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When the Saturn L-Series sedans were introduced, they were styled to look like the smaller S-Series Saturns, only bigger. It's not uncommon for automakers to give their products a family resemblance, but the styling of the S-Series was tired, soon to be replaced by the Ion. Combined with a more lackluster impact on the market than Saturn brass would have preferred, the L-Series went to the beauty parlor for a major makeover for 2003. The result is a mid-size Saturn in a new, more attractive wrapper.
What hasn't changed is Saturn's simplicity, economy, performance, and dent-resistant composite-plastic side panels.
The Saturn L-Series continues to be stuffed with value. Head-curtain airbags, automatic headlamps and ABS with traction control are standard on all models. Options include OnStar and a DVD entertainment center that's a segment exclusive. Floor mats and anti-lock brakes are optional, however.
Saturn's legendary customer service also remains, a key attraction for buyers who want a pleasant buying experience and a friendly service.
For 2003, the plain faces of the earlier models have been replaced with a grille with more flash and a brighter Saturn badge. The grille lattice, if one looks closely, is formed from small arcs of the Saturn planet-and-ring logo. At either end of the grille are standard projector beam headlamps with clear lenses framed by chrome trim. Optional fog lamps are inset in the new front fascia.
2003 also brings a higher hood to the Saturn L-Series cars. These combine to reduce the stinkbug-ready-for-action look of last year's L-Series. In fact, the changes, which include a redressed tail and body-color rocker panels (instead of black), give the L-Series a resemblance to the departed Cadillac Catera from the side. That look didn't work for Cadillac, but it looks rich on the Saturn.
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.
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. When refueling we noticed that the fuel filler door is plastic and feels flimsy, though it may well be quite durable.
Echoing the changes to the exterior, the 2003 Saturn L-Series was dressed up as well. Brushed nickel trim now decorates the interior, providing a more expensive look combined with new silver-faced gauges. On the other hand, flashing from the molding process can be seen and felt around the interior.
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. Still, the driver's seat seems smaller and less comfortable than those found in some of the other cars in the class and the seat fabric looks like something you'd see in the coach section of a United Airlines flight.
Most controls are exactly where you would expect them to be and won't require deciphering a cryptic owners manual to operate. 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, though the switches for the seat warmers, fog lamps, hazard and traction control felt hard, flimsy and weak. Window switches are mounted on the center console, split by the shifter, which is less convenient than having them on the doors.
The steering wheel is nicely contoured with finger grips and feels good to the touch, as do other interior surfaces. 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.
The sound system is located above the heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls. Audio controls are nice big, clearly labeled knobs that are easy to operate while driving. The optional automatic temperature control was hard to control. Set on auto, the HVAC system always seemed to blow too-cold air through the dash vents.
Driver and front passenger airbags are standard, of course, but so are front and rear side curtain airbags, a feature not even optional in most 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 decent rear-seat legroom, though less than what's found in the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and other mid-size cars. 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 in the sedan and wagon fold down for additional cargo space. The wagon offers a full 79 cubic feet of cargo space. Compare that to less fuel-efficient SUVs.
We liked the quality of sound and the convenience of the 6-disc CD changer that came with the DVD Entertainment package on our test Saturn, though we found that only commercially produced DVDs will play on the DVD player. It will not play home-produced DVDs or even some DVDs from smaller commercial makers, such as the marching band video we tried to play. Those who wear bifocals, by the way, will have to tilt their heads back uncomfortably to watch the screen. Kids, though, will be the primary audience for the device.
The L-Series comes only with a single-note horn. It's certainly cost saving, but it sounds cheap and out of place on a car trying to polish its image.
The Saturn L300 sedan accelerates strongly with a lusty roar. We didn't have to worry much about merging into Interstate traffic from a stop. 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 L200, the four-cylinder engine produces 135 horsepower, propelling those models from 0 to 60 mph in about 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 manual gearbox is a better match for the L200's four-cylinder engine than the automatic. The manual shifts well. We find the upshift light annoying, however, and you have to pull up on a ring to shift into reverse, a device we associate with American compact cars from the 1970s. Equipped with the manual gearbox, the Saturn L200 offers quicker acceleration in most situations (especially from rolling starts) than the new Toyota Camry SE or the Subaru Legacy with manual transmissions.
The L300's V-6 felt smooth and quiet at idle and on the road. The electronically controlled four-speed automatic shifts smoothly at full throttle, more smoothly than under light acceleration.
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 all the handling capability that the Germans designed in. Make no mistake, however. The L-Series Saturns have no illusions of being sports sedans. The aim of the suspension engineers was to provide predictable handling for the average driver, which is wholly appropriate for the S-Series segment.
The Saturn L-Series cars are quite agile and 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. On unpaved roads, however, we found the L300's suspension harsh over larger gravel, something also noticed over road seams. The L300 seemed fairly free from wind noise, though road noise coming up through the chassis was noticeable.
Likewise, the L200 felt stable and handled well, even in a torrential downpour. Its transient response in lane-change maneuvers is as good or better than the new Honda Accord's response. It lets in road vibration, however, which can be felt through the steering wheel.
Saturn believes in treating its customers well and that may be the best reason to buy an L-Series sedan or wagon. The L-Series cars deliver value to the mid-size, mid-price level and it's wrapped in a slicker and more handsome wrapper for 2003. The Saturn L-Series cars offer responsive handling and decent performance, though they are not as refined as some of the other mid-size cars. Side-curtain airbags and other safety features enhance the value of the Saturn L-Series.
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