Home » Saturn Was Truly Something Special: COTD

Saturn Was Truly Something Special: COTD

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Earlier today, our Thomas Hundal wrote a retrospective on the Saturn S-Series and how it was an innovative car, but ultimately a dead end. It’s such a shame because it seemed General Motors had something really special on its hands. Saturn as a brand made buyers feel like family, workers feel like a real part of the company, and the cars had a few tricks that made them stand out.

Seriously, in an era where getting bodywork repaired can cost as much as some new cars, I bet the plastic panels of an old Saturn would be welcome. Plastic panels were one thing that made Smart stand out during its short existence here in America. And in these days of crazy dealership markups, just walking into a dealership knowing you’ll be paying a set price would also likely be welcome. Saturn of the 1990s was something special that we might not see again, and that’s sad.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Our piece made a number of readers come out of the woodwork and tell their own experience with Saturn, and it seems that for many, the experience of buying, owning, and living with a Saturn was memorable. Normally, we would nominate a funny comment or two, but today, we’re giving nominations to two comments that tugged at our hearts.

Anchor recalls a time when they worked at a Saturn dealership that kept binders full of photos of Saturns leaving with happy owners:

I spent two years out of tech school working for Saturn, I think the biggest issue was going to badge engineering instead of spending money on the S Series, Saturn customers specifically don’t want a Cavalier, so making them buy one just sends them out the door.

We used to get the announcement over the intercom when there was a delivery so we could all go cheer the new owner on as they pulled out of the bay. They would get a picture taken with their car and we would put it into a photo album that was there, I think we had 5 binders when I left, you could watch peoples kids grow up as they came back every few years to buy new ones. One of our salesman had a series of photos he always went back to where you saw Dad buy a 92, then a 96, then bought his daughter a 2001 as her first car and she was in every picture. It was honestly something special.

We hired one of our parts guys because he would buy wrecked and broken S cars and spend time with us buying new parts to flip them. He used to do 15-20 cars a year.

Images Saturn S Series 1991 1

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Jb996 also has fond Saturn memories:

These cars have a special place in my heart. I drove a 2000 Saturn SL1 from 2002 until 2016, putting about 260k on it, driving across the country about 4 times. Manual windows, no power steering, 5-speed manual. It took me from a single guy in college, to a married guy with two kids and a commute. I sold it in 2016 to a guy, and in my mind it’s still going strong.
I had no issues with it aside from general maintenance, a new clutch at 200k, and a valve cover gasket at 220k. Fuel economy was amazing at 40+mpg.

They were great cars.

And it was 5 billion well spent. Look at production quality pre-1990 and then post-2000. Competition from Japanese imports drove quality competition, but internal competition from Saturn showed GM that their workforce actually COULD take pride in their work and could actually produce a quality product. It’s too bad that the Dealership experience didn’t stick.

I will join them. I learned how to drive manual transmission in a gold Saturn SC1 coupe. That car had the kind of honest simplicity you rarely find in cars today. You knew what you were getting into when you got behind the wheel. It’s a car that got you from point A to point B in style while just sipping on fuel as you drive there. My favorite memories about that car were the great visibility, the large, crisp instrument cluster, and the attractive coupe body. My family has similar experiences with Saturn; the brand and its cars were just so easy to live with.

It’s a shame the concept of Saturn didn’t last. Were Japanese cars better? Maybe, but every day, I still look at those old Saturns fondly. Occasionally, I even consider buying an old one. Have a great evening, everyone!

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Anthony Magagnoli
Anthony Magagnoli
1 year ago

I have a soft spot for Saturns. When I was shopping for my first car in 1999, I had $3k to my name and was looking at late-80’s sports cars that likely would’ve killed or stranded me. Seeing as I would be commuting to college later that year, my parents offered to assist me in leasing a new car instead. I wanted a Civic Si or Impreza 2.5RS, but both were too expensive. With GM employee discount (thanks to my grandfather, RIP), we settled on a ’99 SC2 3-door Coupe 5-speed.
It was a great car to reliably commute in and even made a great introductory autocrosser. As a teen, I slam-shifted that tranny in the 1-2 shift hard enough to require 2 shift cable replacements and I wore out the 2nd gear synchro enough that it required learning how to double-clutch my downshifts when it was cold (sorry to the future owner).
While I have several fond memories in that car, the standout was when I was attending my 2nd autocross ever. I had done pretty well (surely amplified by a long time gone by), beating a Porsche 944. I went into the dealership the next day for another set of shift cables and was asked “do you race the car?”. Well, I didn’t considrer autox racing, so I said no, but they had had a few employees at the event, who had taken notice of my runs. I was told that the warranty was being pulled. I now doubt that that took place, but it ended my autocrossing of that car. Fortunately, my friend’s stepdad, who had introduced me to autox, let me run an event in his MG A with an MG B motor, which was such a huge departure for me. My next car was a 2.8L BMW Z3 Roadster, which went on to get lots of autocross time over the years.
I have a few current friends who raced Saturns under ScR motorsports and we all have gone on to have significant careers in motorsports. Was Saturn to thank in all that? I have to think they deserve some bit of credit!

- O S G O -
- O S G O -
1 year ago

In support of Saturn arriving in Japan, I was xfer’d to Tokyo for 9m. It was a heady time, full of optimism, but presented like a “Joe Isuzu” commercial?
By about month #5, with literally (5) sold Japan-wide, I started looking for new employment. The press was brutal – they compared new Saturn’s to early 80’s FWD models. In retrospect, I agree with them.

ScottyB
ScottyB
1 year ago

I would totally agree with that assessment, badge engineering was the demise, although I wasn’t quite as annoyed when the badge engineering was based on an Opel platform. My big fantasy however, was to make all the Saturn stores Saturn/Opel stores. Maybe it’s stupid, but I always though GM’s most effective tool towards beating the imports (besides not being boring and having crap quality) was by actually selling their import brands here. It’s not like they didn’t have plenty of time to have Opel, Vauxhall and Holden engineer to pass US safety standards from the get go.

And maybe I am misremembering this, but when GM culled Saturn, wasn’t it actually selling better in the US than Buick, but GM kept Buick because it was more important globally, as in Chinese buyers were seeing something we weren’t?

Michael Logue
Michael Logue
1 year ago

4 time Saturn owner – 2003 L300, 2005 and 2008 VUE, 2006 ION. The L300 was part-European, so parts were expensive, but I drove it to over 90,000 miles before trading it in. The first VUE had the 3.5L Honda engine, so fairly reliable, until it wasn’t – it got traded in for the second VUE, which had the corporate 3.6 GM V6. Kept that for a couple of years, then when Saturn was closed down we didn’t want an orphan as our primary vehicle, so it got traded in. The ION was bought for my daughter when she went to college. No real problems until it was stricken with the ignition issue – it died on her in the middle of rush hour traffic on the highway, and the wife decreed it gone. I actually took it as my DD for a few years after that, ultimately replacing the ignition switch. Gifted it to my stepson with close to 100K on the odometer, who sold it to someone else, who totaled it.

Only the ’08 VUE wasn’t plastic – those body panels were near indestructible.

DJ Odom
DJ Odom
1 year ago

When I was in high school I worked at Rally’s Hamburgers. Me and a buddy would give anyone driving a Saturn 10% off their order, as appreciation of them being different

Seth Albaum
Seth Albaum
1 year ago

My used ’98 manual SL1 treated me well. So, when it was time for a new car, I got new Ion. I owned the Ion just a few years, the least amount of time I ever owned a car, and then went on to Honda.. The Ion is the only car that ever left me stranded somewhere. Plus, I couldn’t get a comfortable seating position and developed pain in my left knee.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
1 year ago

If GM still had access to Opel/Vauxhall, it would have been great to reintroduce Saturn as an EV only brand. However, everything that makes it unique was killed long ago.

Matt Sexton
Matt Sexton
1 year ago

When I met my wife she had a ’99 SC2. It was a sharp little car, lightweight and handled well. Unfortunately the timing broke on the engine and the entire cylinder head had to be rebuilt. All the parts on ’99’s are unique to that year for some reason. After we fixed it she drove it another 18 months before we finally sold it, but honestly at the end it was still a great little car. She misses it sometimes still. I’d post a pic but we still can’t do that here for some reason.

Piston Slap Yo Mama
Piston Slap Yo Mama
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Sexton

I hope you didn’t marry my ex, she’s a rotten human being.

Never mind, her Saturn was a SL2: a thoroughly okay car. She was so anti-car that if I didn’t wash it for her it would eventually be completely coated in bird sh!t and tree sap and she’d wipe a little oval clear on the side windows so she could sort of safely drive it places.

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
1 year ago

It’s a real shame that Saturn is gone. The first new car I ever bought was a 1995 Black Gold SC2, 5 Speed. Was it a great car? Probably not, but it was good for the price. But I still remember that everyone at the dealer was as friendly as any dealer I’ve been to since. I never felt any stress or had to argue about dealer add-ons like under-body rust treatments or clear coats. No over selling of any kind. No one did the ‘four square’ numbers game. Here’s the car, that’s the price. No different than buying a TV or gallon of milk. It really was how buying a car should have always been and should be today.
There really is value in the experience at the point of sale. Carmax knows it. Chick-fil-A knows it. If GM had stuck to the dealer model and things that made Saturn’s cars unique it might have continued to thrive.

Chainsaw2426
Chainsaw2426
1 year ago

As someone who was with Saturn from the very beginning of their dealer network, the major reason for Saturn’s initial success was their president, Skip LeFauve. He had a near cult like reverence amongst retailers, Saturn factory team members, and begrudgingly, GM executives. He understood the failed marketspace GM created, and along with marketing chief Don Hudler, knew how to fix it.
 
Unfortunately LeFauve’s success lead to his promotion in 1994 to vice president and
group executive in charge of GM’s newly formed North American Operations small
car group; within two years he was out of the executive team and running
“GM University”. Don Hudler took the reigns as president and did a phenomenal
job keeping Saturn at the forefront of marketing, exemplary customer experience,
and build quality (JD Power), yet without Skip’s leadership, coupled with the
jealousy factor of GM’s brand chiefs, Saturn was relegated to second tier
status, ended up passing off rebadged Opels as Saturns, and was left to rot on
the vine.
 
For a brief period of time, it truly was a different kind of company and a different kind
of car.

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
1 year ago

I used logic in my comment on that article, but after reading what was said here… I [expletive] miss Saturn. I grew up with my parents having them, and seeing that kind of dealership experience. And while parts of it have been adopted… posting customer delivery photos on Facebook isn’t the same as a wall or binder of Polaroids.

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago

Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot’. . . “

Zeppelopod
Zeppelopod
1 year ago
Reply to  Lokki

Other GM executives: “It’s only a model.”

Flinched
Flinched
1 year ago

Working at a Saturn dealer in the early 90’s, my first impression of the average Saturn owner was they really wanted a Honda but would only buy American. The quality was better than most GM cars at the time but not up to Japanese standards especially in fit and finish. But they turned out to be pretty durable and economical to own. The buying experience was impressive; very low pressure and you could return the car for a full refund within I think 30 days or 1500 miles. Never seen anything like it before or after. Looking back, it’s really amazing this came from GM but no surprise they gave up, given their A.D.D. tendencies to burn through brands.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

It’s a shame the concept of Saturn didn’t last. Were Japanese cars better?

I had two Saturn VUEs. The first had an Opel V-6 but the second had a Honda J35 V-6, which I guess makes it partially a Japanese car.

It was pretty fantastic but eventually the structure under the car developed a terminal case of rust.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago
Reply to  A. Barth

IIRC the domestic parts content went up with the addition of the Honda V6 since that was built in the U.S. and the Opel V6 was imported.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

I’d buy that; it probably came from one of Honda’s facilities in Ohio.

It was a fantastic engine/transmission combo.

Chris Hoffpauir
Chris Hoffpauir
1 year ago

Indeed. The Saturn J35s were built in Ohio. The J35 is a great engine no matter where it’s assembled.

I had an ’05 Vue that was deceptively fast for a family car. I now own an ’07 Honda Ridgeline with the same engine. The truck still has a lot of pep even though it’s much heavier.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

I’ve bought a bunch of cars over the years, including the Escape my fiancé and I bought last summer, but literally the only salesperson’s name I remember is the woman at Saturn Of Grand Rapids who sold me an SL1 sedan (red, tan cloth, sunroof, 5-speed) new in 1992. Becky Copenhaver, wherever you are, thank you.

Bill B
Bill B
1 year ago

I had 3 Saturns, they were hands down some of the best, most reliable vehicles I’d ever owned. (‘01 L200, ‘04 Ion & ‘07 Vue). I’d put 40,000 miles a year on them and trade them in for another just over 100k. Never a problem and only work done was maintenance. Wish they still made them….

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

COTD article, followed by three new articles of the same day.
It’s like calling the winner of a race as soon as they pull off the line from pole position.

Last edited 1 year ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Jb996
Jb996
1 year ago

Hey, as someone who just got a COTD for the first time, I think this was an absolutely fair way to do it. 🙂

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago
Reply to  Jb996

It was fairly earned by your words and story alone.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago
Reply to  Jb996

I’m simply advocating for the inclusion of comments from different time zones.

Last edited 1 year ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 year ago

Here’s a thought: why not choose COTD from YESTERDAY’S comments?

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
1 year ago

I’ve suggested COTY before.
Mercedes used to do that sometimes.

Zeppelopod
Zeppelopod
1 year ago

In my mind I read this as “comment of the year” rather than “comment of the yesterday.”

That said, yes please I would like that a lot. Being in a weird time zone I’m usually replying to yesterday’s news.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
1 year ago

My ’94 SC2 was what I learned stick on too. Something about the clutch would stick and rub when it was hot out, and it was summer when I learned, so that made an already not-smooth process that much less so.

Someone might have mentioned in the original thread, the manual shift linkage could also could pop a bushing or something and you’d be stuck in whatever gear it was left in. For me that was reverse, and it happened actually in our Saturn dealer’s lot within a couple weeks of buying it, which they took care of it for us. But it was a relatively cheap/easy fix, I think there were people on the Saturn forums that could swap it out roadside if it happened to them.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 year ago

I was one of those! I could tear open the center console panel and be back in about 4 minutes.

Bruno Hache
Bruno Hache
1 year ago

Saturn will forever hold a part of me. In 2004 I leased an Ion Sedan. The sales rep taught me how to drive stick shift on her own time and that sealed the deal. It reminded me that good customer service used to exist in the auto industry.

Dinklesmith
Dinklesmith
1 year ago

I learned stick on a 97 SL2. I loved that car. It got me through high school and college

Superheavyduty
Superheavyduty
1 year ago
Reply to  Dinklesmith

I learned how to drive a stick during the test drive of the 98 SL2 that I purchased at 18. The salesman was very patient. Ultimately, I took advantage of the 30 day/1500 mile return policy that Saturn offered and gave them the car back with 1497 miles on it. I only had to make the first payment of $230 and I was out of the car. I thought it was an ugly little car, and I only bought the SL2 due to the transmission failing in the car I traded in for the Saturn. A friend picked me up from the Saturn store and gave me a ride to the Chevy dealer where I got a 98 S-10 V6 Auto with the zq8 package, for only $60 more a month. It was a good-looking little truck.

Ron Boyce
Ron Boyce
1 year ago

My sister had a manual SC1 she bought used from an older lady. On the test drive the owner just about made my sister’s husband have a stroke as she went around a notorious local freeway ramp at a high rate of knots while saying “see how well it hugs the road?” It was a great car that was fun to drive, cheap to own, and it’s a shame GM corporate watered down the original concept to kill off the brand.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
1 year ago
Reply to  Ron Boyce

They had multilink rear suspension and almost no weight, which was why they handled so well.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 year ago
Reply to  Tristan Hixon

Yep, was not a bad HP/lbs ratio in a manual SL2.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
11 months ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

SC2 was even better, as it had .02 better Cd and a shorter greenhouse, leading to a smaller CdA and .2s faster 0-60 times. Still not fast, but competitive for their era.

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