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How Saturn Cars Work

Early Production of Saturn Cars
The 1991 Saturn SL2 -- part of Saturn's initial model line -- was a little more expensive but performed surprisingly well.

Despite myriad obstacles and much outside naysaying, Saturn production got under way in time for model-year 1991. Job One, a metallic-red sedan, rolled out the door at 10:57 a.m. on July 30, 1990, with Roger Smith at the wheel in one of his last public appearances as GM chairman. With that, attention turned to the car itself.

Saturn greeted the world with four-door sedans and two-door coupes sharing a basic front-drive platform and major components. Each body style had its own styling, but neither drew rave reviews on that score.

The sedan was criticized as looking like a scaled-down Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. (Some designers apparently worked on both, with the Saturn finished before the Olds but introduced after it.) The coupe, a swoopy 2+2 with hidden headlamps, was more favorably received, though some said it resembled the Geo Storm, an Isuzu-built hatchback coupe then sold by Chevrolet.

Despite the shared platform, the sedan rode a 102.4-inch wheelbase, the coupe a 99.2-inch span. Respective overall lengths were 176.3 and 175.8 inches, making Saturns a little shorter than Chevy Cavaliers but seven inches longer than a Honda Civic, a key design benchmark.

As promised, body panels bolted to a steel inner skeleton, with fenders, doors, and other vertical panels made of dent- and rust-resistant thermoplastic polymer ­material. Steel was used for hoods, trunklids, and roofs. Galvanized underbody panels and a standard stainless-steel exhaust system helped reduced corrosion worries, too.

Also as promised, the engine was a new inline-four created expressly for Saturn, with an aluminum block and heads cast by the lost-foam technique. There were two versions of this 1.9-liter (116-cubic inch) design, both fuel-injected and mounted transversely per established front-drive small-car practice. The base 85-horsepower unit had a single overhead camshaft (sohc) and throttle-body injection with a central squirter at the intake manifold. A dual-cam (dohc) derivative with multi-point injection (a squirter for each cylinder) delivered 123 bhp.

Each teamed with five-speed manual transmission or optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic. As on some Japanese cars, the automatic had a switch for selecting "normal" or "performance" shift modes; the latter delayed full-throttle upshifts to higher rpm for best acceleration. Alas, no Saturn powertrain delivered anywhere near the economy touted seven years earlier -- 45 mpg city and 60 mpg highway. The best was 27 mpg city and 37 highway for the single-cam/five-speed combination.

Initially, the sedan was offered in price-leader SL and better-equipped SL1 models with the sohc engine and as a dohc-powered SL2 with "Twin Cam" writ large on the rear bumper. The coupe, dubbed SC, was dohc only. Bumpers were black on ­single-cam cars, body-color on the sportier dual-cam models.

Interior design and features mimicked those of targeted competitors. Climate controls and the steering-column stalk switches for lights and wipers might have been lifted from a Civic or Toyota Corolla, and all models came with reclining cloth front bucket seats, tachometer, tilt steering column, trip odometer, split folding rear seatback, and a rear electric defroster -- items found on most all Japanese rivals.

Wheel designs emulated Honda's, including the use of four lug nuts instead of GM's usual five. With all this, some people thought Saturns were Japanese cars, but content was actually 95 percent domestic.

Early road-test verdicts were generally positive. Despite automatic transmission, Consumer Guide®'s test SL2 ran 0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds, surprisingly brisk for an affordable subcompact. A single-cam car took up to two seconds more, but Saturn's slick-shifting manual transmission was a match for Japan's best and a welcome change from previous GM efforts.

All models offered agile handling, a comfortably absorbent ride, good people and cargo space for the exterior size, and, of course, convenient Japanese-style ergonomics. Fuel economy was another asset, but most reviewers judged the engines too loud and rough, especially for a modern four-cylinder under 2.0 liters. Which led to the most-telling judgment of all: Despite all-new engineering and the long gestation, Saturn was not the big breakthrough Roger Smith had promised -- competitive with the Japanese, but not clearly superior.

Where Saturn did have an edge was price. At $7995 to start, the Scrooge-special SL was a whopping $1495 less than the base Civic sedan and $1000 less the cheapest Corolla (though the SL didn't offer an automatic transmission or power steering). Saturn's $275 destination charge was in line with those of Japanese makers and $180 less than Cavalier's.

The SL1, starting $600 above the SL, swiftly became the volume seller. The SL2 listed at an attractive $10,295, but could be optioned up to around $14,600 -- a bit steep for the class, though that included antilock brakes (ABS) with rear discs (an $895 option) and CD player, features Civic and Corolla didn't yet offer. The SC2 topped the line at $11,775 and, like most other small coupes, was a tougher sell than the sedans.

For more information on Saturn cars, see:

  • Saturn New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Saturn Used Car Reviews and Prices