Saturn sales were flat in the late 1990s, but sounding a hopeful note in 2000 was the April 25 announcement of a $1.5-billion cash infusion.
Two-thirds would go toward capital improvements at the Spring Hill, Tenn., plant for building Saturn's first SUV, starting in late 2001. Remaining funds were earmarked for equipment needed to build the 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, which Saturn would supply for all North American GM vehicles using it, as well as a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
Intriguingly, the announcement also mentioned a "yet undisclosed future Saturn" with a Honda V-6. The engine would be supplied under a recently concluded agreement between GM and the Japanese automaker, who was to get diesel engines from GM affiliate Isuzu in exchange. "Our challenge now," said new Saturn president Cynthia Trudell, "is to keep up with customer demand for a wider variety of vehicles…and position Saturn as more than just a small-car company."
Actually, it was do-or-die time. In 2000 alone, Saturn lost nearly $840 million, more than $3000 on each sale. The brand created to stop buyers from deserting GM was itself being deserted. With that, nearly half of Saturn's total factory capacity was left idle that year, according to an internal report.
By April 2001, GM was nearly out of patience. Saturn was told to double productivity at Spring Hill, boost production there by two-thirds while cutting employment by 18 percent, and to at least break even on operations -- or else.
Suddenly, everything seemed to depend on the new SUV. If it bombed like the L-Series, reported Automotive News, GM would cancel the redesigned S-Series set for model-year 2003. Though Trudell expected to carry out all of management's marching orders, she admitted, "If we are not successful with [the SUV], no one would put in more products."
But 2001 was another discouraging year. Aggravated by a sharp downturn in the national economy, calendar-year sales slid 4.2 percent from the previous 12 months to just above 260,000. The L-Series was up (to just over 98,000 units), but the S-Series was down (by 8.6 percent to 162,110).
Product news was again scant. Both lines added optional curtain side airbags that dropped down from above the doors to cushion occupants' heads in a side impact, but neither yet offered torso side airbags. Midsize model names changed -- four-cylinder L100 and L200 sedans, V-6 L300 sedan, and LW200 and LW300 wagons. And that was about it.
For 2002, the S-Series lost its remaining wagon, while every L-Series standardized ABS, curtain airbags, and traction control. L-Series also expanded options with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, minivan-style rear-seat DVD video, GM OnStar communications/assistance system, and 16-inch chrome wheels.
For more information on Saturn cars, see:
- Saturn New Car Reviews and Prices
- Saturn Used Car Reviews and Prices