Saturn struggles, but shows some promise.
After a more than a decade, Saturn was still struggling to achieve a level of sales that would make it viable on a stand-alone basis within General Motors, and the company had never turned a profit. US sales had recovered in 2002 to 280,248(1) units, thanks to the successful launch of the Vue SUV, which alone sold 75,477 units in its first full year on the market. Total sales were, however, still below the peak of 286,003 seen back in 1994, when Saturn had just a single model line, the S Series.
The aged S Series was finally pensioned off in 2002 and was replaced by the Ion. The new model was based on the GM Delta platform that underpinned the Opel Astra, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. It was offered in four-door saloon or four-door Quad Coupé variants. The latter featured narrow coach(2) rear doors with concealed handles that could only be opened by first opening the front door, similar to those on the Mazda RX-8. An estate derivative was no longer offered.
The Ion featured Saturn’s customary dent and scratch-resistant thermoplastic wings and door skins. Apart from a rather abrupt C-pillar treatment, it was styled in a gently evolutionary iteration of the company’s signature design, to keep faith with Saturn’s loyal if somewhat eclectic customer base.(3)
Trim levels also maintained their customary simplicity, being designated Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, the first of which was not available on the coupé. Level 1 included 14” steel wheels with plastic covers, manual windows and door locking, a basic radio, five-speed manual gearbox (only) and no air-conditioning. Level 2 added larger 15” wheels, still in steel with plastic covers, a radio/CD player and air conditioning. Level 3 added electric windows and central locking, 16” alloy wheels, an upgraded radio/CD player and different cloth upholstery. Automatic transmission was a $900 option on Level 2 and Level 3 variants.
The Ion was powered by the 2.2 litre GM Ecotec inline-four engine, mated to a five-speed manual or four or five-speed automatic transmission. It was built at Saturn’s Spring Hill plant in Tennessee.
Car and Driver magazine tested the Ion in top-specification Level 3 trim with five-speed automatic transmission in January 2003. The reviewer remarked on the high level of standard equipment, which included speed-sensitive wipers, automatic headlamps, seat belt pre-tensioners and (optional) curtain airbags. The engine produced maximum power of 140 bhp (104kW) and torque of 145 lb ft (197Nm).
The Delta platform and exceptionally rigid body structure gave the car “admirable roadholding and…a stable, secure feel at the limit” while the strut and torsion beam suspension allowed it to ride “quietly and with greater aplomb than one would expect” over bumps and potholes for such a rudimentary design.
That was, unfortunately, the end of the plaudits. The Ion was described as “probably the most disappointing all-new American car in a decade.” The styling was “discordant and unharmonious” with panel gaps that were “kit-car” wide. Inside, the disharmony continued “where materials with varying colors, textures, and surface sheens collide”. A particular complaint was “the plastic molding flash lines(4) [that] are visible everywhere”, especially on the steering wheel rim, inner door handle and gearshift knob, making all unpleasant to touch.
The front seats were described as “narrow, flat chairs that are unsupportive in all directions”, while behind, “a granite backrest, a low ceiling, and a short cushion render the rear bench intolerable”. Boot space was compromised by the lid’s large goose-neck hinges. The Ion’s electric power steering was “nervous just off-center…feels nonlinear…and demands that the driver make constant course corrections” on twisting roads. Performance was “just so-so: 10.2 seconds to 60 mph” (97km/h).
In 2003, its first full year on the market, US sales of the Ion were 117,230 units, virtually identical to those of the S Series in 2002, its final year. This must have been very disappointing for Saturn, bearing in mind that the S Series had sold 286,003 units at its peak in 1994. Perhaps Saturn customers, or at least potential customers, were not ‘non-car’ people after all and did pay attention to automotive journalists?
In order to give Saturn (very belatedly and briefly) a competitor in the minivan market, GM in 2005 launched a badge-engineered version of the Chevrolet Uplander(5) as the Saturn Relay.
A potentially much more significant addition to Saturn’s range also arrived in 2005 in the shape of the Outlook, a full-sized SUV crossover based on GM’s Lambda platform and manufactured alongside the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia at GM’s Lancing-Delta Township plant in Michigan. The Outlook, although sharing no external body panels apart from the door skins and roof, was very similar in appearance to the Acadia and had nothing that was identifiably Saturn in its styling. It was powered by a 3.6-litre DOHC V6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and was offered in FWD and AWD variants. The Outlook could seat seven or eight in three rows. It was also the cheapest of the Lambda-based siblings, undercutting the Acadia by $2,000.
Car and Driver tested the Outlook in February 2007. The reviewer was impressed with the mechanical specification which included multilink independent rear suspension and GM’s latest 24-valve DOHC V6 engine producing maximum power of 270bhp (201kW) and torque of 248 lb ft (336Nm). Despite this, the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was no better than 8 seconds, a consequence of the hefty 5,000 lb (2,268kg) kerb weight.
The interior was spacious, and all three rows offered “near-minivan levels of space, and real-size adults can comfortably fit even in the third row” although some of the less prominent plastic surfaces felt hard and cheap. Boot space was 20 cu ft (566 litres) with all three rows of seats in place, rising to 117 cu ft (3,313 litres) with the middle and back rows folded, which required no removal of headrests. Standard equipment was “fairly extensive, including anti-lock [four-wheel disc] brakes, stability control, and six airbags (front, side, and curtain)” although there was also a long list of options available.
Dynamically, the Outlook was impressive with “well-weighted and readable steering [and] excellent ride-and-handling balance.” It “never feels clumsy, remaining composed and without excessive body motions over every bump.”
The verdict on the Outlook would have made encouraging reading for Saturn: “GM’s investment in its products is clearly paying off, demonstrated by these good-looking and spacious new full-size SUVs. They’re extremely competitive in price, interior space, driving dynamics, and feature content.”
Perhaps the launch of the Outlook, a competitive vehicle in a rapidly expanding segment of the market, might be a sign of better times to come for Saturn?
The story of Saturn concludes in Part Five.
(1) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(2) Rear-hinged, otherwise known rather morbidly as suicide doors.
(3) Saturn’s friendly and no-haggling sales operations had been voted no.1 by customers in the J.D. Power survey for seven years consecutively.
(4) A ridge of plastic left along the line where the halves of the mould are held together during the moulding process
(5) The Uplander was itself an unconvincing reworking of the Venture minivan with a taller front end and more horizontal bonnet line to make it more SUV-like.