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2000 Saturn LS and LW

I've never thought the small Saturn was that big a deal. It's cramped, noisy, not particularly refined. It rides and handles all right, but there are lots of cars that do most things better.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Expectations matter.

I've never thought the small Saturn was that big a deal. It's cramped, noisy, not particularly refined. It rides and handles all right, but there are lots of cars that do most things better.

I admit that we car writers are spoiled. We test a car, often under ideal conditions, and enjoy the heck out of it, or not.

After a week or so, we take it back.

Not for us the Real World of car shopping and scheduled maintenance where Saturn has always scored well. Customers get treated right, and they're prepared to forgive their cars a lot.

With all this in mind, I wasn't expecting much from the new mid-size Saturn LS sedan and LW wagon, destined to take on Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

But I don't believe this was the reason I liked this car so much. I'd prefer to think it's because it's a very good car.

The L is critical to Saturn's ongoing success. The existing S Series of sedans, coupes and wagons play on a small and shrinking stage; the subcompact market is strong in Canada, but in the Profligate States of America, you sell mid-size or bigger cars, or you don't win.

Cynthia Trudell, Saturn's Canadian born and raised president and chairman (feminists, don't blame me; that's the title Saturn gives her), says the LS/LW expand Saturn's coverage to 41 per cent of the North American vehicle market, over double the scope

of the smaller S Series.

Jeff Boyer, head of the engineering team for the L Series, says one of his toughest tasks was convincing people, especially the press, that the L isn't a re-badged Opel Vectra,

a European car the size of a Chevy Cavalier, but considerably more upscale.

That's not to say that Saturn wasn't dipping into the Opel gene pool.

The Vectra platform was the starting point for Saturn L, meaning many of the basic engineering calculations had already been done, shaving as much as a year off the L's development time.

But Vectra was too short, too narrow, for us broad beamed colonials, so the floor pan was enlarged in all directions.

Al Landosky, Boyer's power train integration engineer, added, "We could go component shopping within the biggest car company in the world." His boss Boyer admits that if you took bits like the suspension arms from both cars and laid them on the ground, you probably couldn't tell the difference, but the pieces are not interchangeable.

He held up a plastic vegetable bin with a handful of little parts in it, the only components the new Saturn shares with the European equivalent.

The sheet metal is entirely unique to Saturn, however.

Sheet metal? Aren't Saturns plastic?

Certainly, polymer body panels are a major part of Saturn's brand image think of those TV ads with shopping carts bouncing off the doors and little kids hitting fun goes into Daddy's car.

But plastic is space, cost, weight, and strength in efficient.

And designers hate it, because plastic panels require larger panel gaps to allow for thermal expansion, which leaves nasty black lines all over their pretty cars.

A compromise was reached. The front fenders and door panels are still plastic, but the hood, roof, trunk lid and rear quarter panels are steel. The latter were required both for

structural reasons and to enlarge the trunk, as plastic panels need a room robbing steel understructure.

People who belong to the Saturn family, cult might be a better term, will tell you that the L Series shares styling cues with its smaller cousins. Jill Lajdziak, vice president of

sales, service and marketing, refers to the "classic Saturn look," and points to such Saturn signatures as the "Saturn smile in the front," and the "trademark upswept tail lamps."

Right. Parents always think their kids are prettiest.

Outsiders might say, "Hmmmm, another pleasant if innocuous sedan in the worn soap bar Japanese mould."

Handsome, but hardly rapture eliciting.

The wagon eschews the slant back tailgate of one corporate cousin, the new Saab 95, staying with the square back concept of its other cousin, Opel. Boxy works for Volvo, so it should work here.

Inside, things are also Saturn familiar. Gigantic legible gauges, both back and floodlit for easy nighttime viewing.

Ergonomically proper round knobs for radio and climate controls.

Cup holders and cubby bins all over the place.

Standard aircon, with air filter, a boon for allergy sufferers.

An eight-speaker AMFM stereo sound system is standard; a 106-Watt unit with CD and cassette is optional.

Thicker than usual side window glass and dual lip door seals help ensure that the only sounds you'll hear come from those speakers.

Saturn has put a lot of money into the seats. They're big, comfy and supportive. Cloth is standard, leather optional, and even the door trim panels are leather covered, something Accord and Camry don't offer.

The rear seatback split folds in 60/40 proportion in both sedan and wagon, improving luggage carrying flexibility.

Saturn L shoppers will be able to choose from two engines. An all-new 2.2 L four-cylinder 16-valve twin cam, imaginatively called Twin Cam, generates 137 hp at 5800 r.p.m. and 135 lb.-ft. of torque at a low 3400 r.p.m.

While this engine is built in the U.S. and will be exclusive to Saturn for two years, it is largely a European design not a Bad Thing, since North Americans haven't had a lot of luck designing four-bangers. I both suspect and hope it will eventually supplant the 2.2 L Cavalier lump and the sons of Quad 4 that still bedevil domestic GM products.

In the L Series it will be offered with a Saab sourced five-speed manual transmission, or the Windsor-built 4T40E four-speed electronic automatic.

Saturn claims the four pot L Series stays with Accord in a standing start sprint to 100 km/h, beats it soundly in 80to120 km/h passing acceleration and gets better fuel economy. Not bad.

(Both cars handily outdistance a four-cylinder Camry.)

The one up engine will be a U.K. built variant of the 3.0 L four-cam 24-valve V6 used in Cadillac Catera and, in turbocharged form, the Saab 95.

In the L Series Saturn, it has been retuned to produce 182 horses at 6000 r.p.m. and 184 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,400 r.p.m.

Both engines run on regular unleaded.

A more robust but similarly geared 4T45E four-speed electronic automatic is the only transmission offered with the V6.

MacStruts up front and an independent multilink design at the rear do suspension duties.

Suspension engineer Mike Mohler notes that German cars are great at body control, but that "they only need to run on smooth roads. We have to allow for potholes!" So the L Series gets softer, more compliant springs than Vectra.

For braking, Saab supplied technical expertise.

Base level sedans and one up sedans and wagons use front discs and rear drums, with ABS optional. While hardly state of the art, rear drums are fine for a front-heavy, front-wheel drive car.

Top of the line L Series in either body configuration get four-wheel discs with ABS included.

Full function traction control with both brake and engine power intervention is included with ABS.

In perhaps the greatest deviation from Saturn philosophy, the L will be built not in Spring Hill, Tenn. but in a converted GM facility in Wilmington, Del.

A couple of hours booting about the southwestern American desert can't tell you all you need to know about a car. But, as noted earlier, initial impressions were good.

The washing machine full of walnuts thrash of the existing

Saturn 1.9 L engine has been expunged. Even the four-cylinder runs smoothly and sweetly, thanks in part to dual balance shafts.

The five-speed feels even better here than it does in the Saab.

Automatic cars may take a bit too long to downshift under certain conditions, but our testers were preproduction prototypes and Saturn is still tinkering with the shift schedules.

The V6 is stouter and even quieter, but no so much so that you can afford to dismiss the four out of hand.

We'll have to wait to test it on frost-heaved Canadian roads, but it seems they've pretty well nailed the suspension tuning.

The steering feels excellent to the hand, the car corners confidently and the ride is smooth and composed.

The Saturn LS and LW go on sale in early August with prices that compete well against the Accord and Camry.

The base LS sedan carries a sticker price of $19,255. The next-up LS1 is $21,620 and the LS2, with V6, is $26,120.

An LW1 will carry an MSRP of $24,400, $27,810 for the LW2. The freight charge is $720.

Considering how well Saturn's done with the mediocre S Series, how can they lose?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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