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1991-1995 Saturn

1992 Saturn SL
Less than the Sum of its Parts

Conceived by chairman Roger Smith to reinvent the way GM makes and sells cars, Saturn was established as a brand new, independent division in 1983. Far away from GM headquarters (and its stiff, hierarchal culture) in Spring Hill, Tennessee, Saturn was to be relatively free from corporate meddling and politics. Only then could Saturn successfully accomplish his ambitious goals. Finally, he said, America would beat the Japanese at their specialty: small cars.

A brand new facility was built. New production methods adopted and in some cases, invented. New engines, new materials, partnerships with suppliers, new inventory controls, even a revolutionary labor contract was agreed to with the autoworker's union, the UAW. It all looked, uh, very Japanese. And very un-GM.

Every bit as important as the production of the car was the new (for GM) way the car was to be sold. A limited number of retail outlets with exclusive territories in key markets was planned. Franchise agreements required company-designed facilities and substantial financial commitments by dealers. Continuing the radical change in the way of doing business, a "no hassle, no haggle" sales policy was to be strictly followed.

Production and quality problems forced some delay, but to their credit, GM didn't revert to past practices. In the old days, GM - and Ford and Chrysler for that matter - would've simply shipped the product and dealt with any problems after it was in the customer's hands. Not this time. GM was determined to get it right.

Finally, in October of 1990, the first Saturn was delivered in the U.S. It was the BIG EVENT.

With the passage of almost eight years, enough time has elapsed to plainly see that Saturn has succeeded in some of its goals, and come up short in others.

Although off 10% for 1997, sales have been very good. The production plant often has worked three shifts at maximum capacity. Plans are afoot for a new, larger model to give current owners something to move up to.

It consistently ranks high among sales satisfaction indexes. Remarkably, Saturn has been able to maintain both their no discount policies and their no pressure sales method. People like the Saturn buying experience. Once a customer, Saturn tries hard to cultivate a relationship with every owner. We've all seen those folksy ads and those somewhat bizarre homecoming events. Apparently they work. More significantly, both resale value and reliability have been good, although we are seeing some slippage in resale values recently.

The car itself, however, is rather underwhelming. It doesn't lack for innovation or design thoughtfulness, nor is it another numb and boring small car. It's just that on paper it looks better than it is.

What's Available

For the 1991 model year, Saturn offered four models and two body styles: The base SL sedan, the SL1 and SL2 sedans, and the SC Coupe. The SL and SL1 models received a 1.9 liter, single overhead cam 4-cylinder engine generating 85hp. SL2 and SC models sported larger tires on alloy wheels, a slightly plusher interior and a twin-cam version of the same motor developing 124hp. Manual transmissions were standard and most options were offered in packages. 1993 brought a new SC1 coupe with the same equipment levels as the SL1 sedan. Also added was a "cute" station wagon, available, not suprisingly, as the SW1 and the SW2. In an effort to hold down costs, alloy wheels were made optional on all models. 1994's were pretty much carryover models with a few refinements here and there and 1995 brought a new dash and a horsepower increase for the single-cam motor. In 1996 Saturn's first redesign hit the streets.

Exterior Design

The styling of the first generation Saturns can best be described as clean, unique and distinctive. The top SL2, SC2 and SW2 models look better than their cheaper siblings by virtue of their body-colored bumpers, large wide tires and in most cases, their alloy wheels. They also received an attractive full width taillight/reflector treatment rather than two taillights flanking a body-colored panel on the base models. The trunk has a low liftover height, facilitating cargo loading and unloading

We don't usually comment on the design of the engine compartment, but the Saturn's is truly exemplary. Easy to identify service points and a minimum of clutter. Nice job.

One of the more innovative aspects of all Saturns is their plastic body panels. Shopping carts, other car doors, even stiff kicks are shrugged off with no evidence of contact.

Fit and finish are good, but the gaps between plastic body panels could not be fitted with the tight tolerances of steel and are rather wide. Consider it a tradeoff for the ding free exterior you'll get to enjoy.

Interior Design

The controls and layout of every Saturn are mostly well conceived, sporting that "tactile feedback" deemed so important by many automotive reviewers. The original dashboard design (1991-94) housed all controls and gauges in a hard plastic shell. It looked ok but would have benefited greatly from proper padding. The armrests on the door panels are thinly padded as well and do not appear very durable.

Until 1995, Saturns came equipped with annoying motorized seat belts. A split fold-down rear seat back was standard, adding extra utility to a fairly large trunk. The dashboard (cowl) and beltline (door sills) are low, imitating Japanese design practices of the time.

Ride/Handling/Performance

When the Saturn was introduced, its ride/handling compromise was one area where it stood at the top of its class. Leaning decidedly toward the handling side of the equation, the ride gives up little to other small cars. Although the Saturn possesses typical small front-wheel drive understeer tendencies, it does manage to delay its onset and rewards the driver with a suprisingly satisfying level of control, even at brisk speeds and on all kinds of surfaces. As you would expect, this is particularly true of the SL2 and SC2 models.

Acceleration is acceptable with the base motor, very good with the twin-cam engine. Both have good low speed torque characteristics. The 5-speed manual transmission is acceptable, though not a standout. The 4-speed "fuzzy logic" automatic transmission in most cases performs extremely well, with quick and smooth upshifts and downshifts. On hilly terrain there is a tendency to switch between third and fourth gear, but that is common with overdrive automatic transmissions.

Comfort/Noise

All Saturns come with bucket seats and a floor mounted transmission. Room and comfort for the front seat passengers is good. Two rear seat passengers do ok as long as they aren't over 6 feet and the front passengers do not have their seats all the way back.

Noise is the Saturns biggest shortcoming. Idling and low speed, around town noise and vibration are obtrusive. The '91's are the worst offenders. 1992 brought new engine and transmission mounting schemes and greatly increased noise insulation. It helped, but the Saturn clearly lags in this area. Strong acceleration also brings out a cacophony of noises that are not entirely pleasant. Conversely, at highway speeds the Saturn is quieter than most others in its class.

Another thing we've noticed in several Saturns: In cold weather these things buzz, creak, groan and generally impart a feeling of horrendous quality. It gets worse as the cars age, then it seems to level off after about 3 years.

If you live in Miami, this is not of great concern. If you live in Boston, as we do, it is.

Safety

The Saturn received a good safety rating as a result of its performance in government crash tests. Dual airbags became standard in 1995. Previously, a driver bag was optional in 1992 and added to the standard equipment list in 1993. When Saturn received standard dual airbags for 1995, it lost the annoying motorized seat belts it had in earlier years. ABS brakes were optional in all years.

Footnote:  Saturn is gone, a victim of corporate indifference after the mid 1990's and bankruptcy of 2009. 

Is the Twin-Cam an Oil Burner?

We have seen, heard and even experienced first-hand abnormal oil consumption in twin-cam (SL2, SW2, SC2) Saturns. Consumption of one quart every 1000 to 1500 miles appears fairly common. This consumption rate can set in early in the life of the car, so it is not attributable to normal wear and tear.

Although Saturn has a procedure to deal with this issue, they do not acknowledge that a problem exists. They recommend that you bring your car to a Saturn dealer to be put on an "oil consumption watch". This entails bringing the car into your dealer every few hundred miles so they can monitor the situation. Not very convenient for the owner. Depending on the diagnosis, it can involve valves, valve seals, piston rings, and even the pistons themselves. Some owners report the fix only cures the oil burning for a while. The procedure usually runs between $1000 and $1800, depending on what is done. Depending on mileage, Saturn will often pick up at least some of the tab.

A Saturn representative told us that all Saturn engines should use no more that one quart every 3000 miles. So why are all these Saturn owners paying for this procedure?

Reliability

Everything that we have heard or seen through our support line or known experiences indicates a spotty reliability record, especially with the early examples. Oil consumption, brakes, ticking odometers, warped brake rotors, and lousy power window regulators are common complaints. Yet Saturn generally does well on reliability surveys. Perhaps all that owner enthusiasm spills over into their problem reporting!

Saturns came with a 3yr/36,000 mile transferable factory warranty, so if you are looking at a '95 model there may be some coverage left on the factory warranty.

Service

All Saturns came with a full stainless steel exhaust system. These systems are good for at least 100,000 miles, and often many more. It's a good bet you won't have to pay for an exhaust system.

Both of Saturn's engines are overhead cam designs. Unlike most of its competition, these engines have steel chains for their timing belts. While not as quiet or smooth as a polymer belt, they are far more durable and normally do not need replacement. The procedure runs around $600.

Although not scheduled, another item that you should start thinking about replacing around the 90-100,000 mile mark is the water pump. Replacement was quoted at about $180 at the local Saturn dealer. This is about average for the industry.

All in all, normal service costs appear about average for Saturns and below its import competition.

Summary

If you must have a plastic car, then the Saturn is your only choice. We would recommend that you stay completely away from the '91 model and try to get into a '94 or '95. The '95 with the upgraded (100hp) single overhead cam motor is probably your best bet. Especially if you are considering a twin-cam model, ask about oil consumption. Inquire if the valve seals or piston rings have been replaced.

Taking into account all of the above, we have to conclude that there are better values out there in the small car segment. Undeniably, Saturns are fun-to-drive, offer a certain amount of character, and have an enthusiastic following. But there are plenty of small cars that will out-perform it at the same or lower cost, and many of them have unquestionable exceptional reliability to boot.

Given some of the uncertainty surrounding used Saturns, they would not make our short list of small cars to consider.

Strengths

Weaknesses

  • Good handling/ride balance
  • Excellent handling
  • Fun to Drive
  • Large trunk for class
  • Body shrugs off dings
  • Engines are rough and noisy at idle and on acceleration
  • Body rattles, creaks & groans
  • Interior materials questionable
  • Spotty reliability

 

General Specifications

General

Trim Levels: SL, SL1, SL2

Body Styles: 2dr Cpe, 4Dr Sdn, 4Dr Wgn

Dimensions & Capacities

Weight: 2700lbs

Length: 176"

Wheelbase: Sdn/Wgn: 102"; Cpe: 99"

Width: 68"

Height: Sdn/Wgn: 53"; Cpe: 51"

EPA Class: Compact

Cargo Vol: Cpe: 10.9 cu ft; Sdn: 11.9 cu ft; Wgn: 24 cu ft

Fuel: 12.8 gal.

Mechanical

Layout: Front-engine, front-wheel drive

Engines: 1.9L (4cyl-85hp) '91-'94 1.9L (4cyl-100hp) '95 1.9L (4cyl-124hp)

Brakes: Front disc, rear drum

Performance (manual trans)

0-60mph: 11.1 seconds (85hp) 8.8 seconds (124hp) 1/4 mile: 18.2 seconds (85hp) 16.9 seconds (124hp) Top Speed: 100/115mph

EPA Mileage: SL,SL1 - 28/38 (city/hwy) SL2,SC2 - 24/33 (city/hwy)

 

Safety

ABS Brakes: Optional Air Bags: None 91, driver opt '92, std '93 & '94; driver & passenger std. '95

NHTSA Safety Rating:

Driver **** Passenger *****

Key:

Best: ***** No or minor injuries probable Worst: * Serious injury probable

Original Warranty:

3yr/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper

 

 

Safety Recalls

1992 All models with automatic transmission - On a limited number of cars, the transaxle valve assemblies were improperly machined. Vehicles may not properly engage in neutral or park, even though the gear selector indicates the vehicle is in park or neutral, it could be in reverse or drive. Have Dealer replace the defective valve bodies.

1992,93 All models - The generator electrical wiring is not protected against excessive current flow which may be caused by an electrical short circuit in the generator. Dealer will install a new generator wiring harness with one that will open as a fuse would under certain excessive current flow conditions.

1993 All models but limited to cars with 034 or 035 as the last three digits of the date code tag on the brake master cylinder - The brake booster assemblies were improperly manufactured. This can cause the separation of the brake booster housing during a high effort braking maneuver, resulting in total loss of braking action. Dealer will replace defective brake booster assemblies.

1993 SL2, SC2, SW2 - The positive battery cable terminal at the starter solenoid may be formed incorrectly, causing a short circuit. Dealer will inspect and, if necessary, adjust the clearance between the positive battery terminal and the starter solenoid housing.

1995 SL - The steering gear pinion shaft was improperly heat treated which may cause the shaft to fracture during vehicle operation, causing complete loss of steering control. Dealer will replace the manual steering assembly.

1995 All models with automatic transmission - The automatic transaxle park lock cable assembly was improperly adjusted making it possible to shift from the park position with the ignition key removed, or remove the ignition key with the shift lever in a position other than park. Consumer should inspect operation. Dealer will make adjustments if necessary.