Saturn has always talked value, about bang for the buck. Nowhere throughout the lineup is that more apparent than with the SC1 coupe tested here and the slightly pricier SC2. Value and great looks to go with it.
The great looks happened last year when the coupes got completely new aerodynamic skins and a handsome new interior. New, yet it managed to carry over some of the styling cues from the distinctive look of the 1991-1996 originals.
The coupes are on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as the sedans and wagons, which means a stable platform for solid ride quality and good interior headroom.
The SC1--from $12,995 including destination charges--has a 1.9-liter, four-cylinder, single overhead-cam engine that produces 100 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 114 foot-pounds of torque at 2400 rpm. Our test car had the standard five-speed manual transmission, but a four-speed automatic is optional.
The SC2 uses a double overhead cam 16-valve version of the same engine, which produces 124 hp. In addition to the horsepower, the SC2 comes with more comfort and convenience features, bigger wheels and more aggressive tires, which adds up to a premium of about $1,300 compared to the SC1.
The word value popped up back there. The ever-popular V-word has been a key to Saturn's marketing philosophy from the start, and GM's newest division is still serious about it.
Our test car had a $1,930 option package that included power locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, air conditioning, power remote right-hand mirror and cruise control. In addition, the optional $695 anti-lock braking system comes packaged with traction control. Add in the $400 destination charge and the total for our Saturn SC1 was $15,620.
Model-to-model comparisons are difficult to make because different manufacturers roll items into packages. But a quick check of the base models for several competing cars equipped with air conditioning revealed that a Chevrolet Cavalier retails for $12,404 and a Plymouth Neon goes for $11,655. A Saturn SC1 with air conditioning retails for $13,955.
About the new exterior look. All coupes now have exposed headlamps. In the first generation, the headlamps on SC2 models were pop-ups.
The roof takes a gentle arch to the rear glass, then down to a stubby deck lid. The rear bumper is massive and is a significant styling feature. It's also body-colored, unlike basic editions of the sedan and wagon. The taillights wrap around and the trunk lid is covered with reflective materials of various colors--red, yellow, white. The trunk lid opens to vertical and the lift-over is quite low, which makes loading easy. The rear seatback has a 60/40 split.
All in all, the SC1 is about as good-looking as coupes get these days, unless you're enamored by the radical design of the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
All Saturn bodies use a space frame which allows the use of polymer doors, fenders, quarter panels and fascias, a feature that helps keep Saturn owners so loyal. This material is highly ding- and dent-resistant; it's also rust-proof and recyclable. Major repairs require the simple removal of a panel.
Saturns use a standard MacPherson strut front suspension with a tri-link design at the rear--two unequal-length links to control lateral movement, with a single longitudinal link looking after fore and aft movement.
Brakes are disc in front, drums at the rear. As mentioned, the ABS is optional ($695), but includes traction control, which can be switched off if the driver desires. Tires are a modestly hefty P175/70R-14 for all Saturns. Optional tires for the SC1 are P185/65R-15 radials mounted on aluminum wheels.
The SC1 is low slung, so getting in is a bit like, literally, dropping in. And getting out is somewhat of a climb.
One tester's initial reaction to the interior was "plain, but not unattractive." Good summation. The cloth is good quality and the pattern pleasingly subtle. The theme is ovoid shapes and rounded corners, with a modular center pod for audio and climate controls.
Simplicity is repeated in the instrument cluster which has a speedometer, a tachometer, a fuel gauge and a temperature gauge. The steering wheel is adjustable up and down.
There is no lidded console, just an open catch-all tray. Two cupholders sit in front of the shift lever, one with a removable ash tray insert.
The seating position is close to the floor, the window ledge high, so shorter occupants may feel a bit deep into the SC1.
We found the seats rather uncomfortable, even on short runs. The bottom cushion is short front to rear and lacks support for even average-height occupants. Similarly, lateral support for back and thighs is less than we would like.
With the driver's seat in position for a six-foot driver, a six-foot rear passenger found his knees virtually under his chin. The rear seats are little more than padded depressions, so don't sentence friends to extended periods back there.
But let's not make too much about the back seats. This is a small sport coupe built for fun, not rear-seat comfort. Saturn's sedan and wagon models have more rear seat room if that's what you need.
The SC1 is not quick. Those 100 horses do a decent job of moving the little coupe down the road at a moderate pace, but just aren't up to anything much more demanding. According to Saturn, if you wring out all the performance in there, you will hit 60 mph from stop in a leisurely 10.5 seconds. The question, of course, do you want to go more quickly than that?
If you do, you need the SC2.
We recommend against pairing the base engine with an automatic transmission, so you should move up to the SC2 if you need an automatic. Otherwise, you'll be severely lacking in the acceleration department, which can make passing and merging onto busy freeways a bit challenging.
The engine, five-speed transmission and clutch made a happy threesome on our SC1. The shifts were smooth and the clutch was linear in its operation, which means there was no sudden engagement point. And the engine delivers its power in an even flow.
The handling is quite good, we found, with the suspension happy over almost any surface. Over a favorite piece of twisty road the SC1 could be persuaded to take on a more aggressive personality if we shifted into third, and left it there, squirting from corner to corner and dealing only with the throttle and the steering wheel.
That's for when the boy/girl racer impulse hits. In the normal mode, the SC1 easily settles into a satisfying motoring rhythm. It feels light and compact, the engine sounds are muted and wind noise is very low. The SC1 is simply fun to drive, thanks to its nimbleness.
The redesign of the SC1 has been a stunning success and we can't fault a curve or a crease. The interior, while simple, is also well executed. Our only complaint there is with the seats.
In the horsepower column, the SC1 trails the competition. The Neon has 132 horsepower, the Cavalier 120 hp, the new Escort ZX2 130 hp. But the SC1 is built for drivers who do not attach much importance to horsepower figures. It's for value-conscious drivers who appreciate all the SC1 delivers in the way of features for a good price, as well as one of the best-looking small coupes on the road. The SC1 can match or beat any of those cars in the handling department, however. And those who want more power and still remain a member of the Saturn family should consider stepping up to the SC2.
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