What do you call it when people believe in something that
cannot be supported by dispassionate observation, rigorous
analysis or sound reasoning?
Some might call it a religion. Some might call it a cult.
Still others call it a car.
Saturn owners love their cars to death. Saturn ranks right at
the top of every customer satisfaction survey. Two summers ago,
44,000 Saturn owners drove hundreds, even thousands of
kilometres, to the company's fifth anniversary homecoming party,
where they paid $35 to stand in the rain, in ankle-deep mud, to
tour the factory where their cars were built.
But when I drive the cars, and compare them to what else is
out there, I always end up asking, "Huh?"
Saturn is essentially a onecar company. On the same
subcompact platform, they build a two-door coupe, a four-door
sedan and a wagon, each with a welded steel substructure cov
ered by screwed-on plastic body panels. Single and twin-cam
versions of Saturn's own 1.9 litre four-cylinder engine and
several trim levels make up the permutations of the model
The basics haven't changed much since the car was launched in
1989, but Saturn prides itself on continuous improvement. For
example, a new interior will be installed when it's ready, even
if the new exterior won't be finished until next year.
For 1997, Saturn's big news is an allnew exterior for the
coupe (its interior was new last year on the sedan and wagon
see what I mean?) The plastic-over-steel-skeleton concept lends
itself to relatively simple reskinning, although similar
approaches didn't save the Pontiac Fiero or the Dustbuster
minivan twins, the Pontiac Trans Sport and Chevrolet Lumina APV.
The rearview mirror is right in the line of vision when
negotiating right-hand curves. But depending on where you sit, it
may not be an issue
The Saturn coupe is now built on the same wheelbase as the
sedan and wagon (formerly, it was 81 mm shorter), resulting in
substantial gains in interior room, especially in back.
The coupe presents a strong wedgy profile, topped by a
smallish "greenhouse" the glassed-in area of the car
reminiscent of other recent coupes, notably the Acura Integra.
Huge, full-width taillamps and an interesting headlamp
treatment, with clear lenses exposing the reflectors and bulbs
in the latest fashion, give the car a stylish and expensive
look, which was strengthened by the silver paint on my test car.
You are disabused of the upscale notion the moment you open
the door, when your eyes confront several exposed Torx
screwheads, which hold the body panels on.
It gets worse when you close the door: the sound could only be
described as "tinny," except the doors are plastic. The door
trim panels are none too sturdy, either.
The first thing I noticed when I sat in the Saturn coupe was
the rearview mirror. It is RIGHT THERE, in the line of vision
when negotiating right-hand curves the price you pay for a
swoopy shape and a steeply raked windshield. Depending on where
you sit, it may not be an issue.
The rest of the new-last-year interior is pretty successful:
huge, legible dials, comfortable supportive seats and reasonable
ergonomics, although the turn signal lever was very stiff on my
brand-new test car, and it's tough to distinguish between the
temperature and mode selection slide levers on the heating,
ventilation and a/c system.
Saturn also stays with its manual leftside and (optional)
electric rightside mirror adjustments. Even Mercedes doesn't
pull this chintzy penny-pinching trick any more, so Saturn has
lost its last justification.
The front shoulder belts feed through arms hinged to the
B-pillars. This makes it easier to grab the belt and, when
passengers are getting in back, the arm can be swung down to get
the belt out of the way.
The front passenger seat slides forward when the back rest is
tilted to further ease rearseat access, but the backrest
adjustment is lost. They're copying the Japanese here, instead
of Volkswagen, which is about the only company that gets this
The rear seat contains two deep-dish seat pockets, aimed at
providing some headroom dimension. The extra wheelbase makes the
rear cabin fairly habitable: I'm 5 feet 10 inches; my head was
just brushing the roof, and my knees were bent, but not
horribly. A couple of cup holders and a cubby bin, plus mesh
pockets on the back of the front seats, prove that rearseat
riders weren't entirely forgotten in the planning process. The
seat back splitfolds for added luggage space.
I'm always apprehensive when firing up a Saturn test car for
the first time. The engine has always been so loud and raucous,
and I'm always hoping they've fixed it.
Despite several improvements over the years, and the adoption
of the noise abatement program instituted on sedan and wagon
last year — a thicker insulating pad in the firewall, smaller
holes for cables and wires to pass through — they could fill the
engine compartment with Jello, and still no one would ever
mistake this for a Honda. There's a harsh raspy sound on a cold
start that eases off when the engine's fully warmed up. But lean
on the upper end of the rev spectrum, and it's right back in
Its 124 horsepower is mid-pack these days from 1.9 litres, as
is peak torque of 122 poundfeet at 4800 r.p.m. The car performs
adequately, and with tallish gearing, it's a quiet highway
You'd expect an expensive car like a BMW to surpass a Saturn
in power, torque and smoothness. But when you see what Nissan,
Honda or, now, even Hyundai can do with engines of similar size,
in price-comparable cars, you have to wonder why, after seven
years of development, Saturn's can't be as good.
Same with the fivespeed manual gearbox. It's tough bordering
on impossible to make a cable-shifted manual transmission with
good tactile feel. The Saturn's is remote-feeling and clunky, if
light enough and direct. But others do it better.
Steering feel is fine: it's light and accurate. Handling is
pleasant provided you don't push too hard; a bump in a fast
corner upsets the car.
The ride is appropriately firm for a car with sporting
intentions, again pleasant enough until you encounter some
really rough pavement. Then the shocks can't keep up with rapid
inputs, and harshness rules.
Despite being a critic, and having B-Negative blood, I really
don't like raining on anyone's parade. I hear from enough people
who detest their new cars; I should be delighted when people
love theirs, as Saturn owners typically do.
A couple of cup holders plus mesh pockets on the back of the
front seats prove rearseat riders weren't entirely forgotten in
the planning process.
And I still find it refreshing how genuinely happy Saturn
employees seem to be to make and sell er, "retail" their
But maybe they both should get out more.
On the other hand, my brother had only three functional
requirements for a car: it starts; has a good radio; the air
conditioning works. He got out a lot; he just neither cared nor
wanted to know about the finer points of car performance. (He
wouldn't have bought a Saturn because it didn't have a V8 or
rear-wheel drive, but that's another tale.)
The Saturn has a good radio. The air conditioning works. It's
pretty to look at. The rust-free and ding-resistant body panels
hold some appeal.
And chances are somewhat better than with most brands that you
won't feel like you've been beaten up and dragged through the
mud every time you set foot in your dealership er,
That's no small consideration in today's market.
If that's all you want in a car, you may be ready to join the
But as a car, on virtually every other count, up against some
of the finest names in the industry sorry. I just don't get
Maybe somebody should show me the secret handshake.