Taking The Plunge, A Modest Lowering
of and Expectations
Just about all of my daily drivers have been stock, more or less. I did some engine, transmission and overdrive swaps on Volvos back in the 1980s, but everything was factory, if not on that particular vehicle when it left Goteborg. Also, there was a 1972 VW bus for which I built a high-performance Beetle *engine so it could cruise at fast enough speeds to be safe on the interstates. Other than those, I haven’t done any mechanical modifications to cars that I’ve driven regularly, at least not to the chassis, but now I’m taking the plunge.
My mom just turned 90, may she live to 120, and as is often the case with older folks, she stopped driving when she could no longer do so without endangering herself or others. The car she stopped driving is a 2002 Saturn SL, pretty much a base car with a 1.9 liter OHC engine and a three speed automatic transmission. Mom never drove it much, usually for short trips to go shopping or to her part-time job serving lunches to other seniors at the JCC. Over the years it transitioned from the car she drove, to the car she was driven in. Now it’s the car I take my grandson, Aryeh, to visit her at her new apartment.
Though GM is rightly slagged for not giving Saturn products the incremental improvements they deserved, with the same basic design of the S series coupes, sedans and wagons, staying in production for a long time. The Saturn project was a big deal for GM in the beginning. The company devoted a lot of resources to the Saturn project and the cars seem to be engineered well, even if interior QC and general refinement is lacking. They’re honest little cars. With plastic body panels, rust, at least the visible kind, isn’t a problem, and they’re relatively durable. If you look around, there are plenty of ten to twenty year old Saturns providing fairly reliable daily transportation to folks.
Yeah, the engine is a bit agricultural in tone and weak in traffic (though the DOHC versions aren’t slow) and that archaic transmission is closer, in terms of available ratios, to a 1950s era Powerglide 2-speed, than to even the six speed automatics that enthusiasts today consider obsolete as manufacturers roll out DCTs and eight or nine speed automatics.
However, I’ve grown to regard what Aryeh calls “Zayde’s blue car” with affection. Other than a serpentine belt tensioner going bad while returning from the recent 24 Hours of Lemons race at Gingerman Raceway, it’s never let me down. Even that breakdown wasn’t really a breakdown, since the alternator light came on about three miles from a populated exit on the interstate. Though the car was overheating by the time I got to the hotel just off of the freeway, nothing was permanently damaged and I still had enough juice in the battery to be able to start it in the morning and drive to the Chevy dealer that I passed on my way to the Holiday Inn.
I should mention that the Saturn S series cars, while not highly regarded by enthusiasts at large, have their fans. They’re light, about 2,600 lbs, they have real independent rear suspension, not an inexpensive torsion beam setup, you can equip them with disc brakes at all four corners, and the twin cam engine can be tuned with good results. There were at least a couple of Saturns in the Lemons race.
With close to 100,000 miles on the odometer, the tensioner and belt repair was a reminder that there were lot of OEM parts that probably should be attended to. Over the past year or so I’ve noticed that the left front strut was beginning to creak while turning at low speeds and there’s also the telltale clattering when turning left that indicates a constant velocity joint on one of the axle shafts of the front wheel drive car. It doesn’t make sense to change just one strut and since much of the labor of replacing the axle is disassembling the front suspension I decided to replace both axles and both struts. With the rear shocks as old and worn out as the struts, they needed to be replaces as well.
I like cars that can handle and while the Saturn SL isn’t a bad handling car, and the steering is weighted pretty well, it’s not what I’d call sporting in character. Turn in could be quicker and there’s way more body roll than I’d like. I’ve had real good results from KYB shock absorbers going back to those Volvos. According to the Saturn enthusiast fora, KYB GR2 struts are about 30% stiffer than the OEM units for which they’re supposed to be direct replacements. To be honest, there aren’t many choices. Bilstein doesn’t make anything that fits the Saturn and I wasn’t going to spend the money to get Koni coilover inserts set in the OEM struts, so KYB it was. By the way, KYB is moving from the GR2 brand familiar to North American enthusiasts, to the Excel-G brand sold elsewhere. They’re the same shocks and struts, they’ll just be painted black instead of silver.
To compliment the stiffer shocks, I’m also going to put some H&R Sport springs on the car to lower it. Now I’m not joining Stance Nation. This isn’t for looks, though the car will look less like a guy wearing his trouser cuffs above his ankles. There’s a modest 1.4″ drop in front, nothing you wouldn’t see that distinguishes an “S” model from a less sporting version of the same car. The back will go down a little bit less, 1.3″, so there will be a tiny bit more rake. The springs are also stiffer than stock, 205/195 front to rear vs 126/129. One nice thing about the KYB struts is that they have an oval hole that allows for stock alignment specs without having to use a special camber bolt.
Those springs may be a bit too stiff for the bad road surfaces here in Michigan, or at least that’s what Sajeev Mehta suggested when I circulated my plans with the TTAC staff. He thinks stiffer shocks on new OEM springs would freshen the suspension enough for my needs. He may be correct, but the springs were less than $200 and I’m already going to be paying for R&Ring the springs because I’m replacing the struts. What do you think? Will Michigan’s scarred roads, a lowered suspension and stiffer shocks and springs loosen the fillings in my few remaining teeth, or will I actually have a better ride compared to worn out OEM shocks and springs?
Since I’m concerned about getting too stiff (no cracks from the peanut gallery, please) I asked my colleagues about wheel sizes. Jack Baruth suggested that I’m still going to have to go to a bigger wheel if I want to get performance tires, that there just aren’t a lot of choices in 14″ sizes. For a performance tire he suggested Dunlop Direzzas or Yokohama Advan Rs. I don’t know what owners of old Brit roadsters are doing, but Jack is correct, checking the tire warehouses, there aren’t that many performance tires for 13s and 14s. I was able, however, to find some Direzza DZ102 tires, an update to the original DZ101, for $82 ea at Tire Rack. It’s a directional, summer tire. The widest tire that will fit on the car is a 205, so I’m going with a 205 55 r15. That gives me about 0.8″ more tread width and it’s close enough to the original tire circumference to keep the speedometer within 1 mph accuracy in most driving conditions. Tire Size Conversion is a useful site, by the way, to check compatibility and things like speedo calibrations.
Two of the car’s current 14″ OEM steel wheels had to be knocked back into shape by yours truly and a baby sledge after mom clipped some curbs. Detroit area potholes are deservedly notorious, so I’m not about to spend money on aluminum wheels. Steelies are cheaper and, as mentioned, you don’t need special tools to straighten them. Every set of used alloy rims that I saw advertised on Craigslist had some kind of cosmetic damage or worse. Discount Tire, a local chain, had some U.S. made 15×6″ steel wheels by Unique for $55 a piece. They’re pretty much OEM replacements, only bigger and wider. I think they’ll look just fine with chrome lug nuts. Discount Tire’s software simulation of what the car will look like with the steelies heads this post. Buying the wheels there gets me a discount on mounting and balancing.
I have to say that as a consumer I’ve been pleased so far. When I ordered the springs, I got a followup call from Tire Rack explaining that I should anticipate possible accelerated wear on the shock absorbers and other suspension components. When I called a local repair shop to get a price on labor, the guy asked me why I was lowering the car and said he’d had customers who regretted it. I explained that it wasn’t about looks, but rather handling and that I was going with a fairly modest drop so I didn’t expect to start scraping driveway aprons.
The parts are in.
So the adventure has started. The parts are all in. I can’t get the car into the shop until next week, but in the meantime this weekend, if there’s no precipitation, I’m going to take the car over to a parking lot and get some baseline data. I’ll shoot video to record body lean and I downloaded a lateral acceleration app for my smartphone. After I get cornering data as is, I’ll do it again after replacing the suspension parts, and if the snow holds off longer, I’ll do it yet again with the new tires, reporting back after each step. If I’m happy with the results, I’ll upgrade the base rear drum brakes with discs I can pull off a higher spec Saturn at the junkyard. That’s a bolt on conversion. Long term, I’ll keep my eye out for a DOHC/5-speed drivetrain I can get cheap.
Per my colleagues’ suggestions, I’ll be keeping the alignment at the OEM settings. As Jack pointed out, I don’t need a darty car on icy Michigan roads.
Speaking of icy roads, I’ll be keeping the old rims and tires for winter use. The OEM wheels are mounted with some Cooper all-season tires with plenty of tread life remaining that should suffice in the cold. I know how Baruth feels about all-seasons in the winter and having test driven Bridgestone Blizzaks in a blizzard, I’m a fan of sticky winter tires, but I grew up learning to drive in big rear wheel drive American sedans with bias ply tires and since I haven’t managed to get stuck or plow into someone so far, the all-seasons will do for winter driving for now.
So what do the Best & Brightest have to say? Am I on a fool’s errand trying to make this rather unexciting car more sporting? Will the stiffer, lower springs and stiffer shocks ride worse than the OEM setup with 100K miles on the components? Either way I’ll keep you informed.
* For you air-cooled VeeDub enthusiasts, it was an AE crankcase with 1648cc barrels, dual port heads (slightly milled), a street cam, 009 mechanical distributor and a Holley/Weber two barrel carb, plus a high pressure Melling oil pump and an external oil filter and auxiliary oil cooler (and homebrew interior heater using that hot oil).
** It surprises me that the Saturn station wagons don’t get more love from enthusiasts. A small wagon that could be gotten with a DOHC engine, a 5 speed manual transmission and 4 wheel disc brakes checks a lot of boxes. I think they look pretty good too.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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That's a 4-speed automatic, not a 3-speed. Saturns were never produced with a 3-speed automatic - although both 3rd and 4th on the automatic are overdrive ratios.
I've done my share of suspension mods. Re-do as many bushings as you can while you've got the suspension apart. And please do a follow-up report on how the car feels when you get it all back together! FWIW, at this point my "street car" suspension mod program is: (1) Get the smallest-diameter rims possible on the car, and get the lightest ones that the budget will allow for. 2) Get really grippy tires that are at the maximum width for the rim. 3) Get adjustable shocks, start them at full soft all around, then fiddle with them endlessly until you've got good balance front to rear. Then stop fiddling with them. 4) Align with 1-2 degrees of negative camber, a little bit of toe-out in the front, and zero toe or a little toe-in in the rear. My street cars usually end up looking like they're too jacked up - it's not a sexy look, but it works for getting good grip on bumpy roads (think of rally cars). Slammed and rimmed is great if the pavement is glassy smooth, but in America it never is. You *can* get good bumpy-pavement handling with lowering springs if your car has enough suspension travel and if your shocks are very well matched to the springs. This is hard to achieve, though, especially with simple single-adjustable shocks like Tokicos. This is a good reason for, say, a matched and tuned kit like a Bilstein PSS10 or Dinan's matched kits for BMWs. For Saturns? I don't know, but people have raced Saturns, so I'm sure someone out there has been through the learning curve and could share what whey discovered.