Saturn makes a promising start.
There was great interest and excitement, both from the general and specialist automotive press, when the first car rolled off the production line at the new Saturn manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on 30th July 1990. Journalists were invited to tour the plant and engage with the workforce. They detected a certain evangelical spirit amongst the workers, who felt that the company was “people-oriented” and that they had a “voice” in the production process. This referred to regular team discussions with their managers and engineers, where problems were aired and suggestions for improvements were heard constructively and rewarded if adopted.
There were practical innovations in the manufacturing process too. The production line was called the Skillet(1) and the vehicles were carried, not nose to tail, but at right angles to the line, thereby reducing its length by 40%. The workers rode on the skillet with the cars and were free to allocate jobs within the teams, to optimise the use of individual workers’ proficiencies. Any worker could stop the line if they encountered a problem or fault.
Beyond the factory gates, Saturn’s management was also keen to address issues around the customer experience at dealerships that General Motors’ research had highlighted. According to Saturn’s head of marketing, Don Young, “customers feel a sense of intimidation, of being talked down to, of being conned” at traditional dealerships and there was “a low level of trust in dealer salespeople”.
Having to negotiate with a salesperson for a discount was a particular bugbear for many potential customers. Saturn tackled this by introducing a no-haggle menu-style pricing policy for all its models and options. A potential customer was also introduced to the service manager who would look after their car. This was done in an attempt to change the customer’s perception of the experience from merely transactional to one concerned with relationship building.
The United States was divided into 250 geographical areas, each roughly similar, not in size but in terms of potential Saturn customers. The company was determined that its dealers should compete, not with each other(2), but with the importers, whose sales they wanted to capture. Saturn dealerships would be exclusive(3) to that marque and comprise a major sales and servicing hub, requiring a minimum investment of around $2 million.
If sales growth warranted it, the dealership could establish separate sales satellites within their geographic area, supported by the central service hub. Saturn’s first year sales forecast was for 150,000 units, rising to around 350,000 units by the mid-1990s.
Not only was Saturn planning to build and sell its cars in new and unfamiliar ways, but the cars would also be innovative and quite unconventional in their construction. A self-supporting spaceframe of pressed steel inner panels would be welded together and the exterior body panels, all of which would be unstressed, would be screwed to the spaceframe. The roof, bonnet and boot lid were pressed steel, while the wings and doors were thermoplastic mouldings. All the exterior panels would be painted on rigs before fitting, which took place late in the assembly sequence after major mechanical and interior components had been installed, to minimise the risk of damage to the panels.
The mechanical layout was pretty conventional, with a transverse four-cylinder engine, end-on five-speed manual or four speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels and Macpherson strut suspension all round. The engine was a newly designed all-aluminium unit with a capacity of 1,901cc and either an eight-valve SOHC or sixteen-valve DOHC cylinder head. The engine and transmission combined weighed just 350 lbs (160kg) and even a fully optioned SL saloon weighed no more than 2,440 lbs (1,107kg) thanks to the aluminium drivetrain and plastic body panels.
Stylistically, the Saturn SL saloon was a smooth but unremarkable design, apart from blacked-out screen pillars, a ‘floating’ body-coloured roof and an unusual, sharply folded wraparound rear windscreen. Infuriatingly for Saturn, Oldsmobile had ‘stolen’ these distinctive design features for its 1990 Cutlass Supreme sedan, which could at first glance have been mistaken for the SL. This would not be the last act of sabotage Saturn would suffer from its in-house rivals.
One drawback of the dent-resistant plastic exterior body panels was their greater (than steel) thermal expansion, which necessitated wider than normal panel gaps and shut-lines, giving it an unfortunate less than precision-engineered appearance.
The model hierarchy was simple to understand, following Saturn’s policy of not bamboozling customers with too much choice. There were just three trim levels, SL, SL1 and SL2. The base SL model was rather austere looking with unpainted grey plastic bumpers. It came with a basic AM/FM radio without a cassette player and not even a passenger-side door mirror(4). No factory options such as automatic transmission, power steering or air-conditioning were available. For these, even as options, one had to step up to the SL1 mid-range variant. Both SL and SL1 variants were fitted with the eight-valve SOHC engine producing 85bhp (63kW)
The range-topping SL2 featured the sixteen-valve DOHC engine producing 123bhp (92kW) and was distinguished externally by body-coloured bumpers. Extra equipment was available, but most of it was still optional, including anti-lock brakes(5), alloy wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows and electric (passenger-side only) door mirror.
Car and Driver magazine compared the Saturn SL with eleven other budget cars from US and foreign manufacturers in July 1992. The eligibility criterion was simple: all must have a sticker price below $10,000. Domestic competitors included the Ford Escort and Plymouth Sundance, while foreign rivals included the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Tercel.
The Saturn was easily the largest car in the group. With an overall length of 176¼” (4,477mm), it was 5” (127mm) longer than the next largest competitor and had the longest wheelbase at 102½” (2,604mm) and a spacious boot. It was also the only four-door car and was best equipped, with intermittent wipers, a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, rev-counter and AM/FM four-speaker radio-cassette player. Fit and finish were described as “impressive” with “obvious attention to detail” in the interior, although the front seat backrests were too narrow and the rear seat cushion too low, resulting in a “knees up” sitting position.
The eight-valve SOHC engine gave a competitive 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 9.9 seconds but was harsh and noisy at higher revs: “beyond 3,000rpm [the] aural assault begins.” The five-speed manual gearbox was “fine and light, with a slightly notchy feel.” The ride was described as ”pleasantly firm without being harsh” and the car had “good chassis composure and lots of stick.” Overall, the reviewers were pretty impressed by the Saturn, concluding that it “offers a look and feel of substance — as if it belonged in a higher class of cars.”
Even allowing for a degree of patriotic bias, this was high praise indeed for the Saturn, sales of which had started well enough, if falling short of the company’s optimistic early forecasts, partly because of a short and mild recession that hit the US between August 1990 and March 1991. In 1991, Saturn’s first full year on the market, 74,493(6) found buyers in the US. This increased to 196,126 in 1992 and 229,356 in 1993.
US consumers clearly liked Saturn’s distinctive approach to selling cars, as well as the cars themselves, and goodwill towards the marque was strong. However, within the labyrinthine corridors of power at GM, there were already barely concealed jealousies and the first stirrings of a palace coup that would have serious consequences for GM’s fledgling marque and, ultimately, contribute to its demise.
The story of Saturn continues in Part Three.
(1) A contraction of ‘Skid’ and ‘Pallet’.
(2) This was a problem with existing GM marques, for example, Pontiac, which had a vast network of 3,200 dealerships, many in close proximity to each other.
(3) The dealership was not prevented from selling other marques at different locations, however.
(4) This was a popular dealer-fit option.
(5) ABS included rear disc (rather than standard fit drum) brakes.
(6) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.