Falling back to Earth (Part Four)

Saturn struggles, but shows some promise.

2002 Saturn Ion. Image: conceptcarz.com

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.

2002 Saturn Ion Quad Coupé. Image: favcars.com

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?

2005 Saturn Relay. Image: consumerguide.com

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.

2005 Saturn Outlook. Image: edmunds.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

24 thoughts on “Falling back to Earth (Part Four)”

  1. A dispiriting tale, well told. So very GM.

    However, huge credit to Saturn for coming up with Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3, instead of the daft Inscriptions, Conectas, Dynamics, and Altitudes which today’s new car purchasers in Europe have to wrestle with.

    1. Even in 2002, did anyone in the USA buy a car with manual windows and door locking, a basic radio and no air-conditioning?

      That looks like one step up from Amish specification…

  2. Good morning, Daniel. It’s strange but I have only been only familiar with the first models of Saturn. The Outlook seems like a credible effort, but I know virtually nothing of SUV’s. Looking forward to the installment number five.

    1. Freerk, as I´ve seen a Saturn SC2 for sale in The Netherlands, and ocasionally I spot a late ´90s Malibu with Dutch plates near my workplace (in Sevilla!), did american cars have a certain popularity in your country or it´s just a coincidence?

    2. B234r, I had a look and found the add for the SC2. According to the add it’s the only one in the Netherlands.

      GM tried to penetrate the European market in the 90’s. It didn’t really work out that well. Chrysler tried the same and they did sell LeBarons, the Stratus and Visions in some numbers, but they remained exclusive. The PT Cruiser was not that uncommon when new.

      You do see more full size pickup trucks around the last couple of years, mainly Rams. A loophole in the tax systems makes these cars very attractive for small business owners.

      American cars have a strong cult following, though. Three is a gathering in The Hague every first Saturday of the Month from April til September and there are always 200 or more cars. I visit it at least a couple of times a year. Last year they were all cancelled for obvious reasons. Even there I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Saturn, apart from one Saturn Sky.

    3. Thanks. In Spain there isn´t too much interest about American cars. In the early ´90s GM tried to sell, very timidly, the Pontiac Trans Sport in Opel dealers. Espace sales could rest assured. Then another importer brought Camaros, Firebirds and Sevilles STS and the impact in the market was minimal. Finally in 1992 Chrysler did a semi-serious attempt, first with the Saratoga, Le Baron Coupé and convertible, Voyager and Cherokee/Grand Cherokee, and later the Vision, Neon and Stratus. They were succesful with the Voyager and the Jeeps.

      I´m surprised by the big pickups sales in your country; even with attractive tax exemptions, fuel costs must be huge!

  3. Slowly, Saturn was changing from being a stand alone brand (albeit in a strangely sanitized and dull form, a bit like those “Mediocrity” cars from Subaru commercials) to another brick in the GM wall. The Outlook was nice, but it could be any GM appliance.
    And about the Ion, it seems Saturn “stylists” were so desperated to stand out that made the car ugly for ugly´s sake.

  4. I almost read “the Lancia Delta Township plant in Michigan building the Lambda platform”…

    It boggles the mind that the largest corporation in the largest nation that promotes the dynamism of unfettered capitalism (and, frankly, manages to be quite a bit more dynamic than most of Europe, it’s just the cost that you can argue about – but not here) is the most bureaucratically incompetent organisation imaginable. More in keeping with said promotion of capitalism of course, is that GM is being “punished” for this in the marketplace.

  5. Good afternoon all, I’m late to my own party today!

    Yes, it seems amazing that anyone in the US would buy a new car in the 21st Century without air-conditioning or a radio/CD player, but Saturn (thought it) was appealing to a different demographic and, in any event, still offered those features on higher-spec versions, for those not wedded to a sackcloth and ashes lifestyle.

    The Ion really was a low-point for Saturn: the company might have seen its natural constituency as immune to such superficialities, but did they really have to make it quite so wilfully awkward in appearance? That said, it’s not as though there was a good car hiding underneath, if Car and Driver’s assessment is to be believed.

    Stay tuned to DTW for the thrilling(!) final installment, coming shortly.

    1. Good afternoon, Daniel. Were you by any chance having a drink, eh pardon, working at DTW HQ today? 🙂

    2. No, Freerk, but I’m still operating as DTW’s Canary Islands correspondent until Friday, when we return to the UK. Anyway, I’m currently persona non grata at DTW Towers after giving away too much detail about earlier par…, er, work events, so I’m keeping my head down.

    3. ‘Level 1’ was possibly showroom-bait – a specification which only existed on price lists, I don’t think that GM had the guile to come up with a Club Sport specification for more money, or even to emulate Volvo’s Torslanda 200-Series with an ultra-dependable car specified for Alaska, Yukon, or Northwest Territories.

      As for the Ion, I agree it’s wilfully awkward, but with what aim in sight? I see a bit of Lancia Dedra, a touch of second-series Laguna, and even a hint of Saab. Except that they were all described to the designer over the phone. North Americans weren’t buying quirky – as in non-German – European imports in quantity any more. As for a Japanese and Korean import beater, that battle had been lost some time before.

      The Ion’s sales figures speak for themselves – 117,230 in 2003, just over 100K from 04-06, and 47,873 in 2007. To use the accepted DTW metric that’s not even two White Hens, in a market with six times the population of Italy, and an addiction to rampant consumption of consumer goods.

    4. Ah yes, you are still there with the van. Enjoy your holiday 🙂

    5. Ah, yes. You are out in the sun with a van (sorry couldn’t resist). Enjoy your holiday 🙂

  6. Is Saturn some brand that means something for those across the Pond,
    but nothing to us Europeans?

    1. Hello Vic. That is indeed the case, for many if not all Europeans, but I hope you still find the story interesting.

    2. It means something if you´re interested in motoring and the car industry generally. I find it absorbing: GM´s self-harm writ large. Saturn Ion anyone? It´s an unrefined design executed by someone who didn´t grasp the way in which bold designs are very finely honed. It makes me think of an undergraduate design: promising but a long way from proper maturity (in the sense of being carefully detailed and nuanced). GM had a lot of ability in that area but it was not on display here.

    3. That sums up the Ion precisely, Richard: it’s an amateurish, poorly resolved confection of curves and straight lines that might have some promise as a starting point, but desperately needs refinement. As it stands, it looks like an inexperienced designer’s initial sketch put directly into production.

    4. Richard, Daniel, I agree with your assessment of the Ion sedan, but it’s a exemplar of elegance beside the ill-favoured coupé. The coupé looks for all the world like three separate cars cut and pasted together. Partly that’s the result of the near vertical lines of the rear door, but they might have got away with that had they conceded a third DLO behind that rear door. It screams of a cost cutting exercise with unfortunate results.

    5. It can mean something for us Europeans! I´ve just seen a couple of Saturns for sale in Autoscout24: a Sky in Belgium, and a ´99 SC2 coupé in The Netherlands. It´s not very attractive, with ugly alloys, but it seems in good condition and for €3000 at least it´s a good conversation piece.

      It strikes me the dashboard; it looks very crude and clearly inferior to earlier Saturns. GM cost cutting at its best!

  7. I find much to like in that Saturn Outlook. Restrained but purposeful. Just enough rear-view mirror authority. I’m not familiar with its closest relative, the GMC Acadia, but some easy research established that the Saturn’s contemporary was the same thing, just a bit more truckish.

    Regrettably the current Acadia is a real horror.

  8. Hi Daniel, note how the productionization somehow enabled thinner upper door frames, an improvement IMO. But Richard Herriot has really nailed this one down. For example, compare the idea of the door handles with the way they turned out.

    I share your affinity for Saarinen’s courtyard, and appreciate your desire to present the subject matter in the best light possible. It would pain me to pile on further, so I’ll not comment on the facelifts of the Ion or L-Series.

    1. Oh, ixnay on my door frame comment, I’m fooled by shadows and haunted by ghosts.

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