Manufacturers hope new car will drive consumers to buy American, not Japanese


March 27, 1991|By Randi Henderson

An article in yesterday's Today section gave an incorrect price for the Saturn SL2 with automatic transmission. The correct price is $11,265.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Tooling down Ritchie Highway in a brand new Saturn, we don't have a whole lot of trouble believing what the General Motors publicity machine would have us believe: That we are on the vanguard of a new era in American automaking.

That's because the Saturn is peppy, smooth and quiet -- qualities we haven't previously associated with small, fuel-efficient American cars.

A recent test drive of the Saturn -- which goes on sale in Maryland beginning April 4 -- convinced this die-hard Honda owner that there may be economical, fun-to-drive cars that aren't made in Japan.


If you're accustomed to a Honda, Toyota or Nissan, sitting behind the wheel of the Saturn is going to feel awfully familiar.

For starters, before we even turned the key, we liked the --board tachometer that is standard on all models -- although it does seem somewhat frivolous on a car with an automatic transmission.

The Saturn features three four-door sedan models -- differentiated by engine size and by extras that are included with option packages -- and a two-door sports coupe. We started our test driving a bottom-of-the-line SL sedan with a five-speed standard transmission. It lists for $8,270 (that includes stereo but no air conditioning) and promises 37 miles per gallon on the highway.

The engine started up with a smooth, efficient purr. It's a quiet-sounding engine -- quieter than any American car we have tried but probably a bit rougher-sounding than the Honda engine we are used to. Shifting gears was also smooth and easy.

On the road, the Saturn, like Japanese cars, gives the feel of a larger car. It was quickly responsive to a light touch on the accelerator -- although not quite as peppy, in our subjective judgment, as the Civic. With its front wheel drive, the car handled adroitly.

Other test drivers have verified that the Saturn goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds. We'll have to take their word for it; we didn't bring our stopwatch, nor is there much opportunity for quick acceleration on Ritchie Highway.

The sedan with automatic transmission handled similarly to the five-speed but wasn't as much fun to drive if you like the control that shifting gears gives you. We also noticed a slight clunkiness in the automatic transmission as it shifted gears.

The Saturn is not just a new model, GM emphasizes, but a whole new company, as distinct as Chevrolet or Cadillac or Oldsmobile. "It's a new product, new assembly, new people, and we're trying to build a long-lasting relationship with the American public," said spokesman Mark A. Tanner.

Saturns are built in a plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., 35 miles south of Nashville, where 3,000 workers have emulated Japanese labor practices and manufacturing techniques to try to come up with a product that has so far eluded American car makers -- a small, fuel-efficient car that you can love.

Saturns go on sale in Maryland next week at four dealerships: in Owings Mills, Glen Burnie, Gaithersburg and Marlow Heights.

You can't help but have heard about this $3.5 billion new venture, if you read magazines (it was on cover of Time last fall) or watch TV (ads are beginning to saturate the airways) or read newspapers (stories have appeared in business pages since Saturns first hit the market last October.)

So far, the publicity has been mainly positive. And the recent Persian Gulf war has increased a public interest in buying American, say some Saturn dealers.

All of the early glowing reports must still, of course, stand up to the test of time. One of the chief selling points of Japanese cars is their integrity of manufacture and low frequency-of-repair records. It's still too soon to tell if Saturns will do as well in this category.

Mr. Tanner was defensive when questioned about a report that the first Saturns off the line had been recalled because of a faulty seat-adjustment device.

"That was not a recall, that was a voluntary customer satisfaction campaign to fix the seat-recline mechanism," Mr. Tanner said. "It applied to only 1,200 cars and it was not a safety issue."

As of mid-March, there had been about 6,100 Saturns sold around the country, Mr. Tanner said, mostly from dealerships in the South, West and Midwest. Dealerships are opening this spring in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and by summer Saturns will be available in most major metropolitan areas.

"We've had a very excellent response," said Jim Millner, general manager of Saturn of Richmond, which has been in operation since October. He has had customers from as far away as Baltimore and Washington, Mr. Millner said, especially after auto shows in those cities earlier this year highlighted the Saturn.

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