a colossal joke: why was Saturn selling that rebadged mini-van piece of crap, the Relay? Or a gigantic seven seater SUV, the Outlook? Mission statement ADD at its worst.

If GM had stuck to their original plan of selling the Saturn as an entry level Japanese-fighter at Chevy dealers, the whole disaster could have been avoided. GM would have had an import fighter where it belonged: in its biggest dealer network. Yes, we might have missed out on the Spring Hill “Homecoming”, and the rest of Hal Riney’s hokey feel-good BS. But the warm and fuzzy memories of it are worth paying for with our tax dollars, no?

Speaking of which, the re-invented New GM is reminding me all too much of the “Different Kind of Car Company”. Which in turn reminds me of the song that made Hal Riney famous:

We’ve only just begun to live,

White lace and promises…

We’ll find a place where there’s room to grow,

And yes, We’ve just begun.

Yes, friends, it really is Mourning again in America.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • JIMB JIMB on Aug 22, 2010

    The Saturn SL series was made from 1991 to 2002. The SL series always recieved better than average reliability rating from Consumer Reports Magazine. In 1994 GM sold over 300,000 S-Series Saturns making it the #9 best selling car in the USA for 1994. After the SL series was discontinued no Saturn models recieved a recomendation from Consumer Reports Magazine until the Outlook and Aura in 2007. I currently own a 2001 SL2 with 188,000 miles. In 2001 I traded in a 1991 Buick Regal for the SL2. I came across the Regal in a parking lot summer of 08 still on the road! In the 1990s GM made some good cars. As early as 2004 the Buick Regal was Consumer Reports Magazine's most reliable mid-sized car. Also, the Regal's twin the Oldsmobile Intrigue was highly rated. Ufortunatly, the only people to enjoy the Intrigues and early 00's Regals(two great cars) were rental car customers and seniors. In the meantime in 2000 Saturn was given a mid-sized sedan the L-Series based on a Sabb. The L-Series was a reliability nightmare as was the ION. If Saturn were given the Intrigue in 1997 instead of Oldsmobile things could have been better. Also, the Pontiac Vibe should have been given to Saturn instead of the ION. As a teacher I like to look at statistics. I would encourage anyone interested to study Consumer Reports magazine reliability ratings over the past 20 years or so.

  • Johnct1994 Johnct1994 on Feb 09, 2013

    I enjoy the S series. It was a quirky little car. I think it was one of the few economy cars that you actually could have optioned with leather in that time frame. But the other nice thing about it is that you also had the choice to have the car as spartan as you would like. At heart I am a Toyota person but I still love my Saturn. My family has had many and my mom currently has an 03 Camry which I know would be soulless and boring as can be if it weren't for it being the SE with the 5speed manual. And I am always searching for a Lexus. I currently have a 2000 SL1 with 211000 miles(I got it with 182000). I really like that car. The only options mine has are the automatic transmission, the cd player, power steering, and a/c(i count ps&a/c as options because the belt routing diagram in the engine bay has a dashed line that skips the a/c and ps). The interior is cheap but that is one of the things I like about it. Its cheap but it just works. And the car works most of the time. But when it doesn't it is pretty easy to work on and I love being able to change the transmission fluid myself and just about as easily as I change my engine oil. I will admit that the transmission is not the most refined(but I think that is due to people not changing the atf). When I first got the car the transmission was all around clunky but I changed the atf and got a rebuilt control valve body and installed it myself and the shifts became perfectly smooth. I also love how the car uses itself. I would love for mine to have the manual transmission but the automatic suffices. I say this because it has always supplied me with the gear and ratio(seeing as it has 2 ratios for each gear) I wanted and held it until i needed it no more. I also love how it will momentarily disable the a/c under hard acceleration. In short I feel that the car is able to squeeze every bit of power it has out of itself. The engine is very loud and angry and it does get irritating sometimes but for the most part its just quirky. And when you don't want to hear it there is the radio. To me those 4 little speakers do a great job for as cheap as the whole car is, its no high end stereo but it can still drown out the engine noise and keep its quality. And as far as I know the 1.9s in the Saturns were actual Saturn engines and only used in Saturns(Someone please tell me if I am wrong), not just another generic motors engine. I also love the way the SL handles. My friend thought he could take a corner in his volvo at the speed I normally take it at without any worries and I found myself grabbing the oh crap handle because it wasn't having the corner. I also love the gas mileage of the SL. I by no means drive economically and I do 50%city driving and 50%highway and the worst I have ever averaged is 30mpg and I normally average about 34mpg. I used to be afraid of ever being hit in the SL but that changed the other day. I was rear ended by an 08 Saturn Sky and I was afraid to get out and look at my back end but when I got out I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was just a little bit of paint missing from my back bumper but the Sky was destroyed and had to be towed away. I will admit the seats are not very comfortable and I think that all of the SLs should have come with the center console/armrest because mine had the open center console without the armrest and that was extremely annoying so I ordered the console/armrest on ebay. I have driven a 99 Corolla(with 273000 miles) and I will admit that I liked it because it was cheap, quiet, and smooth. But the biggest problem with it was that I felt disconnected with the car and with the road. There was nothing wrong with the Corolla because it did everything quite well but it was just missing something and I think it is missing a soul. I could go from point a to point b everyday in the Corolla but I wouldn't be happy. Somehow despite the faults of the SL it seems to put a smile on your face. I haven't driven a Civic from the 90s but I have driven a 96 Accord(with 45000 miles). It did everything well just as the Corolla but the interior was iffy. The seats just felt like they were just there for show. They weren't extremely comfortable but they weren't completely uncomfortable. I didn't like the vinyl headliner or the annoying exhaust(it was factory), the creakiness of the suspension, and the pass through trunk was as useful as it could be I did like the steering because it didn't feel numb like a Camry or a Corolla does. But just like the Corolla it felt like something I would drive if I only wanted to get from a to b and nothing more and nothing less. I have also driven an Ion but I do not recall what year it was, that is how much I cared about it. The Ion has some quirks to it but it still doesn't have the quirks of the S series. The thing that killed me the most about it was seeing the ecotech under the hood. The interior was not that great and the climate control on full felt like an asthmatic was trying to blow air on me through a straw(I don't know if it was wear and tear or if it was just that bad on all). To me the idea of Saturn was dead after 02 but it is still sad to see the brand die completely. And its also upsetting to see Olds and Pontiac go too. I would have rather seen Buick go.

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