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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
- Fun to Drive
- Large trunk
- Body shrugs
- Engines are
rough and noisy at idle and on acceleration
rattles, creaks & groans
Trim Levels: SL,
Body Styles: 2dr
Cpe, 4Dr Sdn, 4Dr Wgn
Sdn/Wgn: 102"; Cpe: 99"
53"; Cpe: 51"
Cargo Vol: Cpe:
10.9 cu ft; Sdn: 11.9 cu ft; Wgn: 24 cu ft
Fuel: 12.8 gal.
Front-engine, front-wheel drive
(4cyl-85hp) '91-'94 1.9L (4cyl-100hp) '95 1.9L (4cyl-124hp)
disc, rear drum
seconds (85hp) 8.8 seconds (124hp) 1/4 mile: 18.2 seconds (85hp)
16.9 seconds (124hp) Top Speed: 100/115mph
SL,SL1 - 28/38 (city/hwy) SL2,SC2 - 24/33 (city/hwy)
Optional Air Bags: None 91, driver opt '92, std '93 & '94;
driver & passenger std. '95
Best: ***** No or
minor injuries probable Worst: * Serious injury probable
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
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.
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.
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
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.