By on December 21, 2014

20141218_142829It’s taken a while to get started on the project to make my daily driver Saturn SL1 into a better handling car. I had the parts but it took a few weeks to be able to get the work scheduled at a shop that was willing to install my own components. Now that the work has been done and I’ve been able to drive the car in varying conditions, it’s time for a progress report. The short version is that I’m pleased with the results. For the long version, continue reading after the break.

With 100,000 miles on the odometer, it turned out that there was more work needed than I thought, though I wasn’t surprised. In addition to the struts, shocks and CV joint that needed replacement, and a perforated flexpipe in the exhaust system, I asked them to check on a noise that I thought was a groaning power steering pump but turned out to be a worn left front wheel bearing, which makes a lot more sense than a pump that made noise only when turning left. The work was done well, as far as I can tell, but my opinion of the shop went down after I took the car to an alignment specialist.

In addition to replacing the worn components, I also had H&R “sport” springs installed on the car. The fronts are about 50% stiffer than the stock springs, while the backs are about twice as stiff as the OEM ones. The are lower, too, but it’s a modest drop of 1.3″ in the back and 1.4″ in the front. Because of the lowered suspension, care has to be taken to keep the wheels aligned. The KYB GR2/Excell G struts are designed with an oval mounting hole that allows the suspension to be adjusted to within factory camber settings, but when I got the car back it obviously needed aligning. The steering wheel was about 15 degrees from center when traveling in a straight line.

Fortunately, there’s an alignment specialist shop, Wetmore’s, just a few minutes from my house. I’ve written about Wetmore’s before, or more properly, about their building, which was originally a Packard dealership and features a car sticking out from a second story balcony. There are repairs and modifications that I’d do myself, and stuff that I can do but is too much of a PITA, like brakes and exhaust work, so I go to a general mechanic for that work,  but I’ve always left alignment to the experts (electrical work, too).

Wetmore’s reported that not only was the front end off kilter, the car also needed a full four-wheel alignment because apparently lowering the car messed up the rear geometry. That didn’t bother me, since I figured the car would need to be aligned after the initial work, but when they went to align the front end, there was a worn left lower ball joint (possibly related to the worn bearing or vice versa). That was disappointing. Not just because this project is about a better handling car, but mostly because I had specifically asked the first shop to check for any and all worn suspension parts. They found the bad wheel bearing but didn’t notice a ball joint that Wetmore’s said you could feel just by grabbing the tire. Oh well, my work is rarely perfect either (and I apologize for any superfluous apostrophes in some of the the “it’s” in this post – I know the rules about apostrophes but homonyms are stored in adjacent locations on my bio hard drive).

I’ve been picking the brains of my colleagues and when I asked Jack Baruth about alternate suspension settings for quicker steering response, he cautioned against it, citing the dangers of a darting car on icy Michigan roads. It turned out that they gave the car two or three degrees more negative camber than is the exact factory setting, but it was “still in the green”, i.e. within acceptable tolerances, on their equipment.

Speaking of my colleagues, Sajeev Mehta didn’t think the lowered and stiffened suspension was a great idea. Michigan roads aren’t just icy in winter, they’re in terrible shape year round. The state legislature just passed a measure to put a sales tax increase on the ballot to fund over a billion dollars in highway reconstruction in the state. Sajeev thought that the stiffer suspension would be punishing. My conclusion after a couple of weeks of driving on a variety of surfaces, including some of the worst roads that I drive on, is that ride quality is a wash or maybe even improved a little.

While the ride is unquestionably firmer, with the old shocks being worn, the springs weren’t being dampened and the car bounced a lot. I’ll trade an occasional jarring hit from a pothole in exchange for getting rid of the pogo effect. If you asked me to provide some kind of benchmark, without driving them back to back it’s not conclusive but my subjective impression based on memory is that the Dodge Dart GT that I reviewed earlier this year had a stiffer ride overall than how the lowered Saturn is. Overall, the suspension feels more controlled. On the freeway it smooths out nicely.

This wasn’t about ride quality, though. It’s about handling and the difference is significant, though I have to say that there have been a lot of variables changed, including swapping out the all-season Cooper tires for some Bridgestone Blizzaks. Blizzaks are pretty high performance for winter tires, though, so my guess is that if anything, they handle better even in dry conditions than the Coopers. When spring comes, I’ll have a followup report on when the Dunlop Direzzas mounted on 15″ wheels (the stock rims are 14s) go on the car.

For right now, the car handles much better. There’s much less body roll, it’s minimal now. The car turns in a little bit faster, but it holds its line much better than before. I’m finding that I have to dial in less steering – previously all of that lean made the car’s understeer worse. There is slightly less self-centering and I want to see if that changes with the Direzzas or if it’s a question of settings. The improvements are noticeable in most driving conditions. Lane changes on the freeway are now fun and now I can even dive bomb that slightly banked corner near my house.

I also like how the car looks. It’s got a little bit more rake and around the tires there’s less of a pants-up-around-your-ankles look, but for the most part it still looks very stock. You have to put it side by side (or back to back as in the photo above) with a stock SL1 to notice that it sits lower (mine is the blue one on the left). From the wheel it’s only slightly noticeable that you’re sitting closer to the ground. If I was six inches taller, I’d be a six-footer so I’m rather used to looking up at things.  I do, however, notice it when getting into the car. We get use to particular perspectives, like the relationship between the floor, the height of the porcelain rim, and the resulting angle, at least for the half of humanity that micturates in an upright position. When about to sit in the car, it does appear to be lower.

What next? Well, there are those aforementioned Dunlop summer tires, and since starting the project I’ve found out that the Saturn S series cars with the twin cam engines were spec’d with a rear sway bar and a front bar that’s thicker than in the SOHC equipped cars. I checked at the nearest pull & pick auto salvage yard and the parts are available there, along with the rear disc brake setup that was available on some models. That will probably have to wait until spring because the idea of pulling parts in sub-freezing weather doesn’t sound very appealing.

I’ll probably start with the rear sway bar. Speaking of which, if you have a Saturn S with a rear bar, check the links. About half of the cars I spotted at the junkyard that had a rear sway bar also had at least one broken link that was supposed to be connecting it to the suspension. If adding a rear sway bar doesn’t make the car too stiff, I’ll swap out the front for the thicker DOHC one. I’m still not convinced that the disc brake swap is worth it, though. It’s a straightforward swap and I don’t have to worry about brake bias since neither the rear drum equipped cars nor the four wheel disc Saturn S cars came with brake proportioning valves. They have the same hydraulics, the only difference are wheel cylinders vs calipers. If I don’t go with the disc brake mod, I’ll look into performance brake pads and shoes (though I’m guessing that nobody makes performance brake shoes today).

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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45 Comments on “Saturn on the Down Low, a Progress Report...”


  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Don’t know how much aftermarket support there is a for Saturn, so your choices may be limited. I suspect that Saturn uses hollow swaybars just like our Century did, the endlinks will be near failure at 100K. If you have no other choice take the junkyard upgrade for the front, just check for cracks on the ends. For the rear see if you can get an upsized Addco bar. What a difference. Just make sure your front bar is good. and go for the solid ball type end links for the rear.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Nice color, looks pretty clean.

    I’d have tried to get it lifted 4″ and then put Blizzaks on. Winter beater. Done.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      My buddy was recently doing some exhaust work on his winter car – a Subaru Legacy GT – while I played garage DJ and researched parts for him. In the process, I discovered that simple 1″ and 2″ lift spacers are readily available and his eyes lit up, so those are going on soon when he installs the new struts. It only makes sense for driving in snow on our terrible roads. He already upped the s*dewall height as much as the car will allow when he bought his Hakka7s. It’s still only 215/50R17, but at least that’s better than 215/45R17.

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    You should probably think more about balance. So far, you’re just adding more stiffness everywhere, but you haven’t talked about what the car needs.

    I’m especially concerned about sway bars. Do you really need more rear sway bar? If the car is well-balanced right now, the only thing that will get you is snap lift-throttle oversteer. On an icy or snowy road, that means heading into oncoming traffic door-first, not a pleasant experience. Does it also need both front and rear sway bars? They will fight each other. The only reason OEMs use this setup is that they are trying to fight body roll. You’ve already addressed that problem, so why do you want more sway bar?

    • 0 avatar
      wmba

      Exactly this.

    • 0 avatar
      dr_outback

      I agree. I upgraded sway bars on my ’93 Legacy turbo. I installed the rear sway bar and went to install the front sway bar, but I was sent the wrong bushings. So I drove the car for a week or two waiting for the correct parts. During that time I was driving around a curve on a damp highway and I experienced lift throttle oversteer which rotated the car sideways immediately.

  • avatar
    anti121hero

    Alloy or aluminum rims will help with unsprung weight. Plus they look MUCH better on these cars.

  • avatar
    EAF

    If we are talking FWD, the best dollar for dollar modification for an SL1 would have to be an ITR. (Integra Type R) The Civic SI B16 is also an honorable mention and is significantly less expensive.

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    Disc brakes are a nice upgrade if you plan to do some track days, otherwise there’s probably no point. If you aren’t experiencing fade upgrading the rear brakes won’t achieve anything meaningful.

    I agree with the comment on balance. You’ve made a bunch of changes now it’s time to evaluate the handling at its limits and carefully decide what you want to change and why. Some changes could indeed induce dangerous handling characteristics if you aren’t careful.

    It’s possible you’ll want upgraded sway bars at either the front or the back but probably not both unless you’re just trying for a go-kart like ride.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    My experience with Blizzaks on a Caddy SRX is that they’re quite soft and mushy compared to a moderate hi-perf all season tire. I think you’ll find a big change when you switch in the spring.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      I was just eyeing that amongst the Hyundais in the background.

      For handling the beat way to sum up changes is a wet onramp at low speeds with no one around. Even with 3/4″ solid rear Addco bar on a Beretta, you’d have to be very hamfisted to get the rear around in a turn.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    I owned a stock 1998 SL2, best year and model in my opinion — later ones I’ve driven seem to have softer suspension and vaguer steering, and earlier ones were known for a loud and nasty engine note. It was the great secret of its time: twin cam engine with the fastest 0-60 of any car in its class, slick 5-speed with an effortless clutch, supple 4-wheel independent suspension, low-profile tires on +1 wheels, 4-wheel disc brakes, undentable body panels that looked brand-new forever, stainless exhaust, decidedly thrifty in MPG and MSRP…and from the driver’s seat, great big analog gauges and a satisfying fat steering wheel (later models screwed this up too). What ruined it? The sound of the engine! I don’t mean under acceleration — that was fixed for 1998 and beyond — I mean the awful cat-giving-birth noises the engine made at idle, an RPM where it couldn’t be fixed by an aftermarket exhaust. That, and the engine’s appetite for oil between changes. In comparison to the DOHC’s weird noises and peakiness (nothing much going on until 4000 RPM and and then wheeeee!), the 100hp SOHC SL1 my girlfriend at the time had was smooth and quiet. Neither of them required any repairs, ever, which I can’t say for any other car I’ve owned. They also had the best dealer experience I have had to date. If you didn’t mind cheap n’ cheerful, and the sharp window frame edge of the driver’s door right at eyeball level (careful!), it was a winner.

    Agitated feline noises aside, why not start with an SL2?

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    You can make fwds handle great, as long as you keep in mind it’s a fwd. I’m not talking about which wheels drive it, but no matter what you upgrade and mod, too much weight is up front. Push real hard into a turn and they can snap without warning.

    Econo fwds are light weight and low to the ground, so they inspire confidence as it is.

    That said, I’d give it a zero degree alignment for quicker steering and less understeer. But I’d expect more oversteer drift!

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Too much weight in the front doesn’t make them snap-oversteer; it makes them understeer. There’s a reason why a Porsche 911, with its engine hanging out over the rear axle, is known to leave drivers running into trees backwards when they lift in a curve, while a Honda Civic and Mini Cooper aren’t. Now of course, weight balance isn’t the only factor that affects this. A front wheel drive car can definitely be setup to oversteer, and most stock RWD understeer unless you get really crazy with your steering/brake inputs or use too much power.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        A lot of people set their FWD cars up for snap oversteer by putting good tires on the front with worn out tires on the back, thinking that grip and hydroplane resistance is only valuable for the drive wheels. So I can see where this common perception comes from.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        “180” spinouts are easy in mid/rear engine sports cars, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

        That doesn’t mean you should automatically feel safe in a heavily front bias fwd.

        A fwd has very little rear tire contact, under hard braking into a tight turn. It puts an even greater load on the outs!de front tire.

        And the ins!de rear can have almost no contact. It can easily lock and the already very light rear end, with very limited traction wants to swing around and exit the turn 1st!

        So when the rear end starts to come around, you MUST accelerate to pull yourself out of the turn. That’s if you’ve left yourself enough margin to do so.

        Except now on the throttle, you’re power understeering too! So now what???

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Close your eyes and let go of the steering wheel.

        • 0 avatar
          rpn453

          When the rear end starts to come around with a FWD vehicle you quickly flick the steering wheel to catch it, as with any other vehicle. The minimal inertia of the back end makes this exceptionally easy.

          Regardless of drivetrain layout, your hypothetical driver should not be braking so hard while turning, he should not be applying the throttle on an over-cooked corner entry, and he probably should not even be driving a car with such a track-oriented suspension that he can get the back end to come around despite such ham-footed/fisted inputs.

          • 0 avatar
            DenverMike

            So all hard braking is done before entering the turn with a fwd, tiptoe up to the apex and then accelerate out?

            That doesn’t sound like fun to me. Especially when you can’t see the apex going in, to know how much speed to scrub off.

            And when it’s a series of nonstop turns, there’s no point of much throttle input exiting a turn, b/c you should already be on the brakes. So then what? Eat your sandwich as you piddle thru???

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            With most stock suspension setups, regardless of layout, steering with the brakes requires a light touch and precise front wheel slip angles. Too much of either and the front end just plows. Even getting it right, most stock vehicles will not go beyond neutral unless you intentionally induce instability. With an aggressive suspension setup, you better know what you’re doing and be quick with your corrections if you’re going to be braking while cornering.

            Corner entry is fundamentally the same with a FWD. High slip angles are never desirable on either end. Any aggressively tuned suspension will require that braking be done mostly in a straight line. The more understeery the car is, the more trail braking will be necessary to rotate. Base model FWD cars often don’t even have rear stabilizer bars. The most neutral handling car I’ve ever driven is a Formula Mazda Race Car, and I never once had the brakes applied with the steering wheel turned. It was plenty neutral already for my skill level at the time. Three other drivers spun out that day trying to push too hard, including one significant crash, and I didn’t want to play around on that knife edge.

            I can think of a couple of sketchy on-track moments where I actually braked hard while cornering. I went in a little hotter than I’d have liked, didn’t ease off enough on the trail braking, and then the ABS kicked in, destroying all sense of feel and scrambling my instincts, resulting in me pushing the pedal even harder and exacerbating the heavy understeer situation. I need to learn to ease off the pedal in that situation to improve steering ability, but it doesn’t feel natural when you grew up learning to do that only when the brakes actually lock or the car begins to rotate. I fight the computer to try to get to that point, but of course you can never win, and maybe you don’t want to. As terrible as ABS is for winter driving, it may have helped me hold it together there, and I do plan on re-installing the fuse for any future track days. Anyway, one of those cars was my ’04 Mazda3 and the other was an ’08 Corvette Z51. Both fairly understeery cars, but really, about as neutral as any street car needs to be.

            Yes, all else being equal, FWD is not nearly as fun to drive in summer as RWD, or in winter as AWD. It is merely practical and dynamically forgiving layout, so the best choice for those who do not care about driving, have poor car control, or cannot afford the ideal drivetrains in the sort of vehicle package they need. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun if it’s set up decently. A good FWD car is still much better than a bad RWD or AWD vehicle.

            The adrenaline is pumping pretty good when I step out of the car after a few laps of our little local track (Three Flags), and there’s certainly some pleasure when my all-season shod 160hp FWD car puts in much better times than a list of cars including a WRX STi, tuned R34 Skyline, and supercharged C5 Corvette, even if those drivers were complete novices. At no point do I feel like I’m tip-toeing up to any apexes or experiencing excessive understeer. The only moments of on-track oversteer I’ve experienced with that car happen every lap at the quick right-left transition at the end of the cone chicane on the main straight. Lift off the brakes, change directions, correct, then back on the brakes hard in a straight line toward the hairpin. A fun little dance. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in slow motion coming out of the apexes, but blame that on my lack of power and unnecessarily tall second gear.

            My buddy put a set of Kumho Ecsta XS tires on his GTI and immediately put another three seconds between our times. When we went to Castrol Raceway in Edmonton, he was passing faster cars including a Caterham, Cayman, and an RX-8. That RX-8 happened to be our other buddy, and it was running the cheap Nexen all-seasons he bought it with. Despite being slower, I’d rather drive the RX-8, but nobody can argue with the huge grin our GTI friend had after every session.

            That RX-8 had been purchased shortly before that as a replacement for the beautiful 40th Anniversary Edition RX-8 that the sober GTI owner had wrapped around a light pole one rainy night while the drunk owner sat in the passenger seat. Having only owned FWD vehicles, he was seemingly unaware that inappropriate throttle inputs could cause you to crash.

            Whew, what a ramble.

  • avatar
    carguy67

    re: “… the springs weren’t being dampened …”

    No problemo; just splash a little water on them.

  • avatar
    baggins

    Ronnie – dont ever let it be said you are not an enthusiast. In fact, I think you may have passed that on the way to zealot.

    It’s a 2002 Saturn with a 3 speed automatic. Lipstick on a …

    And to be thorough, you should really advise us how much this adventure has cost.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      I’m sure it’s a 4-speed auto, by that day and age. But he’s obviously going for the ultimate in “sleeper” status, sneaking up on unsuspecting Tempos, Voyagers and whatnot, on canyon roads and overtaking the on the outs!de, through an off camber, decreasing radus, blowing past on a 4-wheel drift as he loses 2 hubcabs.

      But remember when car chases meant they were going to lose some hubcaps, in old TV shows like Hawaii 5 Oh?

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      There’s something very liberating about driving a car that you can walk away from without regrets. It’s like the old saying: “the fastest car is a rental.”
      Stash some cab fare in the glove box, and drive it like you stole it.

      • 0 avatar
        Kevin Jaeger

        Exactly – I think this Saturn is a fun and affordable car to tinker and experiment with. Sure, one with a manual transmission and rear disc brakes would be preferable, but this is the car he has and it looks like it has some decent life left in it, and it needed shocks anyway, so this hasn’t cost him much extra at all.

    • 0 avatar
      formula m

      I appreciate your passion for automobiles but I can’t help but feel you are spending a lot of time and money on something that will never be worth the effort or expense. I don’t want to dampen your spirits but this is an awful idea. Don’t stick with it just to be stubborn…

      • 0 avatar

        Like the man said, most of the work needed to be done anyway.

        • 0 avatar
          56BelAire

          Ronnie, How much money does anyone “need” to throw at an old econobox before it is too much? How much have you spent already and you still want to do sway bars, brakes and tires in the spring?

          Fun read though. Thanks.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            It’s really just maintenance. Any vehicle that has a good powertrain, body, and interior is worth that. However, I wouldn’t bother with any more upgrades unless the part needs to be replaced anyway. I’m not even sure that stiffer sway bars will be an upgrade in any way, and rear disc brakes are often less dependable than drums in corrosive environments. I’ve changed a few seized rear calipers.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      All original S series autos were 4 speeds from day 1.

  • avatar
    raph

    Might want to back off the negative camber a bit and dial in some more caster if you can as that will translate into more negative camber during turn in on a strut car. This will help with the darty nature of running a lot of negative camber.

    Also toe is critical with a lot of camber. A lot of cars run little to no toe and it exasperates camber wear. Best to run a little toe in so that as the car runs down the road and the steering components are subjected to forward motion it gets as close to zero toe as possible.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      It is FWD, so a little toe-out is usually preferred since the drive wheels will pull on the suspension components. But with the crazy camber here, it might be best to err on the side of toe-in since inside edge will likely already be an issue. I don’t really know, so I’d probably just set it neutral.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      It is FWD, so a little toe-out is usually preferred since the drive wheels will pull on the suspension components. But with the crazy camber here, it might be best to err on the s*de of toe-in since inside edge will likely already be an issue. I don’t really know, so I’d probably just set it neutral.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      It is FWD, so a little toe-out is usually preferred since the drive wheels will pull on the suspension components. But with the crazy camber here, it might be best to err on the s*de of toe-in since ins*de edge will likely already be an issue. I don’t really know, so I’d probably just set it neutral.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    Broken sway bar links are standard equipment on any GM car. At least they’re cheap to buy. Just need to have a portable grinder to get the old one off.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    WTG Ronnie. I don’t know about all the suspension stuff but I know what I like and I like what you’re doing. When you get all the handling sorted out consider a turbo. IMO the exhaust is already pretty efficient. Nothing like a sleeper.

    • 0 avatar
      mkirk

      If I remember correctly the preferred Turbo set up was a DOHC head on the SOHC bottom end due to the compression ratio. The Saturn ECU was completely useless for any sort of mods though so it isn’t a cheap propisition. FWIW I know the 5 speeds on the SOHC cars were geared for fuel economy while the twin can ones were more aggressive. I had an SC2 trans in my 95 SW1 along with whatever I could bolt on from the twin can cars. They are really easy to work on but The sticks are a lot more fun. My desired combo was a first gen SC1 with a twin cam or a 94 homecoming edition wagon. Yes I was one of those crazy Saturn dudes.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Two or three degrees more negative camber is acceptable? Dang, that’s a lot. I don’t think I’d want more than a degree on either end for street use.

  • avatar

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  • avatar

    About that rear sway bar –

    The SL1 uses a different rear subframe than the SL2, so you can’t just take the twin-cam sway bar and bolt it up – there is no spot to mount it on a single-cam subframe. So you would either have to swap the entire subframe from an SL2, or weld in some plates to the SL1 unit to bolt up the sway bar.

  • avatar
    raresleeper

    I installed KYB GR2’s on all four corners of a Galant I had.

    Before I had the new struts put on, the car’s ass end would bounce up and down when hitting bumps. Float like a Caddy!! lol

    Talk about a night and day difference. Even with steel wheels, I loved those KYB’s. Great struts.

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