The Saturn: GM's $3 billion gamble AUTOS

January 13, 1991|By Ken Parker | Ken Parker,Special to The Sun

Here, after eight years, comes Saturn, General Motors'

answer to Japanese subcompact cars. Most Americans would prefer to buy American, but in this most economical category, Detroit's efforts so far have not come close to its foreign competition.

Therefore, Saturn has to be good. Design and workmanship will have to prove themselves. Dealer service, too, is on the line. It will have to be sensitive and sympathetic to customers.

Mechanical problems or poor service could turn Saturn into another Corvair, Vega, or Chevette, putting GM out of small car manufacturing for years, to say nothing of the $3 billion it cost the company to produce the Saturn.

(Saturn has announced plans for the opening of four dealerships in Maryland. They are scheduled to open sometime in the spring, the company said, and they will be in Glen Burnie, Owings Mills, Marlow Heights and Gaithersburg).

To many, Saturn is seen as the car that will make or break GM, and the Japanese hold on the car market in the process. So far, the Saturn looks good.

The Saturn line consists of three sedans and a coupe. They are being offered in a base SL 4-door sedan version, an $8,000 price leader that dosen't offer power steering, automatic transmission air conditioning; and in SL1 and SL2 4-door sedan versions, and the SC 2-door coupe. Sticker prices range up to $12,000.

The SL1, SL2 and SC, with the base 1.9-liter, 85-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, have the same away-from-the-curb pep as any Tercel, Civic or Sentra. With the higher-output, 16-value, 123-housepower version of the same 1.9-liter 4-cylinder in the SL2 and SC coupe, Saturn cars are more lively than the Japanese rivals.

The Saturn seems to have been designed for intelligent adults, with many thoughtful features for their comfort and convience.

It's big enough for a young family, and even the base model has comfortable seats and decent looking trim.

Also notable is the Saturn Owner Protection Package, which includes a no-deductible, a three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, free 24-hour roadside service for the duration of the warranty, and a moneyback guarantee.

Saturn faces several challenges, however. First is the unfortunate launch timing in a down car market, which could not be avoided once the project was committed.

This could be turned to advantage, though, because if Saturn can be launched successfully in today's market, it can handle anything.

Also challenging is the fact that two of the strongest players in the subcompact field -- the Nissan Sentra and Ford Escort -- have introduced completely redesigned lines for 1991, and both look like winners in their class.

The styling of Saturn's sedan is contemporary but not outstanding. The coupe is a clone of the Chevy Cavalier, good-looking but not original.

Steel panels are used for the hood, roof and deck lid. All other exterior body panels are of polymer composite attached to a steel space frame structure.

Optional on all models is GM's own new anti-lock brake system in a package with four-wheel disk brakes for $875.

A dual overhead camshaft version has four valves per cylinder and multiport fuel injection. It is used in the SL2 sedan and the coupe.

Both engines are available with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic with driver-selectable normal/performance modes.

The EPA mileage ratings are a pleasant surprise: 27 mpg city/37 highway with manual, 26/35 with automatic with the base 1.9-liter 4 cylinder; and 24/33 manual and 23/32 automatic with the 16-valve 1.9-liter engine.

The automatic is electronically controlled and its computer communicates with the engine management computer, giving what many professional drivers say is a benchmark in any car class for proper shift points and smooth shifting.

The twin cam engine received good early publicity recently when a California Saturn dealer and two friends installed one in a Lola racing car and won a four-hour endurance event on Sears Point road course by two laps. SL and SL1 sedans have 14-inch steel wheels with 175/70R14 Firestone all-season tires developed especially for Saturn. The SL2 sedan and the coupe have 15-inch aluminum wheels with Firestone Firehawk 195/60R15 performance tires. There are no wheel and tire options. A mini-spare is provided.

Ride and handling seem equal to GM's midsize Regal, Cutlass or Grand Prix sedans, rather than the Japanese subcompact competition.

Squeaks and rattles were absent. Nothing fell off during the test drive. Doors and deck lids lined up without slipshod gaps, an early sign of quality.

Sparse rear-seat leg room in all cars and disappointing head room in versions with optional power roof were among the irritations, but annoyances were at a minimum.

The two lower-level sedans have manual steering, and the top-level sedan and coupe have computer-controlled variable effort power steering, which is optional on the base and midlevel sedans.

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