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1997 Saturn

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

lineup.

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

right.

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

your ears.

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

cruiser.

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

products.

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,

"retailer's" premises.

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

Saturn fraternity.

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

it.

Maybe somebody should show me the secret handshake.

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