By on January 12, 2010

Ad aspera per Astra? (wikimedia)

In 1994, you could buy a base model Saturn for $9995 plus tax, tag and dealer fee. In 2002, you could buy a base model Saturn for $9995 plus tax, tag and dealer fee. In 2010, you may very well be able to buy an entry level Saturn for….

Well.. forgive me for jumping to a 16 year old conclusion. But now it’s too late. I can’t find a new Astra anywhere in Atlanta. Auras and Skys? Yes. The Astra and the oft forgotten Outlook and Vue are officially done. That is except for all the ‘near-new models’ that will bobbing along the surface of the dealer auctions within the next year or so. The 2008 versions may likely hit the $8000 range at the wholesale auctions once we’re replacing the old D.C. windbags with even more malleable ones. That would mean a retail level right near the $9995 mark which seems to be the price par excellence for ‘bargain basement’ deals.

All of you may wonder why I’m even interested in Saturn’s entry level rides? Well, to me they represent three things. First, the cheapening of the brand. Back in 1994 Saturn was on it’s way to becoming the king of subcompacts. Even as the 1995 and 1996 models offered few genuine changes, the totals for this one model company rang up for these years at 267k, 303k, and 299k. Simply astounding for a small car in it’s fourth, fifth, and sixth year of production. Every single one of them sold at $9995 and way up with little in the need of gimmicks or accounting derived chicanery. It was a well deserved win for GM.

Fast forward to 2002 and the Saturn S-Series is in a real pickle. 12 years with nothing but minor modifications had officially turned the once loved Saturn into GM’s rental car and ‘value star’ bastard child. How else can you explain 12 years of the same powertrain and 10 long years as a one brand orphan. Poor Saturn. GM decided to move the brand damaged metal with a $9995 ‘silver and blue’ special. You got a choice of two colors, one five speed, a/c (Nissan please take note), and an economic proposition for the ‘new car’ tightwad that was unmatched until the age of clunkerdom.

The ‘economic proposition’ represents the second thing of interest to me. It was Saturn’s only real strength in the marketplace for the last decade. I still can’t understand why they didn’t market it with that focus instead of an ‘import’ alternative. Anyhow, the long in the sabre-tooth 2002 model offered a low 30’s real world average with a light foot (40 mpg highway) plus a $10,000 price less bogus fees and tax. Not bad. Throw in a severely dysfunctional investment environment at the time and a ‘deficits don’t matter’ level of government spending, and you could have done far worse. I’ve been driving one of these for the last few days and I have to say, it’s not bad for $940.

Probably wasn’t bad at $9995 either. The anecdotal one I’ve been driving has no rattles and no squeaks. No paint fade. No dents thanks to those wonderful plastic panels. Oh and everything works. But of course there’s little to be broken. Power windows, locks, mirrors, even Saturn’s once lauded ultra-cheap ABS had been scratched off that list in the interests of the corporate bottom line. Even with all the cuts, it still offered a great opportunity for the long-term keeper who needs a commuter or town vehicle.

At least if they’re savvy with the screwdriver. The cheap things that remain are all upgraded in my sample. The shocks are no longer factory OEM along with the speakers and the $99 CD player. I estimate the $300 in upgrades have translated into an extra five years on the road and the top of the line tires have turned back the clock of creakiness by a huge extent.

This last model year Saturn really is a good value today IF you can overcome the weaknesses. Do yourself a favor and if you get one, buy a Mityvac and suck out every fluid you can and add new stuff. Especially the coolant. If you’re a road warrior with tightwad tendencies, you can upgrade the five speed fairly cheaply if you opt for the more powerful DOHC engine and $80 in parts. The interior is cheap too. At this point you can customize it if plastic is not your thing. One of my favorite things to do is take those furry shoulder belt pads and superglue it onto a couple of surfaces where I’ll usually rest my arm. Did I mention I’m a cheap bastard? This strategy also works quite well in any older car where the driver’s door panel armrest has cracked.

Finally, keep in mind the third virtue of most Saturns. They made them forever and can be found anywhere. Even when the General gets it’s next reality check with Buick and GMC, your commuter scooter is still going to putter along with parts that are cheaper than a Roger Smith Cadillac makeover. If you’re into keeping your pennies in a jar and believe that the American dollar is in for a beating, a cheap economical beater like the Saturn may truly be a worthy long-term investment.

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18 Comments on “Hammer Time: Saturn Shangri-La...”

  • avatar

    I actually bought a leftover 1999 saturn SL for $10,000 in late 1999.  No options whatsoever, including no air.  The dealer did not charge for freight, and I got 0.9% financing. 

    Fast forward to 2009, and I’ve replaced it with………………..a 2009 Astra.   After all rebates, discounts etc.  the base price was actually less than $10,000.  However, I decided to splurge with air conditioning, sunroof and traction control.  I had to pay freight this time, and no discount financing.   Not as good a deal as in 1999, but a much better car!!

    • 0 avatar

      Had the same thought, but ugh…parts availability….
      Same thing for the G8, and any future GM products that aren’t products of domestic nameplate badge prostitution (like the half-baked but promising Solstice) – another reason to beware the GM Mark-O-Excellence…

  • avatar

    I wish that every GM exec and every UAW leader who conspired to squash the Saturn project into the red-headed step-child of GM could be forced to hand over their pension and medical benefits to Motors Liquidation Company to satisfy debtors. Saturn was GM’s last, best hope to figure out how to make and sell cars in a global market filled with smart, agile competitors.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    What really kills me is that GM’s Saturn experiment worked!  Despite whatever shortcomings the cars had, they were reliable and economical, and offered true value. And they sold fabulously for the longest time without any substantial updates.   Alas, when other GM divisons (like Chevy) realized all that, the long knives came out.  These were and are people who probably couldn’t survive anywhere else but in the Machavellian halls of the General and companies like it.  Which is why GM’s biggest challenge is still changing its culture. 

    • 0 avatar

      You’re wrong-Saturn never worked.  The main goal of Saturn, or any company or division of a company, is to make money.  Saturn lost money in spades.  GM lost tens of billions of dollars attempting to find a profit there.  There was no way that an entire seperate division could ever make money by only selling plastic covered Corolla-clones-the economies of scale simply weren’t there.  And, once you’ve convinced the world that “Saturn” means “plastic-sided Corolla-clone”, you couldn’t make money by then attempting to expand the brand to sell forty thousand dollar SUVs and sporty convertables-especially if you also stop selling plastic-sided Corolla-clones!

    • 0 avatar

      The cars seemed nice enough, but I never got past the dealer experience.  I was ok with the no-haggle pricing, but when I looked at an SL2 in 95 or 96, I couldn’t get over the extra $1000 markup for paint and fabric protection, and the “Saturn Logo” package (which as near as I could tell was some reflective tape in the “Saturn” indentation in the back bumper).

  • avatar

    My family owned (drumroll) 8 saturns . . . the problem was value towards the end.
    From what I’ve been told by the locals:
    No “L” for 2 model years totally messed them up since value compact buyers get families and become value midsize buyers.  When the Aura came along, it was pricier and (obviuosly) aimed at Honda’s Accord market rather than upgrading the grown up Saturn owners.  The prices were high enough that “no haggle” hurt them with people who were used to “getting a deal” and the Aura XR had good specs, but even I think the build quality of the interior is sub-par for that price range . . . the 6A transmission is a nice drive for a slushbox though . . .

    The astra was placed in the uncertainty list right away when the dollar went weak against europe, so GM said “uhh, we’re not so sure about this”.   I was *really* hoping they were going to bring the 6M turbo over . . . to combat the Si.
    Any former Saturn dealership that ends up picking up a Subaru franchise (and not lose it’s attention to service) will reap the rewards of what was good about Saturn and do well.  GM just threw that away.

  • avatar

    I would be very careful before picking up an orphan car like the Astra (or the G8, 9-3SS and/or any of the Daewoos that were hocked as Chevrolets like the Epica or Optra).  The Aura, at least, shares most of it’s guts with a known, mass-market quantity (the Malibu and G6).  The Astra has a unique engine and a very different take on the Delta-platform than the common Cobalt or Ion.
    The Astra is a pretty good car, but it’s also setting yourself up for trouble in the long run.  I would skip it in favour of a lower-spec Aura or (if you need a hatch) the Vue, even though it’s a bit better a car than either.

    • 0 avatar

      I figure that if people can keep Maserati Birturbos, Alfa Romeo 164s, and C4-generation Corvette ZR1s on the road for 20+ years, then I should be able to find a way to keep the G8 rolling for awhile.
      It certainly isn’t going to be a  low-cost ownership experience in the long-term, but I pretty much knew that when I bought it.

    • 0 avatar

      The G8’s not so much an issue because it’s owners (you’d hope) knew what they were getting into.
      The Astra is a different matter altogether: it’s good, but the long-term prospects vis a vis even the Rabbit, let alone the Matrix, Fit, Versa or 3 are not encouraging.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t get this idea that you won’t be able to get parts for an Astra – they’ve sold in there 100,000 in Europe so all parts would be available just with a small shipping fee!

      I can see a business opportunity in a few years to import euro Astra’s as parts and sell them here

  • avatar

    The 2001 and 2002 Saturn S series were good cars because GM made annual improvements, culminating in the best S series cars by the time the ION hit the dealerships. I have the last year they made an SW2 wagon, 2001. If you take a look at the list of annual improvements made to the S series, you will realize that eventually by 2001, the S series was a different, and better car.

    But, the S series wasn’t popular or a good value by 2001. My wagon was $19,000, which was easily $3,000 more than the new Ford Focus wagon, which made the Saturn S look as dated as it was. The Saturn sat low to the ground, a-la-GM compact style circa 1970’s-1980’s, and it’s competition offered substantially more interior room and better, higher seating. The Focus handled like a sports car, and the Saturn just didn’t.

    But that was then, and this is now. Today, this little 9 year old car still looks great. It gets great gas mileage. Sitting low to the road is uncomfortable for the old and fat, but for the rest of us, this car seems to sprint everywhere it goes. It is actually fun to drive. Best of all – they are cheap! I see Saturn S cars everywhere, and thanks to their plastic fenders and doors, they look great.

    GM’s loss – our gain.

  • avatar

    Shame – they had a sale with me on the Astra, I love it. Won’t touch it new or used now with the limited parts availability in a decade (I keep cars a long time).

    • 0 avatar

      Assuming GM will be around for ten years (a bit of an if, granted), I’m sure parts will be able to be found at your local Chevy dealer.  The model sold very well in Europe for years; it’s not a low production vehicle worldwide.

  • avatar

    Is that a 2012 Focus 5-door hatch?  Sure looks like one…

  • avatar

    I still want an Astra, but then, my family has a long history with Opels.  Sad,I know…but make mine a four-door, white with sunroof…and I’m sitting in the backseat with my father in his 1971 (and later, 1980) Rekord all over again…

  • avatar

    I have a 95 SL 1 manual. It’s a lot of the things that Mr Lang has said. It’s beauty in it’s simplicity and value for money. Ease of repair and fuel economy are the other plusses. The polymer keeps it looking new even after 15 years.

    It was so solid at 116,000 miles when I bought it, that when my “good” car was totalled, I bought an 05 ION 1. And like the SL1 the polymer will keep this TWAT award winner looking new and strange for years to come.

    An ION with the 2.2 or 2.4 ECOTEC and Hydramatic would be a good used car bet as well: lots of shared parts with other GM cars, reliable engine and trans, orphan status and the hit on resale make it a bargain hunters dream.

    But the seating position in the S is ridiculous [like sitting in a hole again], the ride unsettled on even the smoothest surface , turning circle ridiculous and the seats are awful.

    You don’t have to be old and/or fat to be put off by that sort of thing.

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