Falling back to Earth (Part Three)

Saturn loses momentum.

1993 Saturn SW. Image: carsot.com

For those who believe in such things, the decision of General Motors’ Chairman and CEO, Roger B. Smith, who was Saturn’s adoptive father and head cheerleader, to retire on 30th July 1990, the very day the first Saturn car rolled off the production line in Spring Hill, Tennessee, might have been an ominous portent.

Amongst the other divisional heads within GM, particularly at Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, there was growing resentment towards Saturn and a feeling that their divisions were being starved of investment as a consequence of the huge costs incurred in bringing Saturn to market, alleged to be up to $5 billion. It did not help those who would later attempt to defend Saturn that its sales, although healthy enough, had undershot forecasts and were still a fraction of GM’s other divisions.

Smith’s anointed successor, Robert C. Stempel, was an engineer by training and profession, and a supporter of Smith’s vision for Saturn, but he was driven from office by a boardroom coup in October 1992. Stempel was succeeded by John F. Smith Jr., a GM ‘lifer’ who  spent the early part of his career working in the company’s finance division. With both a Bachelors and Masters degree in Business Administration, Smith would take a rather more detached and clinical view of Saturn’s performance and prospects.

Saturn’s S Series model range was expanded in 1993 with the addition of an estate, the SW. This utilised the SL saloon’s body up to the C-pillars and featured a practical upright tailgate. It retained the blacked-out pillars and floating roof of the saloon and was made available in SW1 and SW2 trim levels, equating to the saloon’s SL1 and SL2. At the same time the SC coupé, previously offered in only one high trim level, was expanded to two models, the SC1 and SC2. The lower level SC1 version was distinguished by its use of the fixed headlamps and SOHC engine from the SL and SW rather than the pop-up units and DOHC engine from the original SC, which continued to feature on the SC2.

These were pretty minor changes and Saturn’s growth was restricted by its narrow model range. US sales were plateauing and the outturn for 1995 was 285,674(1) units, compared with a forecast of 350,000 when the marque was launched in 1990.

In 1996 a second-generation SL saloon and SW estate were launched. These were essentially a reskinning of the first-generation cars, an exercise simplified by their spaceframe construction. The interior and mechanical package remained largely unchanged. The saloon lost its distinctive wraparound rear windscreen and floating roof, so looked even more generic, a retrograde but apparently intentional step(2). A reskinned SC coupé followed in 1997. The model refresh did nothing to help US sales, which fell year-on-year to reach 232,570 units in 1999.

1996 Second-Generation Saturn SL. Image: mad4wheels.com

That year saw another refresh for the S-Series. The third-generation model received new exterior panels, lightly modified to lose the indented groove at waist level, and new front and rear light units. A revised dashboard, centre console and steering wheel were fitted in an otherwise unchanged interior. Spotting these changes would tax even an ardent car enthusiast, so the impact they made on the supposedly typical car-as-domestic-appliance Saturn customer is a matter for conjecture. In any event, these would be the final revisions before production was ended in 2001.

Also in 1999, Saturn finally received the mid-size saloon and estate it hoped would expand sales. In May of that year, it launched the L Series. The new model was heavily based on the contemporary European Opel/Vauxhall Vectra B but was expensively re-engineered and rebodied in the style of the smaller S-Series, with thermoplastic front wings and door skins. It is a moot point as to whether this was money well spent, given the blandness of the result. In any event, Saturn was now placing itself in direct competition with two of the best-selling cars in the US, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

The L Series sat on a wheelbase of 106½” (2,705mm) and had an overall length of 190½” (4,839mm). It was powered by either a 2.2-litre inline four or a 3.0-litre V6 engine. The former was the GM Ecotec L850 all-aluminium unit with twin balancer shafts. Transmissions were either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The range comprised LS, LS1 and LS2 saloons and LW1 and LW2 estates, maintaining Saturn’s simple, clear trim and equipment hierarchy.

The L Series was manufactured, not at Saturn’s Spring Hill factory, but at General Motor’s plant in Wilmington, Delaware. Was this the first tangible evidence that Saturn was losing its much vaunted and prized independence from the GM monolith?

1999 Saturn LS. Image: drivemag.com

Car and Driver magazine tested the four-cylinder LS1 in May 2000. Compared to its peers, it was well equipped, with anti-lock brakes and traction control, air-conditioning, electric windows and driver’s seat adjustment and a radio/CD player. At a sticker price of $18,280, it undercut the Japanese rivals but was more expensive than the Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu, both V6-powered.

The simple interior was neither “cheap” nor “lavish” but felt comfortable and durable and was ergonomically faultless. Interior and boot space and fuel economy were “all unremarkable but certainly acceptable in this class.” On the move, noise is subdued, if not as quiet as the Camry. The ride was good and the LS1 “soaks up bumps without fuss yet does not induce any floatiness.”

Thanks to its balancer shafts, the new engine was “a quantum improvement” over that in the S-Series, or any other GM four-cylinder unit. It produced maximum power of 137bhp (102kW) which, with the five-speed manual gearbox, gave the car a competitive 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 8.7 seconds. The precise gear change and progressive clutch allowed “smooth shifting” and the grip and brakes were class-average, so perfectly fine.

Overall, the magazine rated the LS1 as a consistently competitive car in its class, albeit one with no outstanding features apart from its engine, which was notable mainly because it was such an improvement on previously harsh and unrefined GM four-cylinder units. A more fundamental concern was, however, whether a mid-sized saloon/estate was the right car for Saturn at a time when minivans and SUVs were growing hugely in popularity.

Car and Driver’s concerns were borne out in Saturn’s US sales numbers. After recovering to 271,800 in 2000, the first full year for the L Series, sales again plateaued and were barely changed at 272,157 in 2003. US Sales of the L Series alone peaked in 2001 at 98,227 but fell sharply thereafter to just 19,453 in 2004. A facelift in 2003 had failed to arrest the decline, and production of the L Series was discontinued in June 2004.

2001 Saturn Vue. Image: consumerguide.com

Saturn finally got the mid-size SUV it desperately needed in the Autumn of 2001 when it unveiled the Vue. This utilised the 2.2-litre inline-four and 3.0-litre V6 engines from the L-Series as well as its five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, the latter only available with the V6 engine. A GM-designed CVT was also offered from launch, on the 2.2-litre engined model only. The styling was an attempt to overlay Saturn design cues (such as they were) onto an SUV shape, and the result was a little uncomfortable, notably the slim headlamps on a tall front end and slightly ill-fitting clamshell bonnet. The outer body panels were again unstressed thermoplastic overlaid onto a steel skeleton. The Vue would be built at Saturn’s Spring Hill plant alongside the S Series.

Car and Driver first drove the Vue in October 2001. The reviewer noted that the new model had been benchmarked against the 1996 Toyota RAV4, the 1997 Honda CR-V and 2001 Ford Escape. It was slightly larger than its peers, roughly 3½” (89mm) in wheelbase and 3¾” (95mm) in overall length.  It was available in both FWD and AWD forms, the latter employing an automatic system that only allocated drive to the rear wheels when wheel-slip was detected at the front. The test car was a 2.2-litre AWD variant fitted with the CVT transmission. It had a kerb weight of 3,350 lbs (1,520kg) and a maximum towing weight of 1,500 lbs (680kg). By comparison, the 3.0-litre variant could pull a maximum weight of 2,500 lbs (1,134kg).

The rear seat back was split 70:30 and the front passenger seat folded flat to allow loads of up to 8 ft. (2,438mm) to be carried inside the cabin. Standard equipment included air-conditioning, electric windows and central locking, but otherwise was not lavish. In summary, the reviewer concluded that the Vue “likely won’t torpedo the perception that Saturns are inexpensive and reliable but a little bland.”

So, the Vue was another typical Saturn, pretty much class competitive, if not in any way exceptional. Would its fashionable SUV format be enough to lift Saturn off its sales plateau?

The story of Saturn continues in Part Four.

(1) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

(2) One of Saturn’s less well publicised differences from GM’s traditional marques was that they were intended to appeal to those who had little interest in cars, except as transportation appliances. Hence it was decided that bland and nondescript styling was best suited to these target customers! This was revealed by Robert A Lutz, former vice-chairman of GM, in his 2011 book, Car Guys vs Bean Counters.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

33 thoughts on “Falling back to Earth (Part Three)”

  1. It is remarkable to compare the gargantuan investment and effort required to make a whole new marque from scratch against the mediocrity and blandness of the products they expected to give them a return on that investment. I wonder how many sales were conquests from other companies vs cannibalisation of other GM marques anyway.

    1. Good morning DE. That’s a good question regarding the scale of the investment and its impact on other GM brands, which I hope I have answered in the fifth and final part of this series, so I’ll keep my powder dry for now.

      Regarding the blandness of Saturn’s cars, if Bob Lutz is to be believed (footnote 2 above) that was intentional and not accidental, so that they would appeal to those potential customers who saw cars as no more than domestic appliances. The (relative) success of the first S-Series model suggests that there was a market for such cars.

  2. The Vue’s looks may be a little uncomfortable, as you put it, but they are at least calm and non-threatening, unlike so many of today’s SUVs.

    1. Hi Jonathan. Yes, you’re right, the Vue is certainly calm and unthreatening, especially by today’s standards for SUVs:

      The wide shut-lines seem even more apparent than on the S-Series, although at least they are consistent and logically drawn.

  3. Bland? I think the 1st gen SW looks like a very tasty car. I’ve done a google search and the brown bread version with black bumpers isn’t as cool but with body coloured bumpers, metallic paint and those wheels I’d be happy to park one on my driveway.

  4. In the late 90s my then wife and I went car shopping (for her). When we discovered the Saturn estate was considerably smaller, as expensive, and as filled with plastic interior surfaces as the Ford Taurus estate, we bought the Taurus. I don’t think we ever had an opportunity to regret that decision. The Taurus served her well under hard usage for many years.

    Maybe the Saturn would have done so as well — I see a surprising number of Vues plying the streets of our salt-ridden winter streets not looking at all like vehicles approaching 20 years old. Friends of ours have one they still like. Parts are getting increasingly harder to find for them, though, which may make the plastic body panels a cover for some serious repair issues.

    1. Hi Steve. Yes, in researching this series I came across warnings that the plastic bodywork might look perfect but would be hiding some serious structural corrosion underneath.

  5. A little-known fact about the little-known Saturn Vue is that after around 2004 the V6 models were all equipped with a Honda engine and transmission for reasons requiring more interest in the car than I have to find out.

    1. Good! I was wondering if anyone was going to point this out, that is one of my favorite little-known facts about the Vue. The Honda J Series ended up here because of some obscure agreement where Honda wanted to buy Isuzu diesels to sell in Europe and of course, as everyone knows, Isuzu is a GM brand. Basically the gist of it was that GM had to buy at least 90K V6s from Honda in the terms of the original contract, and thus the ‘import-fighting’, ‘alternative’ GM division was the beneficiary. They’re good engines, the J Series, if you can avoid the oil-consumption issues that plagued early VCM (cylinder deactivation) models. I’d bet it was an absolute rocket-ship in the Vue compared to the sad-sack 3.0L L81 that only made 181 hp.

    2. Hi Alex, and thanks for filling that gap in the story!

  6. It strikes me that there are similarities with SAAB in this story – they’ve got a marque and complete freedom to build on the past (SAAB) and / or to create something completely new (SAAB and Saturn). However, that’s not really going to be successful given existing structures and cultures.

    There are similarities with Edsel, too. Perhaps they would have been better off fixing what they had, rather than taking on something new.

    1. Charles, I had the same thought, fix what you already have. Maybe they thought it was unfixable, I don’t know. Somehow I like Saturn and I wanted them to succeed. Strange for a car I have never seen in real life.

    2. Hi Freerk and Charles. Yes, General Motors’ excursions away from their core brands have hardly been roaring successes. To Saturn and Saab, I would add NUMMI and Hummer. Incidentally, we have a series on the latter coming up in the near future.

    3. Strangely enough I actually have seen an Saturn in the plastic despite never having been to North America. When I was at college one of the post-grad PhD students had a first gen SL. He was a Canadian who was interested in radio astronomy, enough to move his family (he was a mature student) and car over to Dublin while he studied. The rest of us would stare blankly (and now I think about it, rather rudely!) when his wife collected him in this strange vehicle most of us knew only by repute…

  7. The amazing thing is that GM failed to completely destroy Opel. Even after a quarter of a century of neglect, Opels were still not made to the same mediocre standard as the GM USA cars. Despite the presence of many talented designers and engineers, GM is a midcosm of what ails the US, much as Fiat reflected the ills of Italy. The talented engineers and designers mostly got over-ruled by the decisions of business people who have done as much damage as profit making. GM´s brands have huge potential. Zombies inside the firm ensure that potential is never exploited.

    1. Yes – that’s interesting. I suspect it’s due to a number of factors – being relatively small and far enough away to avoid too much interference, plus having genuine engineering talent. Equally, Opel / GM Europe was big enough to do its own thing and to provide useful technology for the US and other markets. I also think that they’d been integrated in to GM for a long time and knew how the game worked – what battles were, or were not, worth fighting.

      To be fair, GM Europe benefitted from some real talent from around the world – John Bagshaw who came to Vauxhall from Australia and, of course, Wayne Cherry, among many others.

    2. Opel is still around, but the brand has taken a serious hit, here. The Dutch car market is of course, completely irrelevant in the big picture, but Opel was the best selling brand in the Netherlands for 30+ years in a row, shifting 70,000 cars a year. Now they are in 10th place, behind BMW and Volvo, selling only 15,375 units. Unthinkable 20 years ago.

  8. An interesting series, Daniel, thankyou. A couple of trivia-type questions about Saturn have just occurred to me: Is the SC the only car with pop-up headlamps as an option; and, are there many examples other than Saturn where the main or only manufacturer symbol at the rear has been stamped into the bumper?

    1. Hi Tom. Two good questions. Regarding the second, here’s one answer that comes immediately to mind:

      Regarding the first, strictly speaking, the pop-up headlamps weren’t an option, they were standard fit on the SC2, whereas the lower-spec SC1 was given the fixed units from the SL. Offhand, I cannot think of another car that was offered with alternative fixed or pop-up headlamps simultaneously. Possibly the 1981 A60 generation Toyota Celica / Supra mightfit the bill. The Celica had ‘reclining’ exposed headlamps, while the Supra had a different front end with proper pop-up headlamps.

    2. Tom, regarding the rear bumper question, Lotus Esprit S3 would be one.

      I don’t think that the pop-ups were available as a stand alone or delete option on the SC1/SC2, but there are a few American cars that had hidden headlights as a stand alone option (1968-1969 Pontiac GTO, 1968-1969 Chevrolet Caprice, 1972-1973 Dodge Charger) or as part of an optional trim package (1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro). Some versions of the S13 Nissan Silvia had pop-up headlights, but like the Saturn we are discussing they were assigned to different model designations.

    3. Daniel was quick on the Lotus, so I will offer up the 1952-1955 Mercury (all models).

      “Mustang” is not a manufacturer, but the treatment similar to the limited edition “Marauder” version of the Mercury Grand Marquis. As the early ’50s Mercury has always been a favored basis for hot rods, perhaps the reference was intentional.

    4. The marque name embossed into the rear bumper was another idea ‘borrowed’ from Saturn by Pontiac:

    5. I might have beaten you to the draw on Lotus, gooddog, but the 1952-55 Mercury is a much more impressive answer. Chapeau!

    6. Regarding pop-up headlights, the Toyota AE86 springs to mind:

      But again, officially they have different model designations (Trueno and Levin, respectively), but in reality only the headlights differ.

      On topic of the Saturn S: the original never struck me as particularly bland, though I can understand the “not for (traditional) car people” part, since it’s an unconventional design.

    7. Not just you, Richard. I’ve a soft spot for the Ford ‘Panther Platform’ sedans and the Marauder looks suitably stealthy:

    8. Count me in as a Marauder fan. I love it and I will definitely lower my window to hear that V8 burble should one pass me somewhere.

    9. That´s impressive. Some of the Lincolns from around 2004-6 were also agreeable cars but while they looked more pleasant than their Cadillac competition, Lincoln seldom found a way to impose authority on the cars. That was apparent from the fact that Mercury cars didn´t look in any way further down market from the Lincolns. Of course, there were some matters of trim and spec – what I mean is the styling didn´t convey any more authority than many very nice Oldsmobiles from the 1990s did.

  9. GM isn’t a microcosm of what’s wrong with America, it’s a microcosm of what was wrong with the Soviet Union.

    Like the Soviet Union, GM is run by 1930s Taylorism, which they like to call “Scientific Management” (when it is neither scientific, nor management). Marketing goes out and sees what people like about the competitor’s product, comes up with metrics to beat, passes it off to engineering/production, which creates metrics for subdivisions (weight, cost, fastener count, stamping complexity, legroom, timeline, etc.).

    Everyone is judged and promoted based on how well they hit their metrics, resulting in a car that exceeds the “benchmark” in every metric, but is in fact a worse product.

    Obvious examples are the 1984 C4 Corvette vs. the 911 they benchmarked. On paper, the Corvette is the superior car – better torque, Cd, skidpad, etc. In reality, the 911 was the far superior car, due to steering feel, mass centralization, suspension tuning for real-world applications vs the skidpad. Today the 911 is worth 10x on the used market. Similar examples can be found when Cadillac tried to beat Mercedes on benchmarks (1″ more legroom, one more leather covered surface, etc.)

    Taylorism worked well when the competition’s product design cycle was merely whatever Henry/Andre/Ferry decided that week, but it’s no match against today’s more agile firms.

    The core problem can be described as Goodheart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure”. You can’t measure everything, and optimizing for measured quantities results in small gains in the measured quantity at the expense of huge losses in the unmeasured quantities.

    The obvious case of this is the Indian Cobra Effect: The government wanted to reduce the number of cobras, so they put out a bounty on dead cobras. The villagers responded by breeding cobras.

    The Soviet analogy goes further – the Soviet Union suffered from the resource curse. Because their natural resources were so abundant, they could do everything wrong and still survive for seven decades. So long as GM has the money-printing truck/SUV line subsidizing the rest of the company, they can keep doing everything wrong and still limp along.

    1. I think I mentioned scientific management at some point in this discusssion. You won´t find me saying anything good about the Soviet Union. But GM was a beast entirely of the making of all that is good and all that is bad in the US. The Soviets never got as far as customer satisfaction or planned obsolescence. Even the worst GM car exceeded by miles the best the Soviets could make. No, GM is an American baby, though a big one.

  10. I’m not sure one could really call Saturns bland, at least not all of them. I think the 1st gen S series looks pretty nice and there are enough interesting styling details that make it stand out. Some other Saturn models also stand out, but maybe not in a good way… The Vue is a good example – it seems very dated for it’s time. For some reason it looks to me like a 90s AvtoVAZ concept, especially from the sides.

    1. Good evening boarezina. Saturns really were a mixed bag, stylistically, mainly because of their varied provenance, although I think the later, Opel-derived models looked the more ‘professional’ designs. The plastic-bodied models looked as though they had been designed on the back of an envelope and knocked up in an engineering workshop!

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