Monday Mileage Champion: Saturnalia

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
monday mileage champion saturnalia

I told you that I would report back to the TTAC faithful when something new came up.

Well, for quite a few weeks there has been the usual distribution of dominance when it comes to high mileage cars that are curbed by their owners. 70% to 80% of the vehicles in the Top 25 of trade-ins mileage wise (out of 6000+ a week) were either Ford and Chevy trucks, Honda cars, or Toyota anything.

This week the streak is broken. Thanks to two Saturns which managed to cross the 400k mark.

Both of them are second generation SL models which carried the one car torch for Saturn throughout the 1990’s.

Imagine one cheap car having to hold up an entire mainstream car line and an extensive dealer network. What thought process on the 14th floor justified these types of hare brained decisions is beyond me. But thankfully these Saturns are the perfect beater bait for those folks who are willing to get religion off an asset that has cheap written all over it.

The androgynous rear end of this 2000 Saturn managed to occupy the road side scenery of North Carolina for 432,984 miles. It had zero announcements on the block. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these cars are historically rather strong on the rattles and vibrations. Not to mention a plasticized interior that helped give rise to the $9995 Saturn deals of which, this Saturn likely qualified for back in the day. Although I would never argue with a new car purchase that yielded just over two cents a mile, it’s hard to understand why GM would let the powertrains on these models amortize for 13 model years.

The R&D rotting of Saturn was a shame because the non-rusting polymer panels on these models coupled with the MC Hammer era engines yielded a low ownership cost equation that was highly competitive for the time. If you looked at a car as a refrigerator like appliance and lived in the rust belt, these models were worthy of consideration. Speaking of which, this 1997 SL2 model from Illinois has managed to rack up 405,766 miles.

It does have a transmission needs service announcement and the gaps in a few places are nearly fist deep. Yep, the panels were resistant to rust. But give them a nice side kick or a 10 mph bump and you could be sure to have the polymer shatter design remain with the car until the very moment it became crusher fodder.

Trying to find an intact replacement fender at a pull-a-part on these vehicles is quite a task. It once took me four months to find one for a 96′ model coupe that I called the Purple People Eater. There is also more than a fair share of powertrain weirdness. The trannies on these models shift hard when they’re older. So hard in fact that any Saturn that isn’t a manual will almost always automatically get the ‘transmission needs service’ or ‘as/is’ announcement.

Such negativity has helped me get a few stellar deals over the years. There was a Saturn sedan, automatic, with only 37k that I managed to buy for only $1500 a few years back. It was only about 10 years old. Then there was another automatic model with 69k that went for only $1800. Both of them had transmission announcements and turned out to be perfectly fine. For a long time you could buy a decade old Saturn with less than 100k miles for only around $2000 wholesale.

When gas shot up over $3.00 a gallon for the first time these vehicles enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity. Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis made these cheap cars even more coveted. Now that gas is closing in at $4.00, and it’s only February, I can no longer buy them on the cheap. Yesterday’s $2000 wholesale car is now a $3500 plus auction fee purchase that may not even be worth a flip.

These Saturns were never that bad. Nowadays though they’re not really that good for the price at the auctions. Yesterday’s $3000 retail car has become today’s $5500 piece of finance fodder. So if you want boring transportation and find one for a song, do it. Otherwise, if you do very little driving, buy a V8 domestic instead. Those cars are damn cheap these days at the auctions and jaw dropping affordable at the retail lots.

Join the conversation
2 of 45 comments
  • Slow_Joe_Crow Slow_Joe_Crow on Feb 19, 2013

    Well that explains the occasional harsh shift into reverse on my 97 SL2 that we got as a hand me down from Grandma.After over 10 years of driving it, I've never loved it but never hated it either since it does a good job of getting us around.

  • Conswirloo Conswirloo on Feb 20, 2013

    I had a 1996 purple SC1, in Atlanta, so Steve might have acquired mine after its last owner. Bought it new and they gave me $1000 off because it was purple and had been on the lot for a year. I also had to deal with the quarter panel, as one frozen morning, a county water repair contractor pulled a u-turn in our cul-de-sac and bonked the saturn with his truck. Dent proof, for a fact. That purple quarter panel shattered, not a dent in sight. When I bought the car they lead me to believe that the body panels were molded in color, and you just order it and pop it on. When I took it to the dealership they said I was insane and they didn't do body work anyway, and pointed me to a shop that wanted $1700 to fix it. I threw $70 at someone on ebay, and had a replacement body panel and turn signal assembly that took 30 minutes for my non-mechanical self to install. It was not purple however, so I then had a mostly purple car. I sold it to a friend for $1200 in 2002 or 2003 and he painted that silver panel purple and then blue on top and it looked ok from about 200 yards out. He learned about a year later that you apparently have to change the oil in a saturn occasionally and did something horrific to the engine I think.

  • Abrar Very easy and understanding explanation about brake paint
  • MaintenanceCosts We need cheaper batteries. This is a difficult proposition at $50k base/$60k as tested but would be pretty compelling at $40k base/$50k as tested.
  • Scott ?Wonder what Toyota will be using when they enter the market?
  • Fred The bigger issue is what happens to the other systems as demand dwindles? Will thet convert or will they just just shut down?
  • Roger hopkins Why do they all have to be 4 door??? Why not a "cab & a half" and a bit longer box. This is just another station wagon of the 21st century. Maybe they should put fake woodgrain on the side lol...