For a company named after a planet, Saturn specializes in down-to-earth virtues, such as simplicity, economy, comfort and, yes, performance. Even Saturn's innovations are earth-bound practical: dent-resistant composite-plastic side panels, for example.
Add its focus on customer relations, and Saturn has drawn a very loyal band of followers to its compact S-Series cars. The L-Series, launched in 2000, gives those loyal owners a mid-size alternative at trade-in time. In keeping with the Saturn tradition, both sedan and wagon styles are offered.
For 2002, the L-Series packs even more value than before. Head-curtain airbags, automatic headlamps and ABS with traction control are now standard on all models, and all but the base-level L100 have four-wheel-disc brakes. New options include OnStar and a DVD entertainment center of the kind found previously only in minivans and SUVs. Other options have been grouped in new Value Packages for convenience and savings.
Saturn's L-Series is based on the same structure as the Opel Vectra. (Opel, a highly respected German automaker, is a GM subsidiary.) While some changes were made, the L-Series retains its German heritage. This platform appears to have been an excellent choice because the body structure is very rigid.
In this case, this impressive structure is clothed in Saturn's trademark reinforced plastic-composite body panels. The composite resists rust and minor dents and dings. Unlike Saturn's smaller S-series sedans and coupes, the L-Series cars use steel for the rear fenders and trunk lid. Saturn engineers felt that a large car demands a large cargo area and that this area must have the added rigidity of steel.
Even though the L-Series is loosely based on the Vectra, Saturn's designers were adamant that their car display a strong resemblance to the rest of the Saturn family. And there is no mistaking the L-Series for anything but a Saturn. The car's rakish front hood and fender line, tied to the steep slope of the windshield; and the swooping line of the rear doors combined with the high rear deck signals your visual sensors that you are indeed orbiting a Saturn.
Sliding behind the steering wheel reveals another reason Saturn has enjoyed such success. The interior isn't full of gaudy, non-essential doodads. It is basic and practical, yet offers a splash of elegance most Saturn owners will welcome.
The seats are roomy and comfortable. Saturn designed them to provide big-car accommodations without a sofa-like experience. As a result, they are supportive without being restrictive.
Most controls are exactly where you would expect them to be. One of few complaints against previous Saturn vehicles was the vagueness with which the switches operated. Not so with the L-Series: Every switch and knob snaps, flips, or turns smoothly. Window switches are mounted on the center console, however, which is less convenient than having them on the doors.
The sound system is located above the heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls; audio controls are nice big knobs that are easy to operate while driving. The steering wheel spokes are set low at each side, which allows for easy use of the correct 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock hand positions. Wood trim in the center dash area looks out of place, however, and the two-tone door trim and mouse fur roof liner are not up to the standards of this class.
Driver and front passenger airbags are standard, of course, but so are front and rear head-level airbags, a feature not even offered in a lot of competitive cars. Compared to the smaller S-Series, the L-Series has a stronger, more substantial body cage, with stronger B-pillars and side-impact bracing in the doors. Energy-absorbing interior door panels further reduce the chance of injury.
The L-Series provides plenty of rear-seat legroom. Headroom is adequate for people who are just a shade over six feet tall, but it would still be wise to leave the Stetson at home. The rear seats split and fold down for additional cargo space.
The Saturn L300 sedan delivers excellent acceleration. Ours was able to blast out of South Florida's toll gates and rocket ahead of the cars of more leisurely drivers.
The power advantage of the V6 over the four-cylinder engine in this 3,100-pound car is quite noticeable, dropping 0-60 mph performance to a respectable 8.2 seconds. On the downside, fuel economy also drops from an EPA-estimated 24/33 mpg city/highway with the four-cylinder engine to 21/29 mpg for the V6.
As installed in the entry-level L100 and L200, the four-cylinder engine produces 135 horsepower, propelling those models from 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds with an automatic transmission. That's not particularly quick. The automatic transmission is balky, slow to downshift and, in general, not responsive. The standard manual gearbox is a better match for the four-cylinder engine.
Much of the German engineering from Opel remains in the Saturn's suspension, and that's a good thing. Saturn increased Opel's suspension compliance for a softer, more comfortable ride. Yet it isn't so compromised that it eliminates the handling capability that the Germans designed in. The L-Series is agile for a four-door sedan. It's stable in high-speed turns. On Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys, our L-Series did a good job of resisting 25-knot crosswinds. It absorbed road vibrations and provided a stable platform over roller-coaster roads outside of Phoenix.
Saturn believes in treating its customers well, and offering them value. The L-Series cars bring these benefits to the mid-size level.
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