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Saturn's S-Series cars are popular among people who are seeking value and a pleasant ownership experience.
These compact sedans and wagon were redesigned for 2000, which brought significant improvements to help make the driving experience smoother and quieter. They carry over little changed for 2001. The biggest news is the availability of optional front- and rear head-level air bags.
The Saturn S-Series was the car that put Spring Hill, Tennessee, on the map. Debuting in 1990, it was a new car, a new way of thinking, and an attempt by General Motors to breathe life into its flagging small car business. By most accounts, the S-Series has been wildly successful, even though the Saturn division hasn't been profitable. But Saturn owners don't care about GM's bottom-line; they only care that whenever they return to their favorite Saturn dealership they're greeted warmly and are made to feel good about their purchase. This is why Saturn customers keep going back.
These cars do indeed offer value. Saturn has been winning accolades for high resale values and its cars are regarded for low maintenance and repair costs. Prices range from about $11,000 to a tad over $14,000.
Buying one brings the owner into the Saturn family, in which you are treated with courtesy throughout the buying process. The results prove that this system works; Saturn has been named best overall nameplate in sales satisfaction by the J.D. Power and Associates research firm again and again. But that's only the beginning. When it's time for service, you are welcomed back warmly. There are even picnics and other family gatherings.
Our Saturn SL2 is substantially improved over the last model we tested. These cars have always handled well and that still holds true. Steering and handling is one of Saturn's strongest suits. The SL2 seems to provide more accurate steering response than a Dodge Neon. It comes with 185/65R15 tires that provide good roadholding in sharp corners. Though it rides well, the softly tuned springs allow the body to lean in turns. Softer springs also require slowing a bit more for rough roads to avoid bottoming out the suspension. It feels stable at high speeds, though strong crosswinds blow it around a bit.
Over the years, GM has worked to reduce noise and vibration in the Saturn engines. Pistons were made smaller and lighter, connecting rods were made longer, more counterweighting was added to the crankshaft, the block was redesigned and reinforced, the timing chain was made smaller. The cylinder head was redesigned on the twin-cam engine. The list goes on and on.
All that work paid off. The twin-cam engine is smooth. It's also much quieter at cruising speeds. The engine sounds you do hear are not as annoying as past Saturns. The SL2 engine now hums along happily with a pleasant roar in the middle of the rev range. It no longer feels like it's straining every time you hold the gas all the way down for an extended period. The muffler produces a pleasing sound. Road noise, engine noise and ride quality still do not match that of some of the more refined German and Japanese cars in this class, however.
Saturn's S-Series cars deliver excellent fuel economy. The SL gets 40-mpg highway, while the SL2 gets 38 mpg. The SL2 isn't as quick as a Dodge Neon, but it offers good performance in city traffic. Saturn claims the SL2 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 9 seconds.
Unfortunately, to save money, Saturn changed the rear brakes from discs to drums on all S-Series models, something we don't think rates as progress. In all fairness, however, base Hondas and Toyotas make do with drums in back as well. Saturn refined its optional anti-lock braking system last year, and Saturn's tests indicate reduced stopping distances with ABS; independent published test results indicate these cars provide good stopping power. It seems like the ABS comes into play often. It's sometimes detectable when making normal stops at intersections. We don't know whether that's because the tires lack grip or if it's because the ABS is aggressive. It also kicks in when just one side of the car is on a slippery surface, which is a good thing.
The traction control system works aggressively as well. While standing on the throttle at the bottom of an ice-covered grade, the SL2 slowly and methodically motored to the top of the hill. (That's a good thing.) These are easy cars to drive. A switch on the console allows the driver to turn off traction control for those times when a bit of wheelspin is needed to get unstuck or to accelerate at maximum levels.
Value and a pleasant ownership continue to be Saturn's hallmarks. With attractive interiors and nimble handling, these are nice cars to drive. They don't offer the refinement of some of the best compact sedans from Europe and Japan, but Saturn's S-Series sedans have come a long way. Affordable payments and a trustworthy dealer are important considerations when choosing a car and these Saturns deliver those benefits in spades.