By on October 27, 2015

1984 Saturn Concept CarIn a 1992 op-ed that appeared in the Indianapolis Star and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I expounded on the predictions of the MIT-based authors of “The Machine That Changed the World”, and lean production. I cited that book, and Consumer Reports’ glowing review of the Saturn as evidence that real competition could make the U.S. auto industry great once again. Subsequently, I bought a Saturn, which ultimately proved inferior in durability to the car I had shopped it against, the Integra. Looking back more than two decades, how have we succeeded, and how have we failed, and how did the MIT authors’ predictions hold up?

Few experts would have predicted that an all new American car could have matched the first year reliability of the Toyotas and Hondas, the best of the Japanese. Yet General Motors’ Saturn did just that, according to the April Consumer Reports.

On top of that, the car has all the practical appeal of the old Volkswagen Beetle. The plastic body panels are built to take parking lot abuse without denting or scratching. But damaged panels can be replaced easily and inexpensively. How many people does it take to change a headlight on a Saturn? Just one, and it’s as easy as changing a lightbulb.


Although the rest of the U.S. fleet lags behind the Japanese in quality, repair problems among the Big Three declined steadily during the 1980s, according to last year’s annual auto issue of Consumer Reports.

How ironic, then, that Democratic congressional leaders keep trying to restrict imports and even U.S.-built Japanese makes. Here the curtain has fallen on communism, and still they don’t understand that competition, that driving force behind capitalism, is actually working, just like the textbooks say it should, to improve the quality of U.S. cars.

Take it from then-GM chairman Roger Smith, who had this to say when he announced the Saturn in 1985: “Saturn… is our… project to develop and produce an American-made small car that will be fully competitive with the best of the imports.”

1999 Saturn S-Series (courtesy

The proof: American cars are overtaking European cars in reliability, and they will have left them in the dust by the end of the decade, predict the MIT-based authors of “The Machine that Changed the World”, a highly readable account of what Japan’s so-called lean production means for the global auto industry. The reason is that while competition has forced the US automakers to study the ways of Nippon, the protected Europeans have stuck their heads in the sand.

Lean production is conducive to quality in ways that conventional mass production is not. And for auto workers, it replaces the mind-numbing tasks of mass production with responsibility and challenge. These advantages are synergistic.

The differences between the two production methods are readily apparent on the assembly line. In mass production, the line keeps moving come hell or high water. Defects frequently multiply as one misaligned part prevents others from fitting properly. At the end of the line, there is a large area where defective cars are rebuilt. This kind of waste the Japanese call muda, a word that encompasses materials, effort, and time. In lean production, a worker who spots a defect stops the line. The rest of the workers gather to figure out why the defect happened and what can be done to prevent recurrence.

2003 Saturn Vue

Another advantage of lean production is that new models and technology can be developed much more rapidly than under mass production. That’s one reason you don’t hear Japanese car makers complaining every time Congress proposes some new environmental, safety, or mileage regulation.

Had Chrysler gone lean after the bailout, Lee Iacocca could have adopted higher standards for his cars before Congress could have thought to ask for them. Chrysler might even have been able to develop a car that could have captured Americans’ imaginations. Then poor President Bush never would have tossed his cookies all over the Japanese prime minister.

The unfairly maligned U.S. auto workers have proven that under lean production they can produce outstanding quality. US-built Toyotas and Hondas match the quality of their Japanese-built twins, and the first year record of the Saturn is a credit to the United Auto Workers’ members who assemble it.

U.S. automakers have gradually been adopting lean production methods: Ford since 1983, and GM and Chrysler as of the last few years. The Saturn has been lean from the ground up. But changing production methods is tantamount to changing the entire corporate culture of the auto companies. Despite the revolt that has taken place at the top of GM, there is plenty of resistance to change of any sort within the vast bureaucracies of each of the Big Three.

To limit the competition would be to condemn Americans to driving mediocre cars.

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79 Comments on “Competition and the US Auto Industry: The View from 1992...”

  • avatar

    I don’t remember this prototype at all. Looks to just be a Corsica, from the doors, with restyled, shorter front and rear ends.

  • avatar

    Um, so this starts off about Saturn and ends by saying that GM is resisting lean production and adds a statement about competition.
    Are there a few paragraphs missing or something?

  • avatar

    The real shame is that technology improved cars so much since the bailout-era that almost any car that survived could be a winner.

    It’s actually pretty hard to produce a “bad” car anymore.

    Could a Pontiac Aztek or typical Saturn be a good car with:

    Panoramic sunroofs, heated/cooled seats, Navigation panels, infotainment systems, safety nannies, optional AWD and today’s engines options?

    I think so.

    If I wanted to really make an awesome Saturn, GM’s parts bin of today would allow me to do so with ease.

    • 0 avatar

      Whether or not a car is good, especially for normal folks, depends on a lot more than its features list. What good is any of that crap if you don’t know if the car will start in the morning, or will always be in the shop for recalls and other issues? Most people don’t care about panoramic sunroofs and navigation, but I will bet most do care about reliability.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep, as my “parts bin” Saturn Sky will attest, I loved the features and the look but the recalls, issues and lack of confidence in the product finally killed off any good will I had toward Saturn. When the parts bin sharing begain, Saturn died.

  • avatar

    This article is kind of bi-polar. I’m not sure if it’s about Saturn, GM not wanting to adopt lean manufacturing, global competition, or the fall of communism in the United States (???).

    • 0 avatar

      I will write a better one.

      In response to the small import cars of the late 1970s, Saturn was GM’s moonshot. Smith planned to take engineers, managers, and UAW employees away from Detroit so they could reinvent General Motors from the ground up. They would design a small car which represented the future of American automaking, one which included front wheel drive, fuel injection, and space-age plastic body panels. Yes it was Saturn which would lead the way to the 21st Century, quoting then Chairman Smith “In Saturn we have GM’s answer — the American answer — to the Japanese challenge.”. Sadly though, it wasn’t the correct answer.

      Initially the gamble was a success. Saturn management was independent of Detroit, it had its own Spring Hill TN based factory and its own dealer distribution network. The company developed a no haggle strategy and instructed its dealers to focus on customer service. The first generation of Saturns created customers who came back to the brand for the next purchase and was initially viewed by the general populace of really being “a different kind of car company”. When the second generation debuted for 1996, initial orders actually exceeded the production capacity of the Spring Hill plant. Later research showed around fifty percent of these buyers said they would have bought a small import car if Saturn did not exist. Again the gamble seemed to pay off, but all was not well in the rolling hills of Tennessee.

      General Motor’s investment in Saturn was $5 billion in 1980s dollars or about $12 billion in 2015. This money was quickly spent building the factory, developing the S-series, and setting up the dealer network. Saturn, unlike other GM brands, did not enjoy economies of scale due to its unique design and parts content. The low margins pricing of being an affordable import fighter could not cover the excessive costs of having a completely independent supply chain. In the year 2000, the Saturn Corp was losing $3,000 on every car it sold and the writing was on the wall at Spring Hill. GM folded Oldsmobile that year and effectively folded Saturn too as the corporation’s new model lineup would come from other parts of General Motors. Wikipedia notes: “In 2004, GM and the United Auto Workers dissolved their unique labor contract for the Spring Hill manufacturing plant, allowing Saturn operations to be integrated with the rest of GM”. The dream was over.

      Many things have been said of Roger Smith’s brainchild and ultimately the plan was done in by its own success. Had Saturn products been more upscale from the start, there may have been more margin to squeeze and kicked the can to another day. Had General Motors further invested in the Corporation when Saturn was selling so many cars it was out of capacity, perhaps another Spring Hill grown Saturn would have emerged, instead of the problematic Opel derived L-series, and been profitable. In the end Saturn simply became the unwanted stepchild of the larger General Motors corporation selling generic product to fulfill a legacy distribution system. Despite its ends, I will leave you with this, “Saturn nevertheless exemplifies a new model of organization that goes beyond the principals of lean production. More than any other U.S. case Saturn illustrates the positive organizational partnership and employment system that can be created when a union with a vision participates in the design, governance, and management of the enterprise” (Kochan, Lansbury, Macduffie, 65).

      This is 28CL reporting from his desk.

      After Lean Production:
      Evolving Employment Practices in the World Auto Industry edited by
      Thomas A. Kochan, Russell D. Lansbury, and John Paul Macduffie

      • 0 avatar

        Nice. I even learned a few things.

        • 0 avatar

          I did too which is why I included sources. I didn’t cite anything from this one but I learned a little bit from it too.

      • 0 avatar

        Nice work, why havent you been picked up to write here?

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        One thing at which Saturn did succeed was that customer service you mentioned. Even as the brand gradually assimilated into the rest of GM and up to its demise in 2010, Saturn dealerships consistently ranked among the highest in customer satisfaction, right up there with Lexus.

        • 0 avatar

          I say to myself could they have done the whole new product thing even as a new marque but just sold them through an existing channel, right? I answer and say no, because exceptional customer services is part of the schtick. I’d have to see data but in the 1980s I would say most GM brands fared poorly on this front. What I would have done is chosen a channel, probably B-O-C, and then selected key dealers for Saturn “retraining” and constantly monitor them for customer service. I choose this channel because Oldsmobile and Buick at this time were still strong and each could have been given this new car to sell. The original Saturn product sold very well and was one of “the” cars of the early 90s. The main issue then and later was excess cost. You could do what Smith wanted to do in existing facilities and still could have made them unique using some generic GM components to save costs. One of the main ideas which made the Saturn project so daring was a new approach to the relationship with UAW and a modified contract. This was key, and it could have been done much cheaper than the $5 billion cited. Chairman 28CL would have introduced the cars in Olds/Buick in 1990 and dropped Geo and the J-bodies by 1995 replacing them company wide with Saturn. I would have sold Saturn as its own “import” within C-P-C and Buick/Olds despite lesser customer service issues at Chevrolet dealers. May still have flopped but keeping the costs down would have given Saturn a real chance.

          • 0 avatar

            You are right that they just spent too damn much money on developing Saturn. There was zero chance at it ever making a profit. Having to build a brand new plant wasted time and lots of money. Making every nut an every bolt a “Saturn” nut and bolt also wasted a lot of time and money.

            So by the time the car hit the market the vehicles they had benched marked it against had been through at least one generation of improvement and maybe even 2. Since they had spent so much on engineering every nut, bolt and a new plant they couldn’t afford to refresh it any time soon let alone start on a new generation.

            Fact is there were huge numbers of GM parts that were state of the art waiting in the bins that no buyer would ever see or know was from the parts bin.

            Some components that were a huge waste of time and money. Starters, alternators, HVAC components, emissions control devices and lots of little items.

            I can certainly see the justification for things that the driver will see and interact with when driving the car like the switch gear and steering wheel. But consumers aren’t going to care one bit that something they will never touch or probably even see are shared with other GM vehicles.

      • 0 avatar

        That is much better than the original, yes.

      • 0 avatar


        My post was about competition, not Saturn. Saturn was just an example.

        Here is my article on Saturn, which, I dare say, is better than yours. (You raise some excellent points, htough.)

        • 0 avatar

          I did read it and noted two things, 1. your sole experience with the product was the first generation of the Z-body and 2. you speculated the subsequent generation drove much differently than your SC.

          Ironically my experience with the product is the second and third generation SL2 and partial experience with an SC2, so my point of reference to the first generation is limited. However two facts which may have eluded you at the time were the subsequent generations were on the same underlying platform so drive-ability changes would be somewhat limited and the second generation was styled by Oldsmobile staff. Having no reference to the first SC I cannot confirm or deny the drive-ability vs later generations and I do not doubt some suspension or undercarriage components may have changed, but I’m not sure it could have been so different unless the platform geometry was altered much (which I doubt given the shoestring budgets of Saturn).

          Given the publish date of 2009 no author could have known what the final chapter of the Saturn story could have been, but some information was available at the time. I’m not sure if the premise of your 2009 article was to tell the story of your Saturn and experiences with the brand or to tell the story of Saturn until that point, but if it was the latter this seems to have been dropped in the final four sentences. In product alone Saturn obviously released other models such as the second/third Z-body SL/SC, L-Series, and Relay which are not referenced. Maybe the whole story was too long for an article, I certainly skipped things after the L-series because the brand had ceased to be by that point and in 2015 we all know the ending. However I feel the L-series is critical in pointing to when the brand was killed and zombified.

          • 0 avatar

            I do have experience driving second generation Saturns, which I think I alluded to in my article. I was shocked at how badly they handled. (Maybe not the SC, but the SLs.) My SL2 handled very crisply. The second gen–not at all.

            Interesting about the second gen being styled by Olds. I’m sure they didn’t put much effort into it. the first time I saw one, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at a Tercel, a Hyundai, or an Olds. The first time I saw the original, I knew immediately what it was, despite the fact that they’d never put photos in the ads, so I had no idea what they looked like. (They’d been released in San Francisco, where I had traveled on business, from Wash. DC, where they hadn’t yet been sold.)

  • avatar

    In the 2nd edition of Machine (2007) the authors themselves critique their original assessment and predictions.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Saturn never made money in its 20-year history.

    Lean manufacturing is only one important pillar in any car company. You also need: unique/compelling product (market research), correct price, reasonable quality, a loyal customer base, and cost containment.

    As a design engineer, I feel that engineering plays a huge role in all of these features.

    Saturn hit some of these notes some of the time, but never in a sustained way. At the end, they were using Honda engines in the Vue, IIRC.

    The US playing field is winnowing out mfrs who can’t do these things – product, price, quality, loyalty, and controlled costs. Mitsubishi (and Suzuki before them) come to mind as recent examples of mfrs who failed in several of these areas.

    • 0 avatar

      “As a design engineer, I feel that engineering plays a huge role in all of these features.”

      You’re right, of course. Except that management, sales, and marketing people have literally no concept of engineering nor generally, analytical thinking – but they have decision-making powers.

      I sit in meetings with people who literally can’t add and subtract three numbers successfully, but they’re constantly complaining about design, causing rework and adding cost in the name of “customer perception”.

      Decision-power doesn’t have to reside with engineers, but it has to reside with rational, competent people in order to achieve lasting success.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        What I meant to add was this:

        Line workers huddling to solve a production problem is a romantic notion, but it still costs the mfr money while the line sits idle. Eventually, some poorly-assembled product will reach the field due to the weak design, costing the mfr money in repairs.

        Good design and good project management can prevent line assembly issues and subsequent field problems. Project management is key, because you need sufficient pre-production testing and field trials before releasing a product. Hitting a schedule on budget doesn’t guarantee success.

  • avatar

    When Saturn was born, many of the people buying them, had no clue it was a GM product. Somewhere along the way, GM cost cutted(as per usual), and the models were lightly rebadged and shared platforms…rather than keeping the Saturn brand somewhat a mystery. As vehicles like the Aura and Relay came out, it was very clear Saturn was NOT the new car company…as it was touted…but rebadged Chevys, Pontiac, and Buicks. By the mid to late 90’s it was quite clear what Saturn was….more GM junk.
    Sad really. Because when it came out, it seemed like a fresh idea.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes when Saturn’s were “different” – people bought them, and the fanbase was loyal and rabid. After they became very similar to what I could buy at the Pontiac or Chevy dealer, people stopped buying them.

      Why was this a shock to GM?

      • 0 avatar

        “Why was this a shock to GM?”

        Because GM’s executives were drunk on their own Kool-Aid, thinking they were already making “world class” cars. Why would someone buy a Saturn (or Honda, or fill in the blank) when we they could have this awesome Chevy right here. Its clear for years GM was just a bunch of “yes” men congratulating themselves on the latest POS. Then wondering why the parking lots of America were filled with Toyotas.

        • 0 avatar

          And when a GM executive or upper manager looked out their office window at that time, there was a sea of new GM cars filling the expansive parking lot, with nary an Accord or Camry in sight.

          Even to this day, go to Google Street View and take a virtual tour of Detroit, or Flint, or a similar town. You won’t see very many foreign cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Here’s the story on why Saturn went bad

    • 0 avatar

      I disagree with your assertion that Saturn was more GM junk by the late ’90s. The L series was boring sure, but a competent and affordable sedan and the S series was near bulletproof in its engine design. That 1.9L twin-cam motor was a honey and easy to maintain. Saturn took a turn for the worst in the mid ’00s when they became part of the badge-engineering fest of the GM mind bubble. The Vue was tolerable but the Relay minivan screamed corporate mindset was dooming the project.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree, Dolorean. I knew many Saturn repeat buyers and when GM started badge-engineering the Opels (Aura, iON and even the later Vue itself) they lost all confidence in the brand.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t think the late ’90s engines were particularly good. I had one (probably a ’98) put in my ’93 after it failed the oil use test. It was quickly using a quart every 3k miles, and the NVH was atrocious, like the original engine. I had electronics problems around 140k which took the dealer five visits to figure out.

  • avatar

    Well said.

  • avatar

    MOST of Saturn’s problems can be traced back to Roger Smith’s incompetent stewardship of GM in the 1980’a.
    As the father of a new auto brand, he should have known better.
    Spend 8 BILLION on acquiring EDS and Hughes while trying to launch a new auto division.
    Limit the lineup to a sedan and coupe for the first TEN model years, with little change.
    Fail to invest in the necessary product expansion and upgrades required in a competitive industry.
    Fail to build on, the core, loyal Saturn owner group.
    Failure is the end result.

    • 0 avatar

      Per Automotive News it was $4 billion and he made ten times that when it was sold. Smith deserves credit when he was right along with scorn for when he was wrong.

      “Smith got high marks from GM insiders for his investments. Mike Losh, 62, a former CFO of GM, says Smith’s $4 billion investment in EDS and Hughes Aircraft was worth 10 times that much when they were sold.”

    • 0 avatar

      Again, see my article on Saturn’s failure (URL a couple of posts above)

    • 0 avatar

      Catering to the core Saturn buyer was one of the downfalls. Fact is many of the early faithful were demanding a “move up” Saturn and providing that led to larger losses. Fact is that the total sales of the division stayed about flat as the expanded the number of models on offer. So that just meant that there was zero money to do anything more than badge engineering.

      • 0 avatar

        Scoutdude, I see your argument but liken it more to when your favorite Indie band sells out and does a ****ty single and non stop iPod commericial airplay. Of course you want them to be successful, but you don’t want them to lose their edge or Independent appeal. Saturns needed desparately better models than the limited engineering and budget that GM leant them in the ’90s and early ’00s.

      • 0 avatar

        I disagree, Scout. The faithful were NOT the ones demanding a “move up”, that was GM trying to appeal to a larger customer base because they THOUGHT the car was too niche. That “move up” is one reason why Saturn started to fail because it didn’t appeal enough to the bigger-car buyers even then and certainly did NOT appeal to the dedicated buyers. That was GM trying to force a product into a different customer base that knew nothing about the brand.

        • 0 avatar

          I was on a Saturn listserve for maybe 4-5 years beginning probably in early ’93. Yeah, some members wanted a move-up but I think most didn’t, and I certainly didn’t. I really liked my ’93 SL2, and had they done nothing but improve the quality and performance (performance was fine for its era, but they needed to keep up with the times) I’d probably still be driving one.

  • avatar

    Roger Smith wanted to force GM to change, presumably because he believed that the company was dysfunctional. So instead of fixing the existing divisions and improving relations with the union that he disliked, he thought that he could use NUMMI and Saturn to impose change on the organization and drag them along with him.

    So he never achieved buy-in and had a lot of internal opposition. Management figured that Saturn was an attack on their brands and resisted it; labor knew that Smith would replace all of them with robots if he could and largely resisted it.

    What compounded the problem was that Smith left right at the beginning of Saturn’s launch. Without any effective champions to support it and a whole host of opponents within the company, it was bound to die.

    All of that suggests that Smith was a poor leader, even if he had some good ideas. However, the whole notion of fixing GM without something horribly drastic (i.e. a bankruptcy and top-down housecleaning) may have been overly optimistic at best and completely unrealistic at worst. It isn’t easy to purge that degree of hubris from an organization.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting background on Smith’s successor, Robert Stempel.

      “But Stempel is not about to bring revolutionary change. He is an affable yet rather colorless GM careerist who has closely guarded his privacy ever since the widely publicized kidnaping [sic] of one of his three children from his Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home in 1975, when Stempel was Chevrolet’s chief engineer.

      His son, Timothy, then 13, was locked in a car trunk for more than two days and then released unharmed after Stempel paid $150,000 in ransom posted by GM. The kidnapers [sic] were quickly arrested by the FBI, and all but $11,000 of the ransom money was recovered.

      The kidnaping [sic] revealed one measure of just how steeped Stempel is in the General Motors corporate culture: After hearing from the kidnapers [sic], he reportedly called GM security first, the local police second.”

      • 0 avatar

        Stempel was ousted within a couple of years. He really didn’t matter much as CEO. The main significance was that he was Roger Smith’s protege and a supporter of Saturn, so his termination was the death warrant for the Saturn concept.

        His replacement, Jack Smith, was far more relevant. He pushed the high-margin truck strategy, which made him popular with Wall Street but was also the nail in the coffin for GM’s future solvency. In effect, Jack Smith turned GM into an oil speculator by betting on low oil prices, which was not a particularly savvy idea. However, the analysts who would have championed him back in the day are probably unable to connect the dots between what Jack Smith set into motion during the 90s and the subsequent collapse of GM.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    For me. the dealership experience at Saturn was worth it against the imports, I know someone whose Ion had a windshield leak, they not only fixed that, but replaced the carpet that had gotten wet, no hassle at service time or purchasing time either. Too bad that other GM dealers did not copy the Saturn model for customer service.

    • 0 avatar

      Weren’t the other dealers more interested in crushing the Saturn model rather than copying it?

      It must have been like inner-city cops having to tolerate the first community liaison officers.

  • avatar

    Saturn should have never existed. The ideas and principles should have gone into replacements for existing GM platforms, eventually working their way through the entire line.

    Maybe not every model would have plastic panels and no-haggle pricing, but the quality and ease of ownership would, over time, become a universal trait of GM vehicles.

    At the very least, the money thrown at establishing a new division starved the other divisions of capital to improve their lines.

    • 0 avatar

      My thoughts exactly. I’ve long been amazed at the redundancy in product among GM lines, even just in the US market. The way I see it, the J-body twins, Prism, and S-Series competed as much against each other than against “imports”.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    The idea that there could be a fresh start for a (then) 80 year old company, even by starting a new subsidiary in a new region, was always doomed to failure. The union and the corporate bureaucracy were never going to let this succeed and prove the old business model a failure. As far as they were concerned, the old business model was NOT a failure and not in need of change. One way or the other they were going to stab Saturn in the back. Something like this (say Tesla) can only be created completely outside of an existing organization.

  • avatar

    I purchased a first-year Saturn Vue in ’02 and wish to say that it was a remarkably reliable vehicle overall, with a very low total cost of operation over the 10 years I drove it. I sold it to my father-in-law with 120,000 miles on it and he put another 30,000 on it before trading it on a newer Jeep–his needing a 4×4 to handle winter driving.

  • avatar

    I own a 2000 SL2 Saturn. I inherited it from my dad after he passed away in 2010, it’s fully optioned-I’m pretty sure it has every option available. I drove it for 3 years and put about 15k miles on it and I drove it like I stole it most of the time.

    Our son now drives it and uses it for college and work. He puts about 500 miles a week on it and while it has never left us sit anywhere…’s starting to show its age.

    The headliner is starting to let go, the sunroof leaks (it’s duct taped shut), it uses a quart of oil every other week….having said that-it has about 80,000 miles on it now, the paint is in great shape and it’s 16 years old.

    For being 16 years old, it’s not a bad little car.

    • 0 avatar

      A little preventative maintenance would have gone a long way. Lubricating window (and sunroof) seals might have prevented that leak while your oil problem may be anything from shot piston rings to a cracked engine block. Clearly, the engine is your issue and those can be replaced pretty easily in a Saturn for a couple grand if you can find a junkyard model or a bit more if you go with a crate engine. Even the headliner isn’t all that expensive to replace. 80,000 miles should be nothing to it otherwise. Like I said, I got 130,000 miles on my Vue in 10 years and honestly the engine/transaxle is NOT the reason it got sold off.

      But that really was the point behind Saturn’s shutdown, too. They just didn’t die; people weren’t replacing them as quickly as GM wanted them to. When cars started lasting 100,000 miles and longer, people simply weren’t trading as often and sales were slowing. That’s become true across the board and market share has become the mantra, doing everything they can to sell more and be #1 in sales rather than building truly satisfying cars. Back in the 60s, people traded every three years or so because they wanted to. Today people aren’t trading nearly so frequently at least in part because the styles aren’t changing as frequently. A 2005 model anything looks very little different from a 2015 model of the same vehicle. So parts and materials are chosen today that carry some form of expected lifespan to force either major repairs or more importantly trade-ins within a certain time or mileage range. It’s almost never a safety-related item, but falling headliners are a factor of a simple adhesive letting go (which can be calculated) and weatherstripping degradation (which can also be calculated.) The OEMs are banking on people being too lazy or too ‘tired’ of their old car to keep fixing minor issues and trading off their cars.

      I’ve almost never kept a car less than seven years when I’ve purchased it new. My Jeep is now 8 years old. I kept my Saturn for over 10. I don’t baby them, either. Which may be another reason why they’ve lasted so long. I could tell you what’s happening with a ’97 Ranger I recently acquired, but that’s a different conversation.

  • avatar

    I bought one of these shitboxes new, a white SL2 5-speed . My first new car in years. I liked it at first but the car did not age well. It didn’t make it through its first upstate NY winter without dropping its muffler on the highway due to salt rust. “Sorry, not under warranty.” After two winters the bottoms of all four doors were pretty much rusted through. The white paint turned to chalk despite occasional waxing. Around 55K miles the rear main seal blew and ruined the clutch. After that I traded it in for basically nothing. Good riddance to a bad idea.

    • 0 avatar

      Somehow I find that argument VERY hard to believe, Forty2, but I will acknowledge that any brand can have a lemon. For that matter, considering lemon laws were in place even in New York at the time, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t push the issue.

      Or is it that you’re exaggerating the time scale? Or was it even a Saturn? My Vue never did as badly as you claim despite Pennsylvania’s acidic road salt mixed with coal cinders. Rust never appeared on or under the body as I recall, at least, not to such an extent as you claim. As for paint: my Vue sat out in the sun winter and summer for over 12 years and never once “turned to chalk”. This is why I find your argument so false.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      I bought one of these shitboxes new, too – a red SL2 automatic for my wife. After nine years and 100K miles, the starter went, costing me $110 and two hours on my back in the garage. Then, after another year, the radiator sprung a leak, costing me $89 and another two hours of work. Last year, I had to replace the valve body in the transmission ($220, 90 minutes) and the muffler ($55, 90 minutes). The left rear power window goes up slower than the others. Who should have to tolerate that after only 14 years and 149K miles?

      And to add insult to injury, after 14 Ohio winters, there’s surface rust on the engine cradle and a quarter-sized spot on the hood where the clear-coat is starting to peel! And the damn thing refuses to stop running and give me a good reason to buy a new car. American cars sure do suck!

      “In case you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.” – Homer J. Simpson

      • 0 avatar

        The SL2 we had always felt like a disposable camera to my brother and I yet… on my ’98 the starter went at 162, the tranaxle died and was replaced at 160, and the original rad was damaged in a collision with a deer carcass and needed replaced twice more over its life with me. Other than those three things, several sensors, and typical wear and tear over the years it was good at being cheap transportation. I got a grand out of it at 165 which was the cost of doing the transaxle, so $1500 to buy in 2006 and those other costs were what it ran me for 83K/8 years.

  • avatar

    Articles and threads like this are why I love this site. Excellent points made by all those above. Allow me to take a slightly different perspective as one who spends most of his time under the hood.

    As a mechanic and service manager on and off for the past 29 years, I never minded working on the S-series cars. Brake repairs reminded me of the pleasures of working on my first Honda. I did a clutch in an base-model S-Series without even removing the transmission (I pulled it away from the engine to discover there was so much room in the engine bay that I didn’t have to lower it out of the car to unbolt the pressure plate!). Never had odd electrical problems, or hard-to-diagnose faults.

    Of course, the car was a penalty box to drive. You felt like you were lowering yourself into a kayak getting in, you felt like you could fit under most of the other cars on the road for how low you sat, and one reason there were no NVH complaints from customers was that EVERYTHING rattled.

    That being said, I can’t help but wonder if Saturn would have succeeded better than it did and left a longer-lasting legacy if they had been introduced when gas prices were high, rather than the genesis of the SUV craze when they were. Here in Pennsylvania where diabolical mad scientists at the department of transportation came up with acidic brine to spray on the roads for ice control, Saturns still look good on the road given their plastic body panels while even cars with single-digit ages now feature serrated fenders. I wish some of the simplicity of these cars still appealed to car buyers. It would make life a lot easier for mechanics, who now spend more time updating software than performing maintenance.

    • 0 avatar

      If you were in central PA, you might have seen my Vue on the roads (almost certainly not in your shop, however.) An ’02 in orange with a big white logo on the side of a stylized triangle with a fox cutting the lower edge. The Vue’s been sold now and has probably had that fox peeled off, but it made many a trip between Maryland and Snyder county.

  • avatar

    I worked for the Saturn corp from 1991-1999, I also owned a number of the cars and bought my company ’99 SL2 5-speed when I left. I never had a warranty issue with that car, by the way. A few thoughts:

    I rarely encountered a company where so many employees and customers were so sincerely passionate about what they were doing. I worked in Spring Hill for a few years and then out in the field, attended both of the Homecoming events, and was even involved in the servicing and sales process for the EV1, which many have forgotten was distributed through Saturn shops. I expect that Saturn was picked for this EV a few reasons, including the fact that the brand was one of the only GM nameplates with a strong presence in California, the customer service experience was superior, the dealers were more willing to train their sales and service teams, and, frankly, because none of the GM divisions would touch it.

    We really did focus on changing the way the whole car buying and owning experience could be better, and I think the whole dealership experience across the industry is different today as a result. Years later, my Saturn dealer maintenance experience at was still vastly superior to what I experienced with my BMW that cost 4x as much.

    On the downside, we always did lament that we had the great dealer and customer service experience but never had the best products to go along with it. The cars weren’t “bad” from a quality perspective, but remember that we had essentially the SAME products to sell from 1991 when I started well past 1999 when I left. I think Honda had three generations of the Civic during that time. The SL series got some updates, but some of them were for cost-cutting reasons. The interior design that came out in 2000 was horrendous, for example. The sporty Recaro-like seats from the early cars went away by 1996, etc.

    I left shortly before the L-series launched (to return to school to get my masters degree) and I think the underwhelming response that car got when it was introduced to our dealers helped me to rationalize my decision to leave. I also recall one meeting around the same time where I and some of my colleagues were invited to a gathering of all of the GM division sales and service teams. Of course, we were a bunch of 20-somethings wearing Saturn-branded polo shirts and I vividly remember a 50-something guy in a blue suit with a Pontiac lapel pin looking at us in the lobby of the hotel and rhetorically asking “What the f*** are you guys doing here? You aren’t a part of GM.”

    Despite being a subsidiary of GM rather than a division (at the time), we were still required to use Delco electronics, so our stereo systems were weak. Delco alternators were one constant weak point, and the company was slow to add airbags and kept those ridiculous motorized from shoulder belts until the redesign in 1995. I suspect our internal costs were higher than they would have been had we been able to shop outside of the GM family.

    There was also a major change in attitude at the company after Skip LeFauve (the president during my tenure) left. Saturn took a beating in the press because they had a lot of recalls during his time there. But, these often affected a very small number of cars because the issues were identified and addressed very quickly. After Skip, issues seemed to linger, dealers (sorry, “retailers”) started to feel like they were left to blow in the wind rather than do what was right for the customer and ask questions later. The feeling at the factory was similar, and subsequent leadership neither walked the talk nor were willing to stick their necks out to fight for what would have been better long-term business decisions.

    I invested 8 years at the company and leaving when I did was, sadly, the best move. People who stayed, both represented or not, often just got the shaft when the brand was folded back into GM. Remember, these were often the most risk-taking and forward-thinking folks at GM who, in the early days, literally had to leave GM and give up a lot of perks and seniority to move to the upstart company.

    The biggest failure at GM wasn’t to start the company, rather, I think it was the “us vs. them” mentality that kept them from taking the ideas generated there and using them to improve the rest of the corporation. I can’t imagine anyone at the top of GM ever actually thought Saturn would be profitable on its own, certainly not only selling small cars. It was a skunk-works to try new ideas, manufacture differently, retail differently, and this was seen as a threat to the established bureaucracy at GM.

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