You'll have to excuse the fingerprints on the doors and hoods. There have been a lot of people wanting to see and touch the Saturn, General Motor's challenge to the foreign compact car market.
The car was introduced to the Baltimore area at two dealerships that officially opened last week. So far, the crowds in the showrooms have surprised even the dealers, who have been suffering during the recent car slump.
"We are tickled to death," said Jerry Fader, a partner in the Saturn of Owings Mills dealership in the Heritage Auto Park on Reisterstown Road.
About 25 cars have been sold at Fader's dealership which is "a little better than some of our other franchises." At Saturn of Glen Burnie, owned by Steve Griffith of Griffith Management Services, 45 cars have been sold, said Ron Johnston, general manager. He said Saturn is outselling other cars in the 16 other Griffith operations by 15 or 20 percent.
Gary Stapleton of Baltimore had waited almost a year to see his first Saturn. The insurance salesman had read about the car in Road and Track magazine and was looking for a car that would be more fuel efficient than the Firebird he was driving.
The four-cylinder Saturn with manual transmission gets an estimated 24 to 27 miles per gallon in the city and 34 to 37 miles per gallon on the highway, depending on the model. The car is available in four models, each coming with standard equipment such as five-speed manual transmission, rear window defrosters, AM/FM radio, reclining seats, front-wheel drive, tinted glass and remote trunk lid and fuel-filler door releases. Prices range from $7,995 plus freight for the SL model to $11,775 plus freight for the sports coupe model.
When the Saturn was introduced in Glen Burnie two weeks ago, Stapleton went in to take a look. He bought a red SL2 model. "It looks impressive and it really drives great," he said.
Besides being impressed with the car, Stapleton said, he also was impressed with the attitude of the salesmen. They even took him to meet the mechanics to prove that Saturn considers its service department as important as sales. "They were very cordial and very nice."
Unaccustomed to paying sticker price for an automobile, Stapleton tried his best to negotiate a lower amount, but, true to Saturn's philosophy, there was no dickering. In the end, he paid the list price.
"They were cheaper than the foreign cars and within $100 of the Mercury Tracer," he said.
Carol Mullen had been watching the new Saturn dealership being built across from her home in Glen Burnie and stopped by to look at the cars when it opened. She was driving a Toyota Tercel and was searching for a larger car with four doors. She had looked at Hondas, but couldn't afford the car with the options she wanted. Then she saw the Saturn and bought it.
"I didn't feel like I was rushed. They told me everything up front," she said.
In the showrooms, where mothers read window stickers as their children scramble around the cars, and where young men engage in the traditional rite of checking out the latest car models, the comments about the Saturn are generally positive.
Richard Craig, a retired auto mechanic from Baltimore, was impressed. "I know what the American cars were, I know what the competition was. There's no way the industry could continue on the same track as they were."
He looked at the finish, the workmanship on such details as screw heads, and the ease of getting to parts under the hood.
As Craig scrutinized the car at the Heritage Auto Park, he said was seriously considering trading in his Chevrolet pickup for a Saturn. "I was very impressed," he said.
But the Saturn isn't for everyone. Bert and Robin Bodenheimer of Baltimore said the car was too small for Bodenheimer's 6-foot-plus frame and for their children. "For a family car, it's cramped," Robin Bodenheimer said.
Bert Bodenheimer said he didn't believe the car had as much room as his Toyota Corolla.
Paul Brammer was out shopping for a car for his 19-year-old daughter, Joann. A committed Honda driver, he nevertheless was seriously considering the Saturn. "It's a good product. The finish is perfect," he said.
But on a test drive, the car had seemed a little noisy, he thought. And he also was hesitant about buying an unproven car. As he and his daughter left the Saturn dealership, they were on their way to test-drive a Honda.
Sometimes, even small things can make a difference to car buyers. Kitty Violette was impressed with Saturn's attention to detail. She had been driving a Pontiac but was annoyed that the push-button instruments sometimes caused her to break her fingernails. In the Saturn, the radio, air conditioning and heater are activated by turning knobs or moving levers. She, too, bought a Saturn.
Charles Johnson, an auto mechanic from Edgewood, got his first peek at the cars on Saturday. Arriving with his wife and 3-month-old baby, he looked under the hood and whistled with satisfaction.
Johnson said he was pleased to see GM presenting the foreign car companies with competition. "I like an American car. The parts are easier to get and it's cheaper. And, anyway, I'm an American," he said.