By on November 2, 2014


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.

tire    rack

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.

tire   rack

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.

tire     rack

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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76 Comments on “Taking The Plunge, A Modest Lowering of and Expectations...”

  • avatar

    Ditch the coopers (or run them out in good weather) and get the snows. Its not about getting stuck its about scooting around the idiot spinning out in front of you.

    Indeed what are owners of British cars doing for tires? I never thought I’d have a problem getting narrow 15 inch tires for older roadsters (14s disappeared years ago). With all the VWs around narrowish 15 tires were plentiful. Now its no name Chinese tires or BF Goodrich front dragster tires or expensive Cokers or other antique supplier.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know what car or what size tire you’re shopping for, but the Miata world has no shortage of choices from winter, to long-wearing all seasons, to track rubber, in 15″. In fact, guys with the 17″ Mazdaspeed wheels often change to 15″ because they work better for hard driving.

      • 0 avatar

        Plenty of 15s just not narrow enough to work on older British cars. These came with 165-14 or 165-15 (Beetle, 356 size) On the MGB and the AH 3000 anything over 205 is too wide and stock rims are usually 4.5 wide so a 175 or 185 is a better bet.

        175-70-14 is ok if a little low profile, Goodrich drag fronts in 155/80-15 is sized right but that and a “Classic” brand 165/80-15 are it right now at Tire Rack. Nankangs are available locally.

        • 0 avatar

          Later Beetles came with 5.60-15 bias ply tires, you would probably install a 155-15 today.

          Standard section height would be 78. Back in the 70’s if your car came with a 165-13 tire, you’d typically fit a 185/70 R 13 if you wanted more meat on your rims.

    • 0 avatar

      My Spitfire takes 175/70-13s. It has some rather old Coopers on it now. When the time comes, it really doesn’t matter what goes on it, sticky tires just make the limitations of the suspension that much more apparent. Just something round, black, and of decent enough quality.

      • 0 avatar

        My little Elan runs 14513 currently some aging Michelin’s May try some Vredestein which have to be better than original bias ply Dunlops

      • 0 avatar

        Michelin Defender is available in 175/70R13. They’re not cheap, but they’re decent quality. Tires are the single biggest determinant of a car’s ride and handling, so scrimping should be done elsewhere.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    It does surprise me the station wagon tribe hasn’t adopted/given their seal of approval for Saturn wagons. Inexpensive, frugal to run, built in “Murrica” for those who care about that, and highly dependable. My given to mom SL had 220000 miles on it when she traded it for a Miata. Due to the Saturn wagons limited production numbers they might be more of a cult item than Panthers.

    • 0 avatar

      And you could get them with a stick!! I think they’re pretty cool

    • 0 avatar

      When Dad gave us the ’95 Taurus, he bought Mom the Saturn station wagon; a 2002 white in color. When Mom passed away in 2009 and Dad in 2011, I hoped to pick it up for my daily driver; Mom did not drive much and she was in a nursing home for the last few years, so it only had about 50,000 miles on it, and was in great shape.

      Alas, one of my sisters requested it for my nephew, who needed it for work. I recieved money from the estate in return to get the Taurus back on the road (it had been down for four years with blown head gaskets and a cracked head.) And that is how it’s second life began.

      Now the Taurus needs new springs and shocks, as well as new bushings. Thank you for giving me some things to think about.

      • 0 avatar

        I did just that with my 92 Sable station car. We are lucky because Taurus SHO parts swap right in. Koni inserts are also available. I did this using Gen 1 swaybars and wow, this pup corners flat! Kind of a “Shoble”…

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Having been the proud owner of Saturn’s 2nd station wagon off the assembly line, I loved its light, tossable nature and well laid out, albeit spartan interior. I only wish I hadn’t outgrown its capacities as quickly as I did. In the mid 90s I moved from a Saturn to an Oldsmobile just like the product planners predicted, but not in the desired direction, as I switched over to a ’72 Vista Cruiser sporting a 455 and W30 heads. As I had insisted on the manual transmission along with the ABS, I was not blessed with the freely included traction control of the automatic equipped models. Switching the miserable Firehawk tires out for Goodyear’s Eagle GWs revealed the latter to be not just an excellent performance snow tire but a much better all season and wet weather tire overall.

    You certainly have my blessing with this project, and I’m eager to read about the results when you are finished.

  • avatar

    Owned two of these and I am a fan. They ran, and ran, and…..

    it’s true they they sounded somewhat like a tractor but they were very dependable cars that I thought were underrated just because it seemed cool to do so. I thought saturn went wrong with other models in 2002 with all the Opels badge engineering. I thought these were a really good effort and am waiting to see how it comes out.

    I would have loved to have an SW as you described.

    • 0 avatar

      The original Saturns (gen 1) were quite sporty in both appearance and steering/handling. the first time I saw one, I knew what it was, although I’d never seen a photo of one. They dumbed ’em down for gen 2 (the body roll you talk about), and lookswise, the first time I saw one, I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a Tercel, a Hyundai, or an Olds. Here’s more on Saturn. The twin cam engine was pretty bad. Here’s more:

    • 0 avatar

      Wife’s cousin has a similar Saturn, it crossed 450,000 miles recently.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    GM spends $5B in 1980s-1990s dollars to develop Saturn, which (beyond the sales model) is not terribly innovative, people love it.

    GM spends ~$1B in 2000s-2010s dollars to develop Voltec, which is the most innovative engineering drivetrain technology in at least a generation, people lose their shit and freak out over it.

    I don’t understand people.

  • avatar

    Saturn S cars are all 4 speed automatics. They are a “countershaft” design similar to Hondas of that era where the design paralleled a manual trans using clutch packs in place of synchronizers and a torque converter in place of the dry clutch.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      You are right. But unfortunately, it seems that no one read your comment. Well, as long as no one’s reading…

      The Saturn TAAT auto transmission has four forward gears and a lockup torque converter. Most issues are related to the valve body and solenoids, and good rebuilt valve bodies are available here:

      Never do a “burnout” in a Saturn S-series. Too much wheelspin and the pressed-in diff pin will punch a hole in the transaxle case and ruin your whole day.

      Stumbling when cold? Replace the engine coolant temperature sensor. Make sure you get one with a brass tip.

      ’00-’02 springs were subject to failure due to rust, so replacing the springs is a great idea. I’d have gone with junkyard springs from a ’91-’99, but to each his own.

      Tired of the engine shaking the whole car at idle? Replace the upper motor mount on the passenger side. Splurge and get the factory part unless you want to replace it again in 30K miles.

      You CAN turbo a Saturn, but it requires a lot of tuning and fabrication, starting with making your own log manifold. Details are here:

      Sick of sitting super-low in the car and having a backache after 30 minutes of driving? Replace the SL1 driver’s seat with a seat from an SL2 or SC2. You gain height and lumbar adjustment, better foam, and better fabrics.

      All S-series burn oil. Some burn a little. Some burn a lot. Check your oil every time you get gas.

      The S-series is the perfect second car for an automotive enthusiast. Cheap to buy, cheap to own, durable, anonymous.

      That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

  • avatar

    I’m sorry, I just don’t see the logic in putting performance parts, particularly lowering suspension, on an automatic Saturn that is driven on Michigan’s frost-heaved roads.

    Replace axles with something half decent (R-axles are good supposedly) and buy some Monroe ‘economatic’ strut/spring preassembled kits for $70 a corner off Rockauto. Quick and painless. Put some decent brand all season tires on the steel wheels (I’ve really taken a liking to the performance/value quotient of General brand tires) and you’re set.

    • 0 avatar

      I think there is a difference between modding and taking a chance to improve.

      At 100k, he needs shocks, sway bar bushings, and while you are there, end links. OE shocks are always to a price. If the car has a decent aftermarket, there will be choices. I like Bilsteins-and was crushed to find they didn’t make a shock for the MDX. I’ve almost always done better than stock where shocks are concerned, but don’t forget to change those other parts….

      Think Heavy Duty, not “sportscar”. A quality tire, the largest size you can go on your wheel.

      As far as springs, go, you can do better quality than OE, but you are playing engineer. Stay stock ride. Internet fanbois all want hard and low but they live on fantasy smooth roads.

      Whenever some part wears out, I seek to improve it, not just replace it. I had a set of SVT shocks in my Mystique when the time came, have put various M3 bushings and such in my 3 when they wore out. Often the after market, or the OE fixed the weak spot.

      I totally support the re-up. Most older cars are only a few cheap suspension bits away from “riding like new”.

      Oh, and as you have bengt wheels, get them roadforce balanced. You can spend a lot of time looking for vibrations and such in suspension when wheels are really to blame.

      • 0 avatar


        I think you aren’t catching the upside here. The car needs these parts anyway, and the aftermarket enthusiasts (myself included, I admit), are always pointing out that buying these alternatives is not hugely expensive. Oftentimes, with newer cars, the aftermarket brands are less expensive and better warrantied. If Mr. Schreiber’s point is to put this theory to the test he’s actually chosen a pretty decent basis. Sure, it’s not a vintage GTI, Focus or whatever that has a huge aftermarket around it, but that’s kind of the point. That automatic transmission needs to go however, there’s simply too large a disconnect there between purpose and equipment for the car to work with that setup.

        As for tires, that’s the only significant change in ownership expense being proposed here. I can’t tell anyone that performance tires are a good investment or efficient use of funds, but I will buy them for all my vehicles. I will also tell anyone who evidences the slightest interest in the driving experience that they should absolutely go that route.

    • 0 avatar

      General tire is Continental’s value/discount brand for the US. I put a set of 16” on my MB E350 4MATIC and really impressed with value/performance. Thick juicy rubber, nice ride(not as quiet as Michelins they replaced but it’s a Benz – just roll up the windows and it’s silent riding). All for $92 a piece from Tire Rack. Made in Germany. Factory is in Aachen I believe, Continentals newer hightech production facility. Impressive value.

  • avatar
    Zekele Ibo

    Sell off the Coopers, buy a set of General Altimax Arctic winter tires – they offer 14″ sizes and are a really great value tire which can be studded if necessary.

    I like the old Saturn SL2 cars, they are great winter beaters, and there’s something honest and decent about them.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    I concur that trying to make a Saturn SL into a performance car is a fool’s errand. It reminds me of “Peak Tunerz” 12 years ago or so when you would regularly meet young men who had put enough money into an old Civic to buy a new NSX, and ended-up with old Civics that were undriveable over anything but the freshest asphalt and sounded (and revved) like trucks.

    Enjoy the Saturn for what it is. Go for the KYBs if you want, but keep the stock springs. The most I would do is to update to an SL2 suspension.

    Saturns were known locally for blowing head gaskets on a regular basis (every 2 years, with the factory gasket lasting 4 years).

    • 0 avatar

      That’s interesting. I ran a couple to 150,000 mi each and worked on several others and never heard of a head gasket problem. Massive oil consumption…oh yeah..they omitted the drainback holes behind the oil ring groove on the pistons…but never a head gasket.

      And you could fix the oil consumption by using the green colored Castrol 0W-30 from Germany, it had “magic” esters in it that cleaned up the oil rings.

      • 0 avatar

        indi500fan, the ’96 Saturn SL 4-dr I bought brand new for my daughter when she graduated HS blew out the head gasket at ~54K. Did a lot of damage. Cost ~$1200 to fix at Saturn of Escondido, CA.

        This was a particularly nicely equipped Saturn, as it was built-to-order just for her in DarkGreen, with stick shift, 15″ alloys, sunroof, AC, and a matching Spoiler on the trunk lid.

        But it suffered from a lot of problems over the four short years it served her during College. She traded it for a brand new 2000 Corolla after graduation from College and lived happily ever after.

  • avatar

    Considering that there isn’t a curved road in the entire state of Michigan, I am not sure what the point is.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, I know that Detroit is known for straight, wide streets and 90 degree intersections. Still, I can show you plenty of roads that are fun to drive within the state, even within the greater Detroit area. Ever get off the Interstate? When I went out to the Lemons race I got off 94 around Jackson and took two lanes to the race. Lots or winding and rolling roads. A while back, the “tunnel of trees”, M-119 from Cross Village to Harbor Springs, was named one of the ten best driving roads in the U.S. by Car and Driver. It runs along the bluff above Lake Michigan. Just search on “tunnel of trees”.

      A while back I did a post about bad Detroit roads and drivers. There’s a video in that post that shows my usual handling and ride quality route. You’ll see plenty of curves.

  • avatar

    Kudos on your praises of a competent, cost efficient, reliable, and easy to service car. Regarding your lowering and stiffening of the car, I would vote against the lowering. Discounting the Michigan roads (this is a problem wherever the freeze/thaw cycle happens)a lowered car just doesn’t do the ordinary tasks of ordinary driving. The risk of speed bumps, curbs, and deep snow make them less practical. The marginal increase in handling is debatable. As long as the car will slide before it rolls when going sideways, you are chasing a small increase in roll stiffness that anti-roll bars can deal with. I think you are chasing looks. I have “de-lowered” my 2005 Saab 9-5 Aero wagon. I have found that the number of contacts with the bump stops on the suspension has been reduced from many to zero. I have a similar attitude towards large wheels with low profile tires. I have had to replace one of these (17″ x 45 series) from catching a curb while cornering. The sidewall was pinched and bye-bye tire. I have also straightened steelies with a baby sledge and a dolly block with good results. I have grown to like the purposeful military/industrial look of a car shod with winter tires on steelies and no wheel covers. I endorse the KYB GR-2 shocks though. I like stiff. My off-road racing experience demands that I take a bit of air off speed bumps. The suspension should take it. My experience with Saturns includes a 2000 LS-1. I am still driving this with the original struts/shocks with 360,000 km. One other thing – the Saturn is designed to be serviced. For instance, on your SL-1 there is a panel above the instrument cluster for access. On the L-Series the instrument cluster can be removed and replaced in less than 15 minutes.

    • 0 avatar

      Plain steel with winter tires are fine, but I’d add some steel baby moons. That was the winter set up I had on the XR4Ti, black car black steel rims and baby moons. Totally different look than the basket weave aluminum rims I ran in the summer.

  • avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Mmmnnn yes, that’s the question.

      At first I thought this was going to be a boring, yet sensible Lemons build (They are THE car for teams that don’t want to screw around and just race all weekend, perhaps even win.), but then I see all these new parts.

      I tried to think of why I don’t like this, but really it’s not the car’s fault. There are just hundreds of other cars out there that are more interesting that could use some mods for no reason.

      I predict these mods will prove to be less fun than a clapped out old Saturn pitched into the decrepit apex without mercy with a blown rear strut fluttering in the air.

  • avatar

    The creaking noise while turning is not the strut itself it is the strut mount so pick up a pair of those and have them installed with the springs and struts.

  • avatar

    I will be waiting patiently for more information, as I almost did this once, having heard that the cab forward cars could be made sufficiently nice by swapping out some rubber parts as well as new shocks and struts, until I discovered I couldn’t find a donor car with anything but the 2.7, and I didn’t want to die on that hill.

    The answer as to why – it’s there, it’s different, it’s not a Chevelle polished and waxed to be driven just to the Loop one weekend a year. There’s basically six months of crappy driving in Michigan from now until April. Everybody has two cars – the nice one and the beater. The beater is a canvas for experimentation and discovery. Even if this is a total flop, it will be an incredibly fun story to tell and retell.

    Edit: I had a Saturn S for a while when I had another car in the shop. It was a shop car – 200,000 miles on it, sounded like a boat motor, one dented door, but it had a sport switch that made things a little more fun. I think I had the same experience that Jeremy Clarkson recounted when driving the crappy strangled V8 Camaro – it just put a smile on your face driving it and contemplating what could be with a little effort.

  • avatar

    Ignore the why’s! I am starting the same sort of thing on my Chrysler T&C because why not! Of course nobody makes anything performance for it so that makes the hunt pretty difficult.

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t go beyond the KYB struts as far as suspension upgrades. If you put stiffer struts, stiffer lowering springs, and go with a larger wheel size, it’s going to be a punishing ride for a daily driver.

    I’m not sure if they make a larger sway bar set for these cars, but to me that’s the best “bang for your buck” when it comes to handling upgrades with very little ride penalty.

  • avatar

    I bought a 2002 SL when they were blowing them out at 0 down 0%APR to make room for the ION. All I wanted was a cheap 40MPG car. It was as basic as they come! 5-speed stick, roll-down windows, and the CD player and AC were actually *options*.

    I remember once taking that car up to 100 on the freeway. The engine was working so hard that hot air was blowing out of the AC vents. I’m lucky I didn’t blow the thing up!

    For a few dollars more (per month) I could have gotten a sweet SC2. I do regret not going that route. Still it served me well until I traded it in for the TDI.

    • 0 avatar

      The reason that hot air was blowing out of the AC is because of the WOT AC cut off. To make the most of the available HP it is common practice to disengage the AC compressor to free up that power. In most cases that is fine and dandy since most people don’t keep their foot to the floor long enough for the outlet temp to rise significantly.

      • 0 avatar

        Ahhh good to know! You know it’s funny that it’s one of those memories that “sticks with you” all these years later. That poor car certainly didn’t enjoy being driven that fast. I only did it once though. Was scared to take it over 75 after that.

        • 0 avatar

          Yeah, the same thing will happen in your 6MTima… You tend not to notice because the VQ35 hauls you up to extra-legal speeds right as you’re easing off WOT and the A/C compressor disconnects.

          It’s more easily felt by shifting into 6th at ~40, then WOTing it up to 70 or so.

    • 0 avatar

      I got my ’93 SL2 (stick) up to 100-105 on one or two handfuls of occasions. The handling was terrific, and with the light weight, 2450 or so, it was wonderfully agile. It was also a great looking car, unlike later gens of saturn. It (unlike later generations) was very stable even at that speed. And unlike later generations, the first gen SL2 was pretty much the same as the SC2 except for the number of doors.

      But it had the oil use problem (got to 1 quart every 1000 or so). the car was pretty good up to about 130k, and then it started nickel and diming me to death, including electrical problems.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree that the Ion was straight up fugly. That thing was “Car by committee” if anything ever was.

        • 0 avatar
          Sam Hell Jr

          The Ion. Among the ugliest small sedans ever put on the road, hanging out with the previous-generation Sentra. In both cases, the manufacturer’s solution to the daylight-opening-fail situation was just to drop in random vertical lines at the corners of the greenhouse. Blech.

  • avatar

    What about bushings? The OEM bushings are probably pretty worn out by now. I wouldn’t upgrade to polyurethane or anything, but I would consider replacing the originals with a factory-spec new bushing. It’s more work, but you’re already going to be in there doing the suspension, so it’s the best time to upgrade.

  • avatar

    Best performance upgrade would be a dohc motor. Much much more power. Also, make sure your car has a rear sway bar, some SLs didn’t come with one and you could easily swap for one off a sl2

  • avatar
    the passenger

    My wife had a ’96 SL2 with the five-speed manual for about for years, from 2000 to 2004. It already sat pretty low to the ground, so it’s hard for me to imagine lowering the suspension even another inch. For me the worst part of the car was a horribly low seating position, with no way to adjust the height.

    • 0 avatar

      Thats what’s I was thinking too. My later mother had a 94 SL2 with the slushbox and that thing had to be crept over bigger speed bumps to not bottom out. Lowering 1.5″ from stock might be a bit much on this car.

  • avatar

    My first car was a hand-me-down Saturn. It was an SL2 but the engine never had any guts and burned oil. Tell me again about the DOHC engine being fast? Then again, maybe mine was just a dog. The brakes also really sucked. I favor having more brake than you need rather than “enough” in any case, but the Saturn in particular never really had enough.

    That said, it was nice in many ways. The plastic panels were fine, really nothing bad about them at all. It got good mileage. It was really not a bad car. They were a good idea with key elements done mediocrely. They had plently of good points, like those plastic panels, which as has been noted don’t rust and don’t really ding either, though they will shatter in an accident.

    Of course, rather than bother to develop the cars, GM killed them by neglect and then pulled a last-minute switch where they substituted Opels which had nothing “Saturn-like” about them. Really, GM has got to be the most incompetent car company.

    I blame Bob Lutz and people like him. Just because you like toys doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to build them and ignore your buyer’s needs – GM put out cars like the Soltice/Sky twins, and made various insanely good Corvettes, but hasn’t made the best small car, or even close to the best small car, EVER (Saturn was as close as they ever got). Saturn made small, frugal cars, which people liked, and GM managed to let it die on the vine.

    • 0 avatar

      Because of the way that GM went about creating Saturn they had no choice but to neglect the cars and let them die on the vine. They spent way too much money developing them since the edict was that every nut and bolt had to be a Saturn nut and bolt. That meant tons of money thrown away on stupid things that could have been pulled from the GM parts bin that would have done the job just as well as the Saturn only part. Once they hit the market they had way too many development costs to recoup and were doomed to be soldiered on w/o any significant additional investment. Its one thing to throw a bunch of money at a wild idea and quite another to keep throwing good money after all the bad money when it was obvious that there was never going to be any profit in it.

      The other big problem was that they listened to the idiot dealers who were screaming for additional products. Rather than bring in new customers they kept selling at a similar rate but now their development costs went up, even if those new vehicles were badge engineered.

      Saturn should go down as the second largest mistake GM ever made, behind the incredibly stupid Fiat fiasco. Honestly who enters into a contract with an ailing company that requires you to purchase that ailing company at a premium if it isn’t turned around in an unrealistic time frame?

    • 0 avatar
      Sam Hell Jr

      Have never understood the affection for these things, other than that they were (1) fairly rust-proof and (2) inexpensive to repair.

      My sister and I shared a ’98 SL1 in high school and college. We would have been better off with Grandma’s cast-off LeSabre.

      The Saturn’s interior lights would dim when something with a thick bass line came on the radio. With two adults and some bags inside, it would struggle to crest even modest grades. The electronics in the fuel systems were a mess, especially when operated in a rainstorm (?!), and needed repaired several times. The seats were two hunks of barely molded foam — I’ve been in folding chairs that were more comfortable and that is not exaggeration. The air conditioning was about as useful as a 20-year-old window unit.

      If R.S. wants to play with this one, fine, whatever, it’s a cheap little thing that will probably take the abuse. But like many late ’90s cars, Saturns are totally undeserving of happy nostalgia. Between my dad’s ’95 Eagle Vision TSi, my mom’s ’98 Explorer XLT, and that godforsaken little Saturn, the Detroit Three chased my family into the soulless embrace of Toyonda and we haven’t looked back.

  • avatar

    It is YOUR car. If lowering it and doing some tweaks to it make you happy, go for it ! Enjoy doing the mods, enjoy driving the car afterwards, and enjoy having a secret ‘sleeper’ performance car.
    You could have many WORSE habits !

    (The dissenters are just jealous of the fun you will be having.)

  • avatar
    formula m

    I wouldn’t spend $500 of this type of car. Give it to a college student to get around or something… I can’t understand how people would seriously give you advice on how to dump money into this car. Do not do it! This is something a 16 year old kid would do

  • avatar

    I had a ’00 (I think?) Galant with the 4G64 quite a number of years ago.

    Once the headgasket went, as they almost always do, it was done for.

    Anyway, I replaced the struts with KYB GR2’s all the way around, as the car was at one point riding like a big floaty old Cadillac with sh*tloads of body roll. The ass end would also bounce up and down like some old Roadmaster with bad suspension.

    I was shocked with how firm the ride became. Even with steel wheels the bastard cornered very well post-strut replacement. The GR2’s held up all the way until the engine seized in a display full of smoke on the side of a highway one dark morning.

    I second another commenter. Don’t replace anything on this car. If you want to use it that badly, just drive it as a cheap beater or commuter.

    There’s nothing endearing about that 3-speed disability shifter.

  • avatar

    I agree with another commenter here. Don’t spend any money “enhancing” anything on this car.

    It’s reliable, cheap transportation. If you really want to drive this car that badly, just use it as a cheap beater or trusty commuter car.

    There’s nothing alluring or endearing about that 3-Speed disability shifter.

    I wouldn’t mind throwing around one of those DOHC Saturns with a manual transmission to see how much of a ruckus I could make with it (probably not much of a ruckus, I imagine).

    I had KYB GR2’s installed all the way around on a sh*tty, sh*tty 2.4L Galant I owned years ago. I was very impressed with how firm they were. Even on steelie’s that bastard would handle very well.

    • 0 avatar

      A free toy is an intoxicating toy. Why not go gonzo?

      Please find tiny dog dishes for those steelies.

      • 0 avatar

        I always wanted a rural field full of well-worn interesting vehicles that I can simultaneously just beat the piss out of them and pull off some major “hoon”.

        In short, re: free toys being “intoxicating toy(s)”, I understand!

  • avatar

    Would I spend money on this car, I would still stay within a predetermined fixed budget and itemize expenses to each of the following:

    One (#1!) fart can muffler. Why not just take one Folgers Coffee Can and affix it beneath the plasti-bumper.

    Two (#2!) a two and a half feet tall spoiler with a Carbon Fiber Adhesive applied. (‘Cause Carbon Fiber!!!!)

    Three (#3!!!) lots of stickers. Lots of them bastards. ‘Cause stickers add horsies. This is well known ‘cross The Webz.

    I may pony up some major cabbage for a blacklight- tubular, six inches in length, and placed poorly across the top of the rear view mirror. Plugs right into the cigarette lighter. Just unplug it briefly and you can still use the cigarette lighter to apply flame to various marijuana cigarettes.

    Oh, yeah!

    Kindly tell me a better way to burn through approximately $32. I anticipate an answer.

    • 0 avatar

      Well $32 could probably get you some stick on chrome porthole/vents, a couple of “limited edition” and/or “type R” badges, certainly that is money better spent since every piece of chrome is known to add 5hp.

  • avatar

    First of all, great idea and I think this is a great car to demonstrate these kinds of tweaks on. The whole idea is to service the car with parts that perform better than stock, doing it to new parts is just being impatient (I should know, I do it all the time.) You have a just over one ton car with sticky rubber and cheap parts availability. How can that possibly be a bad thing to play with?

    Where it gets tricky doing this work on a beater and not a collector or cult car is escalating to-do lists. I would strongly recommend replacing the existing suspension bushings and mounts at the same time, as they will fail at a faster rate than they already are with a new suspension (mostly bc it sounds like you are paying to have the suspension done so make it one shot right?.) Also, the tighter rebound and stickier tires will reveal dynamic flaws in the rest of the car that you may bet tempted to address with more parts (chassis bracing, upgraded sway bars, etc…) I would submit that you may as well throw a rear sway bar on there from the get-go, the new suspension and tires will really reward that purchase.

    For what it’s worth I run 15″ Direzza star specs in a 195 width on my e30, I love the hell out of them. It is impossible to find a good 14″ tire, that’s my stock rim size and all I can find are budget all seasons. Good enough for a rarely driven and light car in the winter.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, I can speak from experience here. I’ve modified the suspension of every car I’ve owned, save the new one. My last car modified was a Buick Century that we inherited. Ride was mush. So I bought the very same KYB struts at all corners, GM performance sway bar up front, Addco bar in the rear. Urethane bushings and adjustable steel endlinks on the bars, and Eibach springs. Did not get to the tires yet so the car sits on Michelin Primacy in the stock size. Result: Car corners flat and tight. Body motions are amazingly well controlled. This car handles better that I ever thought possible. Negatives? The Eibach springs are too stiff, so the ride on Michigan roads is going to be poor. Two, the car drops a bit more than advertised. Stepping out of the car, you clearly feel the difference in ride height. You do scrape pavement way more than did prior to the modifications. Collectively, I expect a similar experience in your vehicle. Am I sorry? Hell no. Given a choice I’d try to go with springs that are stiffer than stock, but not as stiff as the Eibachs. Keeping ride height the same would be a plus. So, I would rethink the springs. I had no choice, either it was stock or lowering springs. And this is coming from a G-force junkie. But no matter what, go for at least some modifications.

  • avatar

    If I was doing this project, and that’s a big if, I’d be tempted to shorten the original springs rather than put in stiffer springs. The lower spring rates, with more damping, would probably provide a better combination of ride & handling. A true chassis hot rodder will know how to shorten the springs.

    I’d also replace all the bushings in the suspension. I’m not too familiar with Saturns, other than the seats, but experience tells me that you can probably get stiffer but still rubber bushings. I’d also pay close attention to how the rack is mounted. If it’s mounted in rubber bushings, see if there are urethane replacements available. At the very least, use new rubber bushings.

    I would also replace any rubber couplings in the steering shaft with steel universal joints, from someone like Borgeson.

    And I wouldn’t drive around in the winter with anything but true winter tires.


  • avatar

    Great fun ahead I’m sure. The “don’t lower it” crowd must have skimmed over that you’re only taking it down to where the sportier version sat. Brake pads. Dual compound bump stops. If GM has a bigger disk / caliper set that will bolt in and fit in your winter wheels do it. Upgrading to stickier rubber and better shocks really brings weak brakes to the front of your driving experience.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think he was speaking specifically about the Saturn there was no “S” sport model of this car. 1.4″ is quite a bit of lowering, that is why they are “lowering springs” not “performance springs”. That said I’m sure everything will be fine.

  • avatar

    Ronnie: In 1967 I put a Judson blower and headers on my 66 beetle. Did nothing else and greatly enjoyed the looks on the faces of the guys driving V8s that it embarrassed. Those folks having fun at your expense reminded me of the drivers of those cars. If you want performance I would recommend you bolt on a turbo and see how long the transmission holds up. Probably surprise you. The exhaust system on the sohc was already better than it needed to be and exited behind the engine while the intake was up front. Probably wouldn’t be the limiting factor. I always wondered why other folks didn’t do that but I guess crossflow heads were only in style if you wanted performance. Should stay dependable enough for a daily driver.

    Taking something you like or something you have and modifying it to make an improvement is just exactly what hot rodding was all about. Anyone who has ever gone to Bonneville or seen pictures of a fifties or sixties era drag meet knows what I mean. Some of the early cars were fiat tompolinos (sp?). You can either do something like you are discussing or you can set at home and badmouth because you aren’t starting with a beemer.

    Make a sleeper and have fun.

  • avatar

    Ronnie great project I may be ripping off your ideas for my own MY02 SL2. I will add though, you want to invest in a new Throttle Position Sensor. If you drive your auto Saturn down a steep hill and it fails to shift out of gear as you coast, your TPS is somewhat out of whack. My previous Saturn’s TPS completely died around 160 (rpms will spike to 5 grand going up hills when its totally gone) but I noticed the car began to shift correctly while going down hills – something it had never done since I got it at 82K. While I wasn’t having RPM issues I noticed this down hill shifting problem in my current SL2 with 34K original miles. I replaced the TPS and voila, shifts like new. Its actually easier to do on the MY00-02 vs the 96-99 due the the redesigned positioning of the throttle body on the former. Advance has “made in japan” TPS sensors for $40.

  • avatar

    Both the Saturn and the Neon where probably the most competive small cars developed in America. You certainly could not say the same about the Cavalier and Pinto.

    Since the demise of both Saturn and the Neon, Detroit has pretty much left the development of small cars to its foreign subsidiaries. The early Saturns and the Neon were a heroic last attempt to built a competitive American subcompact. I also thought the Plymouth Sundance was a step in the right direction in the 80’s. Still it is slim pickings trying to make a list of the top American small cars.

  • avatar

    More than an inch of travel lost is a lot! After you are done with the installation, look at the front suspension arms at rest car on the pavement, if they are sitting parallel to the ground or inclined toward the ball-joint…you are messing up the geometery because now even aligned back to camber specs you lose dynamic camber in compression, where the stock suspension will gain dynamic camber with the first inch or so of compression. So you need to dial in more static camber, or live with worse than stock relationship of your tires to the road. This is just an example of something to think about, rough road performance and taking out 1.4″ of bump travel is something else to consider too.

    The basic problem with these things is you have “stock replacement” shocks, and “lowering springs” so neither has been really fully baked for handling performance application. Choice of properly engineered parts is what usually hampers improving a less popular performance platform.

    I think you should do it though, this stuff is so personal who knows if you will like it or not? Certainly the Internet can’t tell you. 200# springs aren’t that high a rate, actually very nice for a performance street car. Just hold on to those stock springs, in case you don’t like the H&Rs. Experimentation is the only way, especially with suspension. I’ve gone through lots of setups on many different cars takes a few tries to dial it in if you care about such things.

  • avatar

    The saturn and the Neon were detroit’s heroic last attempt to produce a competitive small car. After they disappeared detroit pretty much relied on their foreign subsidiaries for small car development. You still see a lot of Neons and Saturns on the road.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, have some cheap fun, what could it hurt to have the best handling cheap POS Saturn in the Detroit area. But, be careful with any swaybar additions or up sizing, and lowering it 1.4″ is quite a drop. Just new springs or performance grade springs at stock length/ride height will help considerably.

    I do a lot of modified performance suspension work and any lowering of a vehicles ride height has issues with the exception of helping the lateral and longitudinal CG, which helps with chassis roll and dive, but at the cost of suspension travel for ride, and handling issues due to suspension geometry changes.

    Vehicle roll is a safety feature, sort of like a blow off valve in a supercharger. Without that safety valve of body roll, half of the 800,000+ MX5’s produced would be in the scrap yards… Well, maybe we already hit that figure with the MX5, so a higher figure wouldn’t be a surprise, despite the MX5’s body roll. Without it, there would probably be only a few thousand left.

    Unsuspended weight is an issue with lighter vehicles, always best to go with the lightest combo of tire and wheel that meets the needs tasked to the vehicle.

    I really question the use of Summer performance tires with out serious suspension upgrades. The profiling on Summer tires is for vehicles that corner flat with little body roll and suspension travel. With your set-up your not going to get the performance benefit and tire wear will be precipitous. A good set of AW performance tires will serve this project better.

    The General ‘Altimax HP’or RT43 Grand Touring All-Season’ would be a good choice and they won’t break the bank and give decent wear with better then average performance. I run a set of those on my street Miata and LUV with satisfying results.

    And, I wouldn’t do anything without rebuilding the suspension, then adding your shiny new parts and tires.

    Have fun with your project and keep it out of the ditch.

  • avatar

    The Saturn SL series and the NEON where Detroit’s last heroic attempt to produce a competitive small car. After their demise, Detroit pretty much left small car development to their foreign subsidiaries. I am amazed at how many original Saturn’s and NEON are still on the road today.

  • avatar
    Lack Thereof

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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