1998 Saturn SL1

Are you buying a car when you buy a Saturn, or are you buying

an experience?

The car's basic mechanical bits, even in the low-line sedan SL-1 package, are, after all, above reproach.

Its brakes are strong and connected to a firm pedal; its engine, even in single-cam form, produces ample acceleration in city traffic and has more than enough passing power on the highway.

Its optional four-speed automatic transmission always seems to be in the right gear, shifting smoothly and exacting only a small penalty in fuel consumption. Its suspension soaks up bumps well.

The SL-1's steering is quick, with nice feel, though with a bit of free play.

Its biggest problem is the steering wheel itself — its two low-mounted spokes and horn buttons discourage you from holding it in the proper nine o'clock and three o'clock positions. If you do, and have fingers as stubby as mine, you won't be able to reach the horn fast enough when you need it.

The Saturn's interior feels spacious and airy, despite my test car's black sometimes-shiny, sometimes-textured plastic and fabric.

All of the controls are in the right places, although temperature and ventilation are operated by small sliders that are hard to see at night.

The radio is mounted up high and has a big display and buttons. My test car had an optional CD player that included a pointless five-band graphic equalizer.

The low-mounted seats are part of the reason that the SL-1 feels as roomy as it does, which is a problem for someone short, like me.

Despite the car's large glass area, I was unable to see its corners and place them accurately, which made the car seem bigger than it actually was. (The uplevel SL-2 offers height-adjustable seats, though they are still reclined too far at their most vertical setting for my taste.)

Outside, Saturn's famous polymer body panels are finished nicely, though they don't fit very well. They do, however, bounce back from most minor impacts, saving owners the cost of replacing the part (most nicks and scratches can be buffed out).

Saturn owners, interestingly, consider the panels an extremely important feature and according to GM, they're willing to pay a premium for them. When the company surveyed its plastic van owners on the same topic, they were unwilling to pay for the feature, hence the new Venture/Trans Sport/Silhouette's metal bodies.

In the end, buying a Saturn is less about buying a great little car than getting a great purchase and ownership experience. It's about a one-price, no-dicker sticker, and about a 30-day, money-back guarantee.

It's about the friendliest, best-written, most intelligent and most lavishly illustrated, hardbound owner's manual I've ever seen.

It's about rebate cheques after mid-year price cuts, and invitations to Saturn barbecues.

Trips to a couple of Saturn retailers ("dealer" is a bad, bad word to use among Saturn folks, who don't "deal") bore out much of the good press that they've garnered. The sales associates were friendly, patient, and knowledgeable about the cars.

What price, though, such peace of mind?

Stickering at $20,078, albeit with air conditioning, ABS, traction control (rare in this class), and a dim-witted alarm system, my SL-1 tester lagged behind its competitors in superficial but ultimately important stuff like build quality, interior ambiance, and at least in my view, looks.

It's a fine-driving car, to be sure, but, from its ill-fitting centre console to the quality of the engine's noise at idle, was less refined than I had expected.

Still, it's hard to put any a price on peace of mind. Buying a Saturn looks to be a lot easier, a lot more pleasant than any other make on the market.

If you've not the stomach for negotiation, and are willing to put up with some admittedly rust-free rough edges, you won't go wrong with one.


Saturn SL-1 w/1SC package:


Air conditioning: $1210

ABS brakes with traction

control: $920

Power locks, remote security

system: $485

AM/FM stereo with CD: $415

Cruise control: $370

Appearance package: $100

Floor mats: $75

Delivery charge: $455

Air conditioning tax: $100

Price as tested: $20,078

Laurance Yap is a Toronto-based freelance writer and

regular contributor to Auto Motive, a bilingual Chinese-English

automobile magazine.

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