Something I love about car culture is that people have awesome stories about even mundane cars. I don’t care if it’s a Chevrolet Cavalier or a Yugo, someone loves those cars. And if they don’t, maybe they have a fun story to tell. Our readers illustrated it best by telling their own stories about the supposedly worst cars of the 1990s.
At least to me, any car can be an enthusiast car. People on Facebook groups, forums, and writing slideshows spend so much time putting down certain cars for no good reason. I’m willing to bet that every car on this planet has at least one person who loves it, and that’s great! Cars should be celebrated, even if they aren’t typical gearhead fare. Not everyone needs to love Ferraris!
As it turns out, a lot of you agree. For Presidents’ Day, we wrote a defense of every car on MotorTrend’s ‘Worst Cars Of The 1990s’ slideshow, and many readers told stories about their experiences. Here are just a few of them.
Wonderful J-body owner ThatGuywiththeSunbird fondly remembers the 1995 Chevy Cavalier and other J-bodies:
Thank you for the Cavalier defense.
The GM J-Body scorn always gets me because these things were horribly constructed and cheap and whatever else (allowed to go way too long without updates, mainly), but they provided reliable and simple transportation to many economically-challenged people for decades – and still do.
I mean, I still regularly see 3rd generation Cavaliers around here in various states of what I know is severe neglect. And the newest one is from 2005 – and even that year was a low-production flee—centered sales year for the model since the Cobalt had come online to replace it. Also, speaking of the Cobalt, I see more Cavaliers still running around here than I do Cobalts.
Of course, I’m doing my part to preserve automotive history that no one but myself and other weirdos like me care about by preserving my own J-Body.
BaronUsurper kept it short and simple:
I miss my Del Sol so goddamn much. I couldn’t have asked for a better car when I turned 16.
Reader Trust Doesn’t Rust was one of many commenters to profess some love for Saturn:
In total, my family bought four Saturns; a 1994 SW2, 1998 SL2, 2002 L300 and my 2002 SC2.
They were fantastic cars. Were they the best car in the segment? No, but I would argue they were the most interesting at the time. Everyone remembers the plastic body panels but they were the first to use lost-foam casting for engine blocks. The engine bay was specifically designed with DIY mechanics in mind. They used timing chains instead of timing belts. The cars were lightweight, tossable, reliable and safe.
Motor Trend stating that they were the “worst car company” is the author admitting to doing minimal research. Saturn wasn’t just another division, they really were a separate company (subsidiary). They had their own R&D, manufacturing, and labor departments. Dealer reps were salaried, which is how they got away with no-haggle pricing. Saturn even had it’s own UAW contract separate from the rest of GM.
Remember, this was General Motors. They moved about as fast as the Edmund Fitzgerald through the Soo Locks. The fact they were able to accomplish any of this was amazing.
Ultimately, GM had to GM. Saturn was starved of resources, they were forced to use more components from the GM parts-bin, and they were given existing platforms to re-engineer (L-Series) or share with the rest of GM (VUE, ION). The labor contract was dismantled because GM essentially said “If you don’t sign the national contract, we can’t guarantee Spring Hill will get future production.” Eventually, Saturn turned into the North American arm of Opel. Perhaps the last unique thing Saturn accomplished was that Saturn LLC and Saturn Distribution Corporation filed bankruptcy separately from General Motors.
One thing that I love about this community is that you all understand what car love is really like. It’s not putting down your fellow enthusiast because they like something like a Sunbird, but just enjoying cars. When David hosted his going away party, we had people showing up to the junkyard in everything ranging from chopped up $500 Gambler 500 rigs to six-figure Porsches. And all of those cars were awesome.
Have a great evening everyone!
I gave up on trying to figure out the Saturn haters. I also gave up on Edmunds, every time they reviewed a classic plastic Saturn they harped on and on and on about the panel gaps sizes. Like anybody I knew really cared, and besides, my panel gap sizes paled in comparison to the dents and dings of every other vehicle parked in my work parking lot where rather than expand the lot they made the parking spaces barely large enough to open your doors. Every other car I’ve had since all sport serious door dings from that damned lot. Stuff it, Edmunds.
My little Saturn was well over a decade old when I traded it, and those “wide gapped” panels (did I remember to say get bent Edmunds?) looked as good as the day I took delivery, not a dent or ding anywhere. Ok, a few scratches from the soccer moms who couldn’t figure out how to pilot their minivans out of the dance school parking lot with 17 crying kids in the back, but hey…
It ran great, handled well, and gave great highway mileage. Its resource-starved let’s stay firmly in the period of 1980’s engineering 1.9-liter wonder didn’t burn a drop of oil. I miss that little thing, no small car to this day comes close in my book.
The whole “A GM runs poorly longer than most cars run at all” is especially true of the ’90’s and ’00’s. When you see a car on the road from this era, it’s usually a GM or a Toyota.
Lately, I’ve seen lots of A-bodies still running around, including a red Celebrity wagon with “Eurosport”. Plenty of J’s, W’s, and H’s too.
I had a 1985 carbureted celebrity eurosport wagon. 0-60? On a good day with the wind and downhill. Starts in cold weather? Only if you feed it half a bottle of ether and do a rain dance perfectly (by perfectly, i mean the timing needed to be like beat all of SMB1 blindfolded precise).
My dad dubbed that vehicle (in gunmetal grey with red and rust accents, because eurosport and midwest) “war wagon”.
Was this an Iron Duke or the 2.8?
Had to be a 2.8 because the Duke went TBI in 1982. I had one in a Celebrity.
I owned a 99 Mercury Mystique, purchased new. Yeah, Mercury Mistake, ha ha ha. It’s true, the back seat was small, but I sat in the front seat, which was wonderfully comfortable. The 5-speed manual shifted nicely, the 2.5 V6 happily revved to near 7K, and the suspension was the same as the European Mondeo. It even had actual buttons and switches. After 11 years I needed something with a hatch as opposed to the trunk, and reluctantly moved on.
The Cobalt vs. Cavalier sightings – while of course all anecdotal, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with other models too. Chrysler vans stick out in my mind as an example, I feel like I see no more early 4th gens (2001-2004) than I do 3rd gens (1996-2000).
Some of that could be chalked up to sales – for the Chrysler vans, by the 2000s there was much more formidable competition; for the Cobalt, its best year (2005, intro) fell short of the Cavalier’s sales for the 6-7 years prior, which again could be competition and market shifts. But some of it too is the simplicity of the 90s giving way to new designs and tech that made things more disposable or expensive to fix and cost cutting in other areas – those 4th gen Chrysler vans being largely developed and produced under the “merger of equals” DCX era for example.
All that to say in support of the comments. More specifically to Saturn – perhaps because of the Oldsmobile closure and wind-down (since they were more engineering/dev focused), Saturn in the 2000s had something of an experimental purpose or testing ground within GM – so they got dumped a lot of new tech to iron out the bugs on before they went into other GM cars. Ecotec timing chains, VTi transmissions (I think GM just needed a place to dump these after putting it off for a long time), the Delta and Theta platforms that went on to spawn Chevy variants – that evaporated a lot of the goodwill from S-Series reliability of the 90s.
There are people (often GM fans) that hate on Saturn because it sucked resources away from the rest of GM, but it’s not like that was the one thing keeping the rest of that house in order. And there’s the argument that it should have been the Cavalier/etc. replacement – probably, but the issue was that people were swearing off domestic cars and weren’t going to visit one of the legacy brand showrooms. When Saturn didn’t have new product to move up to, those buyers were often likely to go to Honda/Toyota/etc. not another GM brand. My family had a lot of GM cars so we weren’t quite in that camp, but my family always had at least one Saturn for over 20 years (4 S-Series, ION, VUE, Aura, and Astra – so even the more GM ones with the last 2). The uniqueness of the brand and dealer model was a big draw.
“And there’s the argument that it should have been the Cavalier/etc. replacement – probably, but the issue was that people were swearing off domestic cars and weren’t going to visit one of the legacy brand showrooms.”
Therein lies the problem. People refused to even consider a GM product. They could have made it the new Cavalier but then they would have a good car that no one wanted to buy. Instead, GM created a brand new car company from scratch and distanced it as far as possible from the mothership. Show Americans that GM can build an import-quality car, bring them back into the GM fold and then transition them into another GM product.
Frankly, the concept worked but now GM had a new set of issues. For one, owners were TOO loyal to Saturn. When it came time to move to a bigger car, they just went back to Honda and Toyota. Second, GM now had FOUR compact cars that competed with each other: the Cavalier, Sunbird/Sunfire (J-body), Saturn (Z-platform) and the Geo Prizm (S-platform). So now what does GM do? They have a successful product with loyal customers. It would be foolish to turn them away so GM expanded the line-up. However, they couldn’t afford to build another platform from the ground-up so they gave Saturn the Vectra, modified it and sold it as the L-Series. After that was a whole restructuring that involved more platform and parts sharing, less autonomy, etc.
In the end, GM didn’t know what to do with Saturn and if you really think about it, there was no easy answer.
100% – they were throwing a few things at the wall to see what stuck, between a clean-sheet design at Saturn and the captive imports at Geo. Lessons from Saturn didn’t really transfer to the other divisions; Olds tried a few things like the return policy and 1-price strategy with the Oldsmobile Edge.
Other makes tried a 1-price/no haggle model too, Ford pushed it with the Escort for at least a couple years. A little harder to enforce on a model-level and I imagine it was just narrowing the invoice/holdback/etc so the dealer didn’t have a lot of room on it anyway.
The Cobalt was also quite a bit more expensive than the Cavalier (leading to GM bringing over the Aveo, as well as the Optra for the Canadian market) – like you say, there was a lot more competition once it was trying to compete in a higher price bracket.
Yep – Cavalier was a value play with standard air and ABS, before GM backtracked in ’03 on a lot of cars making ABS (and side airbags where equipped) optional, after pushing it as standard on many models in the ’90s.
Even if the Cobalt was a little cheaper, others were upping their content. In 2006 Honda rolled out the Civic with standard ABS and side and curtain airbags – the Cobalt was still probably a little cheaper after adding those, but then you had to find one on the lot so equipped too.
Well put, Mercedes.
Even CUV’s deserve some respect. They’re jacks of all trades and fund more interesting cars for us enthusiasts. Some of them even have way more capability off road than an independent suspension AWD vehicle without low range would be expected to have.
Yes, they fund more interesting cars, then the company gets greedy and prices them out of the range of the kinds of people that buy them new. It doesn’t sell, and gets replaced by a “sporty” crossover.
Case in point: Kia with the Stinger.
I have a long history of shit-box ownership. I’ve loved them all in one way or another, maybe especially my ’99 Saturn wagon!
While microplastics are a big problem I do really love the plastic body panels of Saturns.
Having mostly dent and rust proof body panels is the way to go!
The big contributors to micro plastics in the environment aren’t big solid body panels from cars, they are smaller things. Polyester thread is a much bigger problem from what I have read. I loved my Saturns, and the polymer panels were great!
I’ll add a bit of a defense of the Monte Carlo here:
Remember coupes? The slightly more stylish equivalents of sedans? Coupes were great, I miss them. The Monte Carlo took the dowdy Lumina and made it something kinda decent looking. I mean, it wasn’t exactly anything that could tighten the trousers. But it was better than the Lumina.
I love the comment defending the J-body. So many people forget that not every vehicle has to be objectively great in every category. Lots of folks just need cheap, relatively reliable cars to get them from A to B. That is my big fear with this pure EV push. Less fortunate people will get the short end (as usual) if cheap stuff is legislated away.
My favourite vehicle I’ve ever owned is still the old ’93 Saturn SC2 I had around 2004/2005. Grippy, comfortable, sport seats (with a suspension in the driver’s seat!); power doors, locks, windows, and moon roof; smooth 5-speed; gloriously tactile speed-sensitive power steering; playful little 124hp DOHC 1.9l motor; MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension; four wheel disc brakes; and a low curb weight of ~2.3-2.4klbs. it was brilliant.
Those Cavaliers….They’ll run badly longer than most cars will ever run.