By on November 30, 2020

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, LH front view - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
We’ve had back-to-back oddball three-pedal cars in this series (a Suzuki Forenza and non-SHO Taurus), so let’s make it three weeks in a row with today’s Junkyard Find! Saturn S Series cars were always cheaper with manual transmissions, but nearly every Saturn wagon shopper insisted on an automatic. I knew I’d find a manual Saturn SW if I kept searching junkyards, though, and here it is: a low-end ’96 with single-cam engine, Ignore Me Silver paint, and a 5-on-the-floor manual.

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, engine - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 1996 SW2 came with a 124-horsepower twin-cam engine, better tires and suspension, plus a bunch of appearance and comfort items. The SW1 got this 100-horsepower single-cam engine.

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, gearshift lever - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe base manual transmission made every Saturn model significantly cheaper in 1996; MSRP for a 5-speed SW1 was $11,995, with the price going up to $12,825 if you insisted on the four-speed automatic (that’s about $20,230 and $21,630 in 2020 dollars, respectively).

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, gearshift lever - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsSo, the original purchaser of this car saved $830 by getting a manual transmission … then turned around and spent $920 on air conditioning. We’ll never know if that person just preferred to drive a three-pedal wagon or just preferred refrigerated air to an automatic and could afford just one of the two.

It turns out that a Saturn SC/SL/SW with the DOHC engine and manual transmission can get around a road course very, very quickly in the hands of a good driver, and so we see plenty of these machines in 24 Hours of Lemons. I’d say that an SC2 will beat a same-year Integra, given equal driver skill and the same tires. The SL sedan weighs about 60 pounds more than the SC coupe, and the wagon scales in at 220 additional pounds, so I had to dig through a lot of race photos to find a shot of a sedan on a track (sorry, wagon fiends, I have no photos of Saturn SWs on a track).

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, door panel - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsStrangely, this car has the $350 power-locks option but not power windows. The ’96 SW had a $1,940 option package that included A/C, power locks/windows, cruise control, and a few other goodies.

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, odometer - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIt made it just a bit past the 175k-mile mark before being forcibly retired from service.

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, CSP red tag - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsWhen your car craps out on a Colorado highway and gets left on the shoulder, the CSP will throw one of these red tags on it a couple days prior to towing. During hot summer days, you’ll see plenty of these red tags fluttering on abandoned vehicles on the uphill sides of steep mountain grades; some of those 10,000-plus-foot passes here are real hooptie-killers.

1996 Saturn SW1 in Colorado junkyard, windshield - ©2020 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis car still has the CSP impound yard’s paint-pen lettering from September. The fines and fees to recover it would have been far greater than the value of a 24-year-old Saturn, and no used-car lot can move a high-mile Detroit econo-wagon with three pedals these days. Next stop: junkyard!


People are always lookin’ at this car (when it’s driven by a scary clown and packed full of scary stuffed animals).


You could lease a new Saturn for just 24,000 yen!


I think the Japanese-market Saturns sold about as well as the Toyota Cavalier.

For links to more than 2,000 additional Junkyard Finds, visit the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™.

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20 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1996 Saturn SW1 Wagon with Manual Transmission...”


  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    There are so many little storage cubbies in the back that a fiend of mine put something away and didn’t find it again for years.
    =:-O

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    This is the type of car everyone says they want, but never actually buy.

    This one probably gave decent, low-cost service to its owner(s) until – who knows – maybe its clutch finally failed.

    • 0 avatar

      Au contraire! I’ve had people fly in for Saturn wagons believe it or not. Great little beaters.

    • 0 avatar
      saturnotaku

      Especially from people who frequent the comments sections of automotive websites. A more recent example of this phenomenon was the Chevy Cruze, which you could get as a diesel hatchback with a manual. I would wager the number of posters pining for such a vehicle who actually put their money where their keyboards were was in the single digits at best. As such, I will continue to relentlessly mock anyone who I see pining for them.

      • 0 avatar
        statikboy

        Part of that equation is that most people have to buy a vehicle with someone else’s wants and desires in mind as well as their own. When your baby-rearing SO wants a “safe” car to transport spawn in, you’re probably going to end up with a late model crossover or truck. Doesn’t matter that it’s less about what you drive, and more about how you drive…

        Would love to find me another Integra (a good, rust free one this time) to run forever, but in Canada, if you can find them at all, they are “modified” to within a hair’s-width of undrivable, and/or rusty up to the windows.

  • avatar
    redgolf

    I owned a 94 SW2, auto, bought it brand new since I worked at Saturn and got the only discounts that they were giving ( employee ) it was a great car and my wife loved it, never had one issue with it, sold it with 60k on it to a guy who wanted it to tow behind his motorhome, the guy never even took it for a test drive, he looked, heard it run went into the dealer, since I was running it through the dealer to buy my 97 GP ( which I still own ) and paid me full asking price! My wife and I followed him home, since he was by himself and that was it, the easiest car sell I had ever made!

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    “Strangely, this car has the $350 power-locks option but not power windows.”

    This is only strange to normal vehicle trims. Saturn kept the power windows in a different trim than the power locks, as my SL2 is equipped the same. This worked out better because SL/SC power windows were a weakness of the car from what I have read/heard (want to say they get off track a lot).

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      We had a 95 equipped like this. Power locks, manual Windows, manual trans. It went well over 250k but required a constant eye on the oil level…it used a good amount from before 100k.

      I had a couple more…all SOHC manual models. The post 95 models with the port injection made them much nicer to drive (100 hp vs like 84 if I remember), but my TBI one took much abuse and never gave me any problems. They were loud and felt cheap inside but didn’t seem to break often.

      Definitely a step above the couple of J bodies I had back then.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    In days of yore, the King of GM sat all his knights and squires down. He announced this is Sir Saturn, he shall supp by my right hand and be served by the most winsome servants. Sir Saturn is a truly real thing and quite capable of slaying those from the land of the rising sun and those pesky Teutonic knights. Oh the kings words rang true and Sir Saturn was a worthy foe to those opponents. Inn the shire of Spring Hill forges and assembly people made these import fighting words ring true. Alas, this was the kingdom of GM. The Dukes of Buick, Oldsmobile and other scheming dukes duly conspired against Sir Saturn. In the end, poor Sir Saturn was at the table with the Dukes and Knights and not at the Kings right hand. Such are the ways in the Kingdom of GM. What could have been mighty was drawn into corporate squalor, mired in the petty court in-fighting. Seriously, my 2nd Saturn went to 278,000 miles. Lack of a replacement clutch cable sent it to the junkyard.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    An acquaintance of mine, who fancies himself a used car dealer person, regularly traffics in 20+ year old barely serviceable Saturns. Claims they’re the best in the world and somehow finds suckers willing to pay upwards of $3k for them. A recent example of which was one his brother, my friend, was “renting” for $150 a month, though he had to insure it and maintain it. The transmission was tired, the body terrible; there was nothing to recommend it. I tried to counsel against paying any money for the car, but…

  • avatar
    ChipKingCars

    We race a 1994 Saturn Wagon and a 1996 Saturn SL1 Sedan in the 24 Hours of LeMons (Northeast races). Both are manuals now but we converted the wagon from automatic to manual.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Of the 3 odd manual wagons, I think this one makes the most sense. I would guess Saturn buyers probably had a manual take rate above the average for similar cars. Somehow the marketing was right, Saturns, and the people who bought them, were different.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The only thing that would make this cooler would be right-hand-drive, for rural mail delivery.

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    A few of these made their way through my body shop several years ago, who knew you could replace a quarter panel in one hour!

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    My folks bought a 91 SL1 brand new in dark red and still own it as a second car. They ordered it with power locks but not power windows. It does have the option package which includes A/C, cruise control and the all important passenger side view mirror. The SOHC in the SL and SL1 puts out a mere 88hp which was fairly typical for a compact car then. So this second generation boosts it to 100hp. The DOHC in the SL and SC2 cranks out a healthy 124hp. I wouldn’t mind transplanting one in a Vega.
    The SL2 and SC2 also had nicer bolstered seats and the bumpers are color matched.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    Reading the article (the Lemons stuff) and some of the comments, I think I may have underestimated these cars when they were being built.

    (Is wordpress commenting and email subscription working yet?)

  • avatar
    Yankee

    I worked on many of these S-series cars over the years and always appreciated how durable they seemed to be, likely owing to their simplicity. For the manuals, you could change a clutch with the transmissions still in the car! Just unbolt it, tilt the tansaxle to the side with a jack under it, and out she comes! The Achilles heel of these cars was the automatic transmission which suffered a few life-ending maladies. Otherwise they were rock solid, and a manual one would run forever and never have rust around the fender edges like every other car of this era (and even today!). Many customers drove these into the ground and they made perfect sense used for young drivers. Unfortunately, the parts supplies have finally dried up, so if you need anything beyond brakes and filters, it just isn’t made anymore. My friend’s high-volume shop regularly performs last rites on these and Suzukis because you can’t get the parts to fix them. Friend of mine just found one cheap for his son and it pained me to tell him not to buy it for this reason.

  • avatar
    DungBeetle62

    The Mrs. had a 96 5-speed SL when we met. Wasn’t quick but was entertaining enough to drive. About 80K in I noticed the coolant overflow tank contained what looked to be a chocolate shake. Got a free cracked head replacement out of the dealer. One of those “We know, but Tyler Durden determined the cost of fixing every car was too much” service things. She eventually upgraded to a Lexus ES but if the neighbor kid who’d bought it had avoided getting t-boned it’d likely still be running (at a modest pace).

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