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1996 Saturn SW2

About a dozen years ago, General Motors chairman Roger Smith

drop-kicked the Saturn Corp. into existence. Its mandate: build

a small car that could compete with the Hondas and Toyotas that

were allegedly killing the domestic smallcar industry.

Saturn was to be, as the corporate slogan now puts it, "a

different kind of company". Elimination of physical and

psychological barriers between worker and supervisor, management

and union, company and community, were also to help show GM the

way of the future.

Six years later, the first Saturn rolled out of the

greenfield factory in Spring Hill, Tenn. Despite scepticism from

many sides, Saturn has become a player in the small-car

business, primarily due to its innovations in retailing, which

include nodicker pricing and respect for the buyer.

Corporate philosophy calls for continual change. For 1996,

sedans and wagons receive their first major exterior makeovers,

taking advantage of Saturn's sheetsteel substructure and

bolton, mostlyplastic, exterior panels. (The coupes get redone next

year.)

To check on Saturn's progress, we arranged a test of a

top-of-the-line wagon, denoted SW2 in Saturn's simple nomenclature.

(SW1: Station Wagon, first level, is the label for the base

wagon; SC means Saturn Coupe; SL is Saturn sedan. We don't know

what the "L" stands for. Okay, so it's not that simple.)

The all-plastic concept is compromised by the new wagon's

steel roof and rear fascia. The roof, anyway, isn't prone to

rust or shopping cart dings. As do many wagon models, Saturn's

version utilizes the rear doors from its corresponding sedan

model. The shiny, all-black greenhouse trim successfully

disguises their deeply curved rear contour. It's a pert, cheeky

car that avoids the utilitarian look of most wagons. It's closer

to the European squared-off hatchback style of wagon, like BMW's

Touring models.

The uplevel 124 horsepower, 1.9 litre twin-cam 16-valve

four-cylinder engine is tuned to deliver over 90 per cent of its

peak 122 poundfeet torque value at a low 2400 r.p.m., to

improve low and mid-range acceleration.

My test car had the optional electronic four-speed automatic

with fuzzy-logic shift controller, which adapts shift quality

and timing to your way of driving. A two-position switch offers

normal and performance shift programs, the latter delaying

upshifts for better performance.

MacStruts up front and three-link struts at the back are the

suspension basics. Uplevel models get a rear stablizer bar and

vehicle-speed sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.

Disc front/drum rear brakes were augmented in my tester by the

anti-lock (ABS) option, which also includes an

engine-power-reduction traction assist system, now fitted to ABS-equipped

Saturns with manual or automatic transmissions; formerly it was

restricted to automatics.

I really want to say that Saturn runs rings around the

opposition. I really do. But first, the editor would probably

slap me upside the head (for cliche abuse, surely — Ed.). And

second, it just isn't true.

One major failing is evident the moment you step inside. Or

attempt to. This is a small car. Lady Leadfoot fits, of

course. But people closer to average stature will have to

wriggle their way around doors that don't open very wide, and

squeeze into an interior that's not very spacious.

The back seat in my wagon was particularly tight. When

"sitting behind myself" — with the front seat adjusted for my

5-foot, 10-inch frame — my knees touched the back of the front

seat. I sure wouldn't want to spend more than a few minutes back

there.

It would be okay for small children. But other cars with

similar exterior proportions do a better job of packaging.

The 1996 Saturns do have slightly more headroom than before –

21 mm in front, 43 mm in the rear — and the front seats have

been raised slightly to offer a better driving position. Still,

there's only so much you can do, given the limitations of the

bodyshell.

To its credit, the bodyshell has been reinforced to meet the

1997 U.S. dynamic side-impact standard a year ahead of the law.

Last year's interior makeover brought dual air bags to all

Saturns.

Once the seat's reach, rake, lumbar and head-restraint are

adjusted, and the steering column tilted to suit, the driver's

seat is quite comfortable. The ergonomics are generally good,

although I found the turn signal lever a bit high, and the

heater's sliding levers awkward to work in the dark.

The other major drawback to Saturn is engine noise: a problem

from Day One. Every year, they introduce more noise reduction

techniques; for 1996, these include revised engine mounts,

additional sound-deadening materials, and a seal between

instrument panel and windshield to cut noise transfer from the

engine bay.

But the fact is, Saturn's engine is plain loud. One plus: part

of the noise comes from a steel timing chain, which is more

reliable than the more common, and quieter, rubber belts, and

causes less damage to the engine should it fail.

To be fair — aren't we always? — the Saturn engine calms down

as it warms up, and the gearing is tall enough so that highway

cruising isn't too tiring. But first impressions can be lasting

ones, and you're always aware that it's thrumming away up there.

The high-torque concept works: there's plenty of realworld

grunt. And on our Zamboni-resurfaced, i.e., icy, rural roads, I

had ample opportunity to use the traction assist system. It

works better than most, dialing out engine power gently, and

upshifting the transmission as required, to reduce wheelspin. It

can be switched off too, if you need to rock the car back and

forth out of a snow bank. No, thank you, I didn't need to.

A road tester is handicapped when evaluating an adaptive

autobox. In just a few days, we must see how the unit shifts

under a variety of conditions, so it never "learns" my regular

driving habits.

In normal driving, Saturn's tranny upshifts as smoothly as any

in my experience. It downshifts into third as the car rolls to a

stop, thereby eliminating a harsh downshift if you reaccelerate

before coming to a complete halt a pretty typical situation.

At other times, this thing has a mind of its own, catching

third gear on slight upgrades in what appears to be random

fashion. With enough time to learn, I think this transmission

would work well. I failed to note much difference between

performance and normal modes.

The ride is on the firm side, especially at low speeds. It

reminded me of an older German design, as it smooths out as the

pace increases. Handling is very good, with light, direct

steering and flat cornering.

Saturn's quality image is marred by visible screws attaching

the plastic panels to the frame you see them on the upper door

jamb every time you open the door and, on my tester, by

indifferent interior trim assembly and a recalcitrant and

flimsy-feeling folding rear seat mechanism.

I really want to love Saturns, especially after reading quotes

from the people who design and build them. They seem genuinely

sincere in their expressed desire to produce a quality product

that puts the others in the shade.

But Saturn still has some work to do to reach the top rung of

the small-car ladder. Their main problem is that the Honda

Civic, their target in 1984, has undergone four major

re-engineerings in the meantime, each one moving the goalposts

farther down the field, notably in packaging and refinement.

At the same time, other small GMs, notably Chev Cavalier, have

improved immeasurably, and now offer better value.

Neither Civic, nor Cavalier, nor anyone else, offers Saturn's

30 day/2500 km moneyback guarantee. And Saturn has managed to

imbue its cars with that indefinable trait: character. Maybe

it's the passion of the people who build them; maybe it's the

cheerful "put me in, coach" underdog attitude that elicits

affection from their owners.

Hey, I can understand that. I used to own, and love, Fiats.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Saturn SW2 Wagon

MODELS AND PRICES

Sedans, fourdoor: SL $12,998; SL1 $14,398; SL2 $16,148.

Station wagons:

SW1 $14,898; SW2 $16,748.

Coupes:

SC1 $15,348; SC2 $18,048

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

SW1 wagon: dual air bags; power steering; child-proof rear door

locks; dual sideview mirrors, leftside manual remote; tilt

steering column; remote fuel door and tailgate releases;

intermittent wipers; rear wiper/washer; rear heater ducts; front

console with dual cup holders; front door map pockets; cargo

area light; cargo securing net; passenger visor vanity mirror;

6040 splitfolding rear seat back; AM/FM stereo 4-speaker radio

with cassette, seek and clock.

SW2:as above, plus: twin-cam engine; sport-tuned

suspension; specific exterior trim; cargo area cover with

storage bag; driver's lumbar and cushion height adjustments;

adjustable front head-restraints; full cloth upholstery; radio

speaker upgrade

ENGINE

Standard (SW1): 1.9 litre 4-cylinder, OHC, 100 h.p. at 5000

r.p.m.; 114 poundfeet torque at 2400 r.p.m.

Standard (SW2):1.9 litre 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16-valve; 124 h.p. at

5600 r.p.m.; 122 poundfeet torque at 4800 r.p.m.

TRANSMISSION

5-speed manual; front-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer's figures: WB 2601 mm; L 4492 mm; W 1695

mm; H 1385 mm; front headroom 999 mm; rear headroom 983

mm; trunk capacity 705 litres rear seat up, 1379 litres rear

seat folded; fuel tank 48.5 L; weight (with air conditioning,

as equipped) 1151 kg

PRICE, AS TESTED

SW2 model: $21,303 (excluding extra charges and taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

4-speed electronic automatic transmission: $1,000; 1SH package,

includes cruise control, passengerside power mirror, power

windows with expressdown for driver, power locks with remote

keyless entry: $1,150; air conditioning: $1,090; anti-lock

brakes and traction assist system: $915; aluminum road wheels:

$400

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and pre-delivery inspection: $400; federal air

conditioning excise tax: $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax:

$75

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags: std.; anti-lock brakes: opt; meets 1997 U.S.

sideimpact standard: yes; theft deterrent system: none;

height-adjustable shoulder belts std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

City: 9.8 L/100 km; highway: 6.7 L/100 km; estimated maximum

range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 724 km

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler

and tailpipe — $133; front fender — $280; taillight unit:

$111

WARRANTY

Entire car — 3 years, 60,000 km, includes 30 day/2500 km

refund/exchange guarantee (no deductible, no transfer fee);

catalytic converter and powertrain control modules 8 years,

130,000 km; rust-through 6 years, 160,000 km; roadside

assistance 3 years, 60,000 km

COMPETITION

Toyota Corolla — starting at 20 grand, it should be (and is) the

class of a very limited

"small-wagon" field; Ford Escort — the rest of the field, and an

all-new one this spring should give Saturn a tougher run

RATING

Bold face denote's Kenzie's rating: 14: yeah, it's a car;

56: it's got price going for it;

78: good value; 9: great value; 10: where do I

sign?

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