Saturn loses momentum.
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.
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?
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.
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.