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Second-hand: Saturn S-Series

The Internet is clogged with glowing testimonials about the S-Series. Owners praise the reliability, economy and build quality of their vehicles.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Here, for the first time in automotive journalism history, is a story about Saturn cars that makes no mention of the company’s revolutionary sales and service practices. (Okay, that was the

lone reference.)

That’s because many used-car buyers don’t care about the Polaroids taken with staff, the range of international coffees served in the showroom or the other perks Saturn and, increasingly, other dealers are using to warm shoppers.

Some just want a reliable economy car. Period. Which is precisely what General Motors set out to design when it became alarmed by the growing number of imports being purchased by

Americans in the early 1980s. Particularly in California — the bellwether for the entire continent — where fully half of new car sales are imports.

The Saturn project — a new GM division created solely to produce an import-fighter using homegrown technology — was announced to much fanfare.

But the decade would close before the first car rolled out of its spotless Tennessee assembly plant.

It took a long time, and US $3 billion, for the General to build the car it had hyped and without drawing on its worldwide resources at Opel, Isuzu, Suzuki or Saab.

Wisely, the firm sweated the details and resisted the temptation to release its creation early. The hard work paid off. Auto critics have, for the most part, cheered the arrival of Saturn.

It was indeed a different kind of car (from GM): a well-made econobox brimming with value.

CONFIGURATION

The Saturn S-Series was unveiled in 1991 in the U.S. and one year later in Canada. Saturn eschewed a model name (like, say, Vega) for an alpha-numeric system favoured by European

carmakers.

The SL designation marks the fourdoor sedan, SC is the two-door coupe and SW is the station wagon (added in 1993). The SL1/SC1/SW1 are the nicely equipped mainstream cars, marred by cheap-looking black plastic bumpers.

The SL2/SC2/SW2 are the high-zoot models, with power-assisted features and available leather seating. SL by itself denotes a stripper fourdoor with a manual transmission.

What makes the Saturn unique is its use of dent-resistant polymer side panels, of particular interest to salt-weary Canadians.

It’s important to note — especially if you’re using your Saturn for street hockey practice — that the roof, hood and trunk lid are steel. And they rust, as one Newfoundlander

reminded us on the Internet.

A 1.9 L four-cylinder engine is common to all S-Series cars, but the base motor uses an eight-valve single-overhead cam (producing 85 hp and 107 lbft), while the SL2/SC2/SW2 employ

a 16-valve twin-cam head (124 hp and 122 lb.ft.).

In 1995, the single-cam engine was boosted to 100 hp. The sedan and wagon were redesigned in 1996, trading the seven-eighths Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme look for more contemporary

styling.

The coupe followed a year later with a refreshed body and a tell-tale smile embedded in the plastic bumper.

ON THE ROAD

For economy cars, both are fleet-footed. The single-cam motor, tied to the standard transmission, propels the car from zero to 100 km/h in 10 seconds flat. The DOHC engine will accomplish the same up to 2 seconds earlier, depending on the model.

Speaking of economy, the Saturn provides excellent mileage — up to 6 L per 100 km on the highway without punishing passengers with a harsh, pounding ride.

“Good chassis composure and lots of stick,” wrote one reviewer in an uncharacteristic assessment of what is essentially a commuter car.

Steering response is considered exemplary: light (unless you opt for the basic SL, which does not offer power steering) and accurate without feeling over-boosted.

Braking performance, particularly the SL2 models, is also classleading.

RANTS AND RAVES

The Internet is clogged with glowing testimonials about the S-Series. Owners praise the reliability, economy and build quality of their vehicles.

But did GM really hit the target when it set out to beat Honda at its own game?

No. The one big thing Saturn lacks, it seems, is refinement. The twin-cam engine has been roundly criticized for its paint-mixer composure. Even after continuous engineering

improvements (Saturn works tirelessly to tweak its products every model year), the DOHC engine does not approach the mechanical creaminess of a Honda or Toyota twin-cam.

The base engine thrashes more than necessary, too — owners have commented on the unsightly vibration of the rearview mirror. But it’s smoother than its upmarket twin.

Saturn endowed all of its cars with tall gearing to reduce droning on highway jaunts. But other noises abound: drivers complain of numerous squeaks and rattles. One recommended

undercoating the car to muffle the cacophony.

An original 1991 SL2 owner boasted on the Net that his car is the best he’s ever owned in 35 years of driving — then promptly confessed that the engine burns oil.

This is not an uncommon affliction for an eight-year-old car, except that lots of other Saturn owners have reported the same, some with models scarcely three years old, consuming one litre

of oil or more between oil changes.

“Saturn is avoiding a class-action lawsuit by claiming that burning oil is normal,” wrote one frustrated American, illustrating the litigious climate south of the border.

One owner found a better remedy: he had the valve guides replaced under warranty.

Frequent brake service was another common complaint. And the four-speed automatic transmission with “fuzzy logic” (intended to “learn” your driving pattern) has, on occasion, been dazed

and confused, failing to upshift or downshift in a timely manner.

Owners of first-generation cars (1991-95) reported water leaks around doors, windows and trunks.

Others cautioned that the timing chain may require replacement just like a belt, and the eco-friendly paint finish was criticized for scratching too easily.

Still, for every owner who had a nit to pick, there were five exalting the reliability and value of their Saturn. One gentleman drove a base SL for three years and calculated his

maintenance costs to be less than $100 annually.

Driving doesn’t get any cheaper than this. Unfortunately, word has gotten around that Saturns hang together pretty well, and used ones command a better price than the average small domestic car does. But for good reason.

As one owner in Salt Lake City professed on the Internet: “At the light, next to a Lexus, I feel pretty smart.”

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK:

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates.

* Subaru Legacy/Outback, by Nov. 18

* Chrysler Neon, by Dec. 16

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996. Email: toljagic@idirect.com

Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand once a month.

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