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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.
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.