Nineties-Tastic Gas Savers: 1993 Ford Ranger Splash vs 1995 Saturn SC1

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Good morning! It’s time for another Shitbox Showdown, and today, we’re looking at a pair of economical vehicles from the Age of Lollapalooza. Before we do, however, let’s settle the score on our project cars from yesterday:

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Closer than I thought, actually. I expected the BMW to run away with it and leave the poor old Jensen languishing in obscurity. Personally, given the choice between these two, I’d probably take the Jensen, mainly because it’s as close as I’ll ever get to a Lotus.

Moving on: Somehow, amid the baggy jeans and the Pauly Shore movies and the saxophone-playing politicians, a funny thing happened in the 1990s: Cars got good. Really, surprisingly good. Performance started creeping up again after years in the doldrums, styling emerged from the crisp-edged but same-old-same-old ’80s designs into excitingly swoopy shapes, and build quality and reliability rose dramatically across the board (though in many cases there was nowhere to go but up). Technology like multi-port fuel injection and distributorless ignition made stumbling and stalling a thing of the past, and improved fuel economy. [Editor’s Note: I’m pro-distributor, actually. Not a fan of multiple coil packs multiplying the vehicle’s potential failure culprits, even if I have had my share of issues with long spark plug wires on distributor’d cars.  -DT]

These improvements are easy to see now, when the remaining cars from that era have twenty or thirty years under their belts, and hundreds of thousands of miles. In places where rust didn’t claim them, ’90s cars are still a common sight on the road, still chugging along. Once again, I’ve had to stay on the West Coast to find good examples; sorry, rust-belters.

1993 Ford Ranger Splash – $2,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.3 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, RWD

Location: Concord, CA

Odometer reading: 159,000 miles

Runs/drives? Daily driven currently

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a vehicle more emblematic of the 1990s than the Ford Ranger Splash. The second-generation Ranger was everywhere, and the Splash, with its fiberglass stepside bed and color options that came out of a bag of Skittles, was the one everyone wanted.

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This Ranger is equipped with the best available powertrain: Ford’s basic 2.3 liter “Lima” four, here with two spark plugs per cylinder, and a Mazda-made five speed manual. It’s not the most powerful combination, but it’s essentially indestructible, and gets decent gas mileage (26 MPG on the highway!). It’s had a recent tune-up and some other work, and is driven daily, which means the seller trusts it. Always a good sign.

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Outside, it’s a little beat-up and faded, but overall it wears its 29 years well. We don’t get any photos of the inside, or under the hood, unfortunately. Being a Splash, this truck will have bucket seats and a center armrest. Sadly, it is not equipped with air conditioning, so summertime driving is strictly a windows-down affair.

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The ad mentions a matching camper shell, but it isn’t shown in the photos. If it is included, that would be a nice bonus, because just any old standard small truck canopy won’t fit this stepside bed.


1995 Saturn SC1 – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.9 liter inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Garden Grove, CA

Odometer reading: 185,000 miles

Runs/drives? Great, according to the ad

A different kind of company, they said. A different kind of car. Saturn was meant to be GM’s import-fighter division, but in practice, they stole more sales of Chevy Cavaliers than they did Honda Civics. But they were pretty good cars. Cheap, plasticky, and unrefined, but reliable and reasonably fun to drive.

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Saturn model names were about as simple as you could get: SL for sedans, SC for coupes, SW for wagons, followed by a 1 for the economy-minded model with a single-overhead-cam engine or a 2 for the sportier twin-cam version. Gearing and suspension tuning were different between the 1 and the 2 as well. As a former owner of an SC1 similar to this, I can tell you right now it’s no sports car, no matter how swoopy and stylish it is; the tall gearing and skinny tires of the 1 soak up a lot of the fun. It is good for fuel economy, though, rated at over 30 MPG highway .

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It looks like it’s in good shape, but Saturn’s famous plastic doors and fenders hide a lot of sins. If this has been an Orange County car its whole life, I wouldn’t expect any rust hiding under the plastic, but it is always a possibility. The driver’s seat shows some wear, with the leather upholstery coming apart, but it’s nothing a seat cover couldn’t fix. The rest of the interior looks decent, and pretty fancy for a Saturn.

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No mention of its mechanical condition is given other than “runs and drives great,” but these are stout little cars, and having current registration means it hasn’t been sitting around. They do mention that the headliner is falling down; this is a common problem. I can tell you from experience that spray adhesive will not work to fix it, at least not for long.

So there they are, two relics from that decade when everything seemed to be going so well. Both run and drive just fine, so it’s a matter of style choice – do you want the sporty-looking pickup, or the zoomy-looking coupe?


Quiz Maker

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81 Responses

  1. Have to disagree on the distributor point. Seen (and worked on) too many cars with problems due to corrosion or condensation in the distributor. multiple coil packs means that each one fires more infrequently, so should be a lot longer lifespan.
    Otherwise, definitely voted Ranger…Owned an ’83 and an ’85, both with the 2.8 manual, along with a ’94 Explorer with the 4.0. All solid vehicles. Now have a few 2012 to 2014 Rangers in the fleet (rental overseas), two diesels and one gasoline. The 2.5 mazda gasoline one is terrible, the 2.2 Ford diesels are excellent.

  2. The mostly unblemished fiberglass bed on the Ranger is probably worth over $1,000 on its own. The only clearly visible damage is in a spot that could easily be covered with a larger bumper, and the best kind of fiberglass work is no fiberglass work at all. I’ll take the Ranger as my slow but mighty 90’s chariot.

  3. I’m sure someone can correct me on this, but for the first-generation coupes I thought the SC1 had the fixed headlamps and the SC2 had the pop-ups? The wood trim inside makes me think this is an SC2 as well.

    Also, if it weren’t gold and all the way across the country, I’d be all over that Saturn.

    1. I believe you are correct, this is likely an SC2.

      More fun to drive, but more likely to have the oil burning issue. I drove a ’96 SC2 for a couple years and had a great experience apart from adding a quart every 1000 miles.

  4. That faux wood trim in the Saturn can’t be OEM, right? I don’t remember Saturns having that, but in fairness, I never rode in any of the ‘uplevel’ ones.

    But SC1 for the popup headlights all day long. By the ’90s, that GM feature was reasonably likely to work correctly most the time.

  5. That is an SC2 as evidenced by the following (that I can see):

    1. Pop-up headlights (whole front end is different than the SC1)
    2. Full-width taillights
    3. Body-colored mirrors and door handles
    4. 6500 RPM tach
    5. 130 MPH speedo
    6. Leather upholstery

      1. Common craft hot glue has a pretty low melting point. I’ve left hot-glued objects in a car (foam R/C airplanes) and had the glue release on a hot summer day. Directly touching the roof would be even worse. It would also be difficult, nigh on impossible, to apply evenly with the headliner in place.

      2. 3M 77 spray adhesive available at Lowe’s. Spray thru little slits starting in the middle & working outward. DON’T ‘squeegee’ it or stretch the fabric or you end up with ugly folds around the perimeter. Sad face emoji

    1. I didn’t even know it had no AC when I voted. I saw it had a stepside and immediately voted for it without reading anything. I have since gone back and read it and I still believe that I made the right decision.

      1. There is a house I pass on my way to work everyday and their are two red Edge stepsides parked their most days. I think they are the two daughters vehicles. Both are in immaculate shape are both are always shiny and clean, someone over there is taking really good care of them. Now that I think about it that house also has a really cool 80s Econoline camper conversion parked in the driveway. Also in really good shape.

        Makes me happy to see all those vehicles well taken care of.

    1. It looks like an SC2 tho

      The body color door handles, full-width tail lights, pop up headlights, and separate headrests (2-door only) were only available on the SC2.

      The SC1 did not have pop-up headlights, and the SOHC cars also didn’t have separate headrests. They had black door handles and did not have that middle section on the tail lights.

      Example here:

      1. Yeah, GM did their usual&customary : a good idea which bleeds out due to a thousand little budget cuts. Drain back holes in the ring lands being omitted —for those who don’t know. Plenty of other ones, but that was a biggie in these.

          1. Yeah, it is weird. They changed up the SC1 front end for the last couple years to look like the sedans, but left the pop-ups on the SC2. They also put the new interior in during the last 2 years for first gen coupes (’95 and ’96) and last year for the first gen sedan (’95).

            1. The SC1 didn’t exist until the 1993 model year. Originally, the coupe line-up was just the SC which had the DOHC motor.
              In 1993, the original SC (DOHC) was renamed the SC2. It retained the pop-up headlights. The newly-introduced SC1 featured the SOHC motor. It used the coupe’s body but the fixed-headlight front-end of the sedans and wagons (also introduced in 1993).

  6. Even if you have a solid daily. Even if you have a gas sipper. Even if you’ll only touch it once in a blue moon to move antiques. Heck, even if you have a full size truck.

    There’s always a use for a Ford frickin’ Ranger. Especially a reasonably priced one.

  7. There are a few things in the automotive world that I simply won’t ever understand, and the seemingly boundless love for this generation of Ford Ranger is one of them.

    My brother had one with this exact powertrain and RWD, and it was a contender for worst vehicle I’ve ever driven (non-VW division).

  8. These little Saturns are great cars. The SC2 shown should get you 35-40MPG on the highway all day long. You just need to keep up on the oil, as they all consume more than other cars. The “hand-me-down” car in my family was a teal ’95 SL1 sedan with an automatic. My two older sisters ran the crap out of that thing, running it with very little oil on several occasions, so it needed a little extra attention by the time I got to use it in high school. It was quick enough to get me into trouble, and my dad traded her in (still running great) at close to 200k at the tail end of my senior year. I went on to buy a ’95 SL2 with a twin cam and manual in college, and ran her until I got my first real job, again running strong at close to 200k. 1995 was the sweet spot for the sedans in my opinion, having the new interior and the old body style (hated the ’96 redesign on the sedan). I like the ’97 and up coupe better than the subject vehicle, but this one is very nice, too. It would be fun to drive something with pop-ups again, so it gets my vote, even thought I know the Ford will run away with it…

  9. These are adjacent to two of our former rides. I voted Ranger because it’s a first year Splash and they are totally 90s. I would counter that the 3.0 V6 and auto is better than the Lima 4. Our 93 Ranger long bed got mileage in the mid 20s because the Vulcan 6 wasn’t working as hard. Also my wife’s legs were too short to comfortably depress the clutch in a manual Ranger.
    I also had a Saturn SL2 for many years. The twin cam engine and bigger tires made it a fun drive since we did a lot of mountain roads. I don’t think an SC1 or SL1 would be as enjoyable. The other concern with a Saturn is the differential pin of death which will punch a hole in the transaxle case and leave you stuck.

  10. Shortly before my first marriage I bought a new 1994 Hilux (the only vehicle I’ve ever bought new), in October of 1994, about a week before the new ’95 Tacomas were due to arrive, and so it was heavily discounted. I got the stripper base model (4 cyl 22R-E, 5 speed stick, no AC, no radio, no rear bumper), and the only extra was “premium” paint for $150 because I liked that shade of blue. Came to $7,649 with the fancy paint, and was by far the screamingest deal I ever encountered in my life. That truck is still running up in Alaska today with close to 300K miles on it. Anyway, right around the same time my sister-in-law bought a ’94 Ranger similarly equipped–4cylinder, 5-speed, no AC, etc.–but it cost over ten grand, and it had no carpet, no headliner, and vinyl upholstery (the Hilux had comfy cloth). The original tires on her Ford lasted fewer than 20K miles and the battery only a year. My Toyota’s original tires lasted 80K miles, and I got 3+ years from that battery. By the time her Ranger was 4 years old it was a beat-up POS, though she didn’t abuse it.

    I always kinda liked the look of the Ranger Splash in a Mtn Dew XXX-Treme skateboarding commercial kind of way, but I was never tempted to get one because my sister-in-law’s Ranger of that era sucked so hard. But this one’s still kicking around, and looks okay for the period. The Saturn doesn’t interest me at all. Boring, ugly, plastic, not useful for any purpose I couldn’t already meet with one of my current vehicles. But I could use a small pickup again, even if I know it’ll never be nearly as good as my ol’ Hilux.

  11. As a kid, I liked those SCs when they came out. Wouldn’t have cried about getting one as a first car.

    With that said, if I am buying a “shitbox”, you can’t beat a shitbox with a bed. Ranger wins.

  12. The Ranger would’ve been my pick for the better deal, but since you mentioned “Gas-Saver” specifically in the title, I voted for the Saturn. Years ago I picked up a manual ’94 Saturn SL for $200 that burned a quart of oil every two weeks like clockwork. Routinely got high-30’s, even low-40’s a few times for gas mileage. Drove it for a year and sold it to my neighbor for $350. Anyway, a few years later I picked up a ’97 Ford Ranger – same setup as this, but just black – not the Splash version. That was a great truck, with one exception – I could never get the claimed “great” gas mileage out of it. Instead of 26, I usually got around 18. Even after a tune-up, replacing all 8 spark plugs, fresh fluids and filters, etc., I could only squeeze an absolute best of 24 mpg, and that was driving like an old man with an egg between my foot and the go-pedal.

  13. man, I recall my mom’s Nissan sentra with no AC and the fact that she was able to add AC for less than the option from the dealer. You can add AC to the splash, the really cool part is the parts are likely available to to so using ford factory ones. That engine was used forever and is not yet unobtanium like the Saturn Euro 4 engine parts.

  14. I had a similar Ranger for a couple years, manual, manual windows, no power steering, no AC. I loved it for weekend Menards runs, but sadly it was rotting away, and I sold it. Test drive a couple of the Saturn’s as well, though many years ago.

    Both of them seem to live on like cockroaches, and, along with old Neons, are the bottom feeders of the cheap used car food chain.

    Kind of an obvious answer but if I need to haul stuff the truck, if I want a cheap commute the Saturn, the two vehicles are really good for very different things.

    Since I have cars to commute in I guess I take the Ranger.

  15. Splash. It just looks more fun. What the heck ever happened to step side pickups? I understand cargo room, but if one is buying a fun truck the step side looks sportier. It seems like a law was passed banning step sides and I didn’t watch the news that day.

  16. As someone who had a 95 ranger extended cab 2wd 4 banger 5 speed sorta splash as one of their first vehicles I have to show my love. Thing was amazing and I am probably a dumbass for ever selling it but rust was forming and I wanted 4wd which I had on later rangers and now my obs f150.
    The Saturn is cool and all but the color combo falls short and just doesn’t crack the cool coupe econobox. Maybe if it was that dark blue they made them in?

  17. I’ve always found the “Splash” branding to be very polarizing because it seems feminine. That’s not a problem for me, so Ford it is.

    Old trucks aren’t worth buying around here because by the time the prices are reasonable, the rust is unreasonable.

    I’m waiting for 2017 and newer F-150s to depreciate. In the meantime, I may import an older truck from Cali. A fly & buy includes a different, unfamiliar sort of risk, but lately I think it’s probably a risk worth taking.

  18. I chose the Splash. Yes, it would be damn near impossible to retrofit an A/C into it. But it would be quite easy to retrofit that bed onto a better Ranger with A/C, lower miles, and maybe a bigger engine(6 bolts and an overhead chain-fall, will switch that bed). And maybe an auto trans.
    The fiber-glass bed is fiber-fabulous, and does not rust! Although, It’s much lighter that the steel bed, so this ride would be even worse on ice and snow. Keep it to the sunbelt, peeps.
    I rejected the Saturn, as they sucked then, and now it’s even 30 years worse.

  19. I voted for the Ranger because I always liked the looks of the Splash.
    However- how slow is the 2.3? Driving a 3.0/5 spd Ranger, there was no ramp up in acceleration, the throttle just toggled “no acceleration” to floored “slow acceleration”.

  20. I’ve had a lot of experience with those Rangers – my father got a red ’93 Splash when they were brand new and exciting, with a 5-speed and the 4.0 V6. It’s was like a sports car with a bed. Lots of fun to drive, insanely impractical. I had a ’98 Ranger with that 2.3 4-cylinder and 5-speed and at the risk of sounding crazy, it was more fun. The engine revved happily, and it was more like a go-kart than a real truck.
    My daughter’s first car was a 2000 Ranger with that stepside bed. She loved it. Her husband isn’t a great driver, though, so it didn’t make it.
    All positive ranger experiences here. I just can’t vote against it.

    Side note – were they really available from the factory without A/C?! The ad must mean that the system is kaput.

  21. I’ll take the blue, unibrowed weekend warrior please.

    That’s a good deal for a little odd job truck.
    I had a 97’ with the 2.3 liter, it didn’t do anything the best but it was adequate at damn near everything.
    Hell it towed a small box trailer full of two peoples belongings from Oklahoma City to Seattle in January without a problem (I may have ground my teeth down a fraction of an inch driving through Wyoming and Utah Though).

    The only thing that needed replacing in my 150,000 miles of ownership (aside from maintenance wear and tear items) was an alternator.
    Sold it with 210,000 miles running like a champ and I rode that thing hard and learned to drive clutch in it.
    They are great little trucks, honestly I would love to have one if I could find a 2.3l extended cab in decent shape but those are hard to come by.

  22. For a daily… Saturn.
    For a second vehicle (which this price and year fits for me)… Ranger.

    The no A/C hurts, but would need to check if it is non-existent or just gave up the ghost. Southern California gets hot in the summer, but there are ways around it if it is truly your second/third vehicle (i.e. only take it out at night or for short bursts in the summer heat). Otherwise, put the windows down during the fall, winter, and spring.

  23. Ooh this is a hard one.

    In 2020 I got a 1997 Ranger with that 2.3 and a manual for $500. It had been sitting sidelined for years after a previous owner hit a curb and bent a radius arm. It also had a rotted power steering line. I had a new arm installed for $400, did the power steering line myself for about $20, did the bearings and brakes myself for maybe $60. Then I took it on a 5,000-mile road trip adventure.

    The truck never skipped a beat. I got 22 mpg going about 80 mph and about 30 mpg doing 60 mph. With the 20 gallon tank I found myself going well over 500 miles before needing to fill up again.

    A lot of folks will say that the 2.3 is gutless, and that may be true. However, I found that if you aren’t afraid to wring that little guy out, it’ll get you where you need to go. Just don’t expect to tow a big trailer or mount tall off-road tires. These little Rangers are certifiably good trucks, especially if you need something that just works.

    On the other hand, the Saturn is just as tantalizing. My dad bought one of those for $1,000 and I learned how to drive manual in it. Those old Saturns, much like those Rangers, are so simple and relatively cheap to keep going. My dad is a horrible driver, yet that SC took every hit, every missed oil change, and every cigarette burn and kept going. In the end, a mix of dad’s driving and rust did it in. Apparently, he hit a tall curb going 60 mph. The hit was so hard that the unibody cracked in a spot where rust was already building.

  24. I’ve always unironically loved the Splash edition of the Ranger. The flare-sides, the graphics, the branding… It captured 11-year-old me quite nicely and hasn’t let go. One of the very few [non-kei] trucks that I’d want to keep in my stable.

  25. Jesus Christ, this is like watching the high school football team play against Mrs. Bixby’s kindergarten class. Who the hell wouldn’t take Ranger over a Saturn. I’ve ridden in/driven both, and it’s not even close. The Saturn may have better fuel economy but I’ve not met one yet that hasn’t had some major failure at one point. My friend lost 5 pounds one summer because he had to turn the heat on to prevent the engine from over heating.

    1. Some of us like the ease of experimentation with simple fuel injected vehicles so either one would do. Personally I prefer the ranger but see the saturn as an opportunity to have something to play with mechanically without any remorse when I ruin it by doing something silly like adding a supercharger just to see what would happen.

  26. A running truck in good shape for $2200? easy choice!

    I didn’t know that Ford used twin spark plugs back then! Wow a cheap-ass Ford I4 from the early 90s used two spark plugs per cylinder. I never knew that!

    I know some advanced cars like early hybrids, some German cars of the 2000s, and the Hemi have that, but I didn’t know about the Ranger tho! That’s OK because the job still shouldn’t be difficult on them.

      1. Too true. My grandpa laughed at me when I got all excited about two plugs per cylinder on a NAPS-Z as a kid. Then he showed me the rest of his old trans-am datsun parts that he still had kicking around from when he built motors for them in the 60’s and 70’s.

        I miss him and his stories.

  27. These are both great for the price, so I’ll get picky. I can’t vote for a 2WD pickup, and as much as I love the stepside I’ve never liked Ford’s trucks’ front end from this era. I wouldn’t normally ding it for not having AC, but my AC at home is broken right now and it’s been around 100° the past couple weeks, so I’m a little sensitive on the subject.

    Meanwhile I had a ’95 SL1 that I loved. Not fast, but fun to drive with a great manual, and enough power to keep up highway speed on I-70 west out of Denver, which is more than I can say for some shitboxes I’ve owned. It was surprisingly fun through the twisty mountain passes I was driving every weekend, and with a set of Blizzaks it was unstoppable in the snow. Dead reliable too, even after 150k and 10+ years.

    An SC2 with a little more power and comfort, and popup freakin’ headlights? Hell yes.

  28. Yes, yes, you’re all correct – this is an SC2. I should have checked more closely.

    In my defense, I was distracted. My wife and I have just adopted two 1-year-old rescue cats who do not like each other, and one of them keeps beating up on our dog. Wrangling this menagerie has left us both addled and sleep-deprived. I love the little fuzzballs, but man, it’s chaos…

  29. As a person with a small driveway I love old Rangers because they freaking fit in it! And when your primary use for a truck is hauling stuff between the hardware store, your relatives’ houses, and the dump, it doesn’t really matter if it’s slow. If you’ve drawn the straw for “Guy in the family with power tools and a reasonably reliable vehicle,” you know what I mean…

    I guess I should be into Mavericks but the idea of a FWD truck makes me nervous???

  30. “styling emerged into excitingly swoopy shapes” Suppositories is what the evolved into.

    Styling of 90s cars is not at all an example of cars getting good. By far the ugliest decade for car design.

    It’s why the Ranger wins, because being a truck, it doesn’t have as much of the horrible styling imposed on it.

  31. I voted for the Ranger not because I want it but I think it’s slightly more versatile. I had an ’87 with the standard bed, single cab, 2.3 and manual. Swore I’d never again buy a small single cab pickup as there’s room for 2 and not much else. I’m not a fan of stepsides but the fibreglass does take care of fender-well rust issues.

  32. I voted Ranger. I’ve got a 93, but not a Splash. Extended cab, shortbed, in Fords tan/brown/gold color. It’s rusty as sin, but is probably the most trustworthy vehicle I’ve got! Just soldiers on no matter the abuse. My middle child is taking it to college in the fall. I’m going to have to find another one. She is convinced that she is going to keep her newly purchased Ninja in the bed (first “adult” purchase without Dad) so she doesn’t have to buy two parking permits!

  33. Mark. Come on. Seriously? Are you trying to break my brain? It’s already hard enough with the jetlag from hell.

    Both of these are great shitboxes. Assuming they have no rust beyond surface corrosion? They’re both good picks.
    The SC2’s air conditioning definitely gives it an edge over the basest-of-base Rangers. Especially since deadly heatwaves are here to stay and only going to get worse. And adding A/C is not an easy task. (It’s not just the compressor and condenser; it’s the whole front cooling, the HVAC controls, and the entire motor and blend assembly.)
    But the SC2 also loses quite a few points for the ruined seat cover, because the foam will degrade rather quickly if not properly repaired. Just slapping an Autozone Hawaiian-print universal seat cover on it is not a fix. It’s at least going to need to be taped up adequately, or a junkyard unit sourced. And the leather seems to have been a pretty rare option. (In fact, I only found a single leather car with a quick search, and it’s in far worse shape than this one.)

    Can’t go wrong with either one.

  34. This might be the toughest yet. I think a “just buy both” option needs added! I chose the Splash, mostly for nostalgia, and it’s indestructibility. The Saturn though looks almost too good for nearly 200k so was a hard choice. For that money, buy both…you can’t go wrong.

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