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When the first Saturn cars made their debut in 1990, the automotive press wished the fledgling carmaker well but dismissed the cars as noisy, buzzy and crude.
In the years since, Saturn has grown steadily. It built its one-millionth car in the middle of last year, and has regularly announced sales records and growth increases.
The company also has attained the highest loyalty rate in the business--that's the number of Saturn owners who come back and buy another Saturn. It has achieved extraordinary levels of customer satisfaction, routinely ranking at the top of the list with luxury marques such as Lexus and Infiniti.
Did Saturn accomplish all this by revamping its cars into superb examples of automotive achievement? Not really.
The lesson of Saturn is that you don't need great cars to be successful. If you build a reliable car that provides all the basics, is priced well, and is pleasant to buy and own, you're set.
For 1996 Saturn has revised its sedan and wagon for the first time since their introduction. (The coupe model won't be revised until the 1997 model year.) The sedan and wagon are now quieter and a little more stylish, with a more attractive interior and some additional safety features. Saturn owners have always loved their cars. Now they have nicer cars to love.
The new cars are fractionally longer and narrower than before, but the big difference is in height. The sedan has grown 2.0 in. taller and the wagon an inch, increasing headroom in both.
The sedan, in particular, has become more attractive. The rounded lines give it better aerodynamics and a more modern look. The new shape is a little less appealing on the wagon. As a cost-saving measure, the same rear door is used on both models, giving the wagon a funky, curving C-pillar.
The sedan comes in three trim levels: the very stripped-down SL ($10,495), the basic SL1 ($11,395) and our test car, the sportier, more powerful SL2 ($12,295). The S and SL1 models can be recognized by their black front and rear fascia and bumpers. The SL2 has cleaner-looking body-colored panels. The SL2 also rides on 15-in. wheels and tires.
Note that the SL model has a limited list of features. Not even a right-hand outside mirror is standard. Many popular items--automatic transmission, cruise control, power windows, locks and mirrors--are not available even as options. For many people, the SL1 would be the entry-level car.
All three models, however, use dent-resistent polymer for vertical panels, such as the doors and fenders. This protection against parking-lot dings is another Saturn touch that makes the vehicle easy to own. A couple of new paint choices have been added for 1996, such as purple and black gold, which should appeal to younger buyers.
The Saturns are flexible cargo-haulers. The sedan has a 12.0-cu.-ft. trunk with a low liftover for easy loading. The rear seats split 60/40 for more convenience. The wagon holds about 25 cu. ft. of stuff in a nice square space that swallows up big computer boxes. With the rear seats folded down, it offers about 50 cu. ft. of storage, a nice feature for buyers who are in a nomadic period of their lives.
Although Saturn drew some criticism for the absence of airbags in its initial offerings, dual front airbags were added last year. For 1996, daytime running lights have been added and the center-mounted rear brake light has been raised, which provides better notice to drivers behind. The body also meets the 1997 side impact standards.
Remote keyless entry is another new feature. It is a convenient option for anyone, but parents in particular will appreciate the ability to unlock the car while keeping a hold on kids' hands in busy parking lots.
The interior--which is after all what the owner sees most--has been reworked extensively. Higher-quality materials have been used, and leather is a new option. A passenger-side airbag was added last year; now the dashboard has been reworked so it is integrated more attractively.
The gauges and controls are plain and lack style, but most are clear, easy to reach and logically arranged. One exception is the radio, which has confusing controls for the graphic equalizer and station presets. The cupholders are inconveniently located at the bottom of the center console. The height of cups that will fit is limited and the shifter gets in the way, too, particularly when it is in Park.
The seats have been recontoured for more support and can be angled back farther, something tall drivers will appreciate--along with the extra inch of headroom. Height-adjustable seatbelts have been added for the front passengers. Rear seat legroom is only adequate.
Perhaps the single greatest flaw of the previous Saturn sedans was the interior noise levels. It's quieter inside now, thanks to the more aerodynamic shape, better seals on the doors and windows, and a smoother engine. But it's still not as quiet as class leaders like the Civic.
The Saturn's generally mediocre engine performance has kept it off the enthusiasts' radar screens. For 1996, the rather noisy engine has been refined somewhat, reducing the noise levels to something approaching acceptable.
Two engines are available for the Saturn. The SL2 we drove, which is the sporty model, comes standard with the 124-hp double-overhead cam 16-valve 4-cyl. The SL and SL1 feature a 100-hp sohc version of the same engine.
Neither engine provides anything resembling compelling or spirited performance. We prefer the 124-hp version on the general principle that more power is better than less, especially when the cost differential is minor ($900 in this case). The engine has proven quite reliable over the years. It won't get you around with verve, but it will get you around.
Ride and handling are essentially unmemorable, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The steering is reasonably tight and precise; the ride is neither harsh nor soft. Although the car's handling is crisp and predictable, it doesn't coax the Mario Andretti out of anyone's soul.
One area in which Saturn has been ahead of the curve is in offering traction control, an uncommon feature for cars in this class. Although traction control is not as critical on a front-drive car as on a twitchy rear-driver, it is a useful option ($785).
Saturn first offered traction control in 1993. If the front wheels start to spin, the system modulates the engine power electronically to eliminate the problem. The system is paired with the antilock brakes. Previously it was only available with an automatic transmission, but this year it can be ordered with a manual transmission. There is a switch to disengage the traction control on those occasions you may desire some wheel spin, such as if you are stuck in deep snow.
A 5-speed manual transmission is standard on all models. A rather harsh 4-speed automatic is available on all but the SL. You may select either performance or normal model. The shift points are firm. As you aecelerate to a stop, you hear the gears change down, one by one.
The key to Saturn is the ownership experience. There are many cars out there with more personality, better performance, and greater sex appeal. The reason Saturn is such a success is the experience that surrounds buying and owning the car.
Saturn's prices are intended to be firm prices, eliminating the haggling and the nagging sense that someone else paid less for the same car. The short model line means there is little incentive for the salesperson to pressure customers to move up to a more expensive model. Indeed, the Saturn sales approach in general is to avoid high-pressure sales techniques.
The base prices are a little deceiving since the standard model lacks many basic amenities. The advantage of a la carte pricing is that buyers looking for basic transportation can find it. Buyers who want comforts such as an automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, power locks, windows and mirrors and antilock brakes can expect to run the bill up.
The ownership experience seems to be a good one. The cars have shown good reliability and have held their resale value well. The highly trained, selective dealer network means that Saturn owners have the best chance of getting good service anywhere in the country.
As the ultimate protection against buyer's remorse, Saturn offers a 30-day/1500-mile no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee, a philosophy Saturn has extended to used cars for 1996.
A different kind of company indeed.