Saturn Car Sales Fail in Japan

Saturn No. 1,500,000, a blue SC2, rolled out of Spring Hill on January 17, 1997. There was little product news, though: just a standard low-fuel warning light for all '97 models and, with the optional keyless entry system, an antitheft feature that sounded the horn in the event of a break-in.

But in another highly symbolic event, GM's import-fighting brand began selling cars in Japan, something even Saturn godfather Roger Smith hadn't planned. Critics had long maintained that American cars weren't good enough for demanding Japanese buyers. But Saturns were selling well against many Japanese cars in the U.S., so why not Japan itself?

The export models were reengineered for right-hand drive and equipped to satisfy both local regulations and, it was hoped, the local market. Unfortunately, sales commenced in April 1997 just as the Japanese economy was slipping into recession, and there were only eight dealers for the entire country.

But the main difficulty, said one Japanese industry analyst quoted by U.S. trade weekly Automotive News, was that "Saturn didn't have any brand appeal. American brands are hard to sell in Japan because some people still have a low-quality image of them." After four tough years and only 4324 sales, Saturn gave up.

It was just as well, for troubles were mounting at home. Calendar-year sales fell nearly 10 percent in 1997, another 7.7 percent in '98. The problem, many observers felt, was that Saturns hadn't changed much and the competition had -- and not just import-brand rivals.

Meanwhile, the '98 Saturns appeared with only re-tuned suspensions, for a smoother ride, and more powertrain refinements -- an almost yearly ritual -- aimed at reducing noise, vibration and harshness. Retailers soon found themselves with more cars than buyers for the first time, yet Saturn's one-price policy precluded rebates and other incentives to trim the backlog.

The only thing left was to trim production, and the Spring Hill, Tenn., factory scaled back in September 1997 by about 17 percent to some 275,000 cars a year. There were no layoffs, prohibited by the UAW contract, but workers were worried all the same.

Sales were basically flat in calendar 1999, which was relatively good news. And Saturn finally had some real product news that year: three-door coupes. A number of extended-cab pickups had lately sprouted auxiliary rear doors to improve back-seat access, and the idea made even more sense for the small Saturn SCs.

New Jersey retailer Stuart Lasser reportedly suggested it after noticing how his son Hal had trouble getting in and out of the regular two-door. Engineers worked fast, and the "back door" coupes were in dealerships by November 1998.

The extra door was on the driver's side, rear-hinged, about 19 inches wide, and could open to near 90 degrees. You had to open the driver's door first, because the rear-door latch was flush-mounted in the front doorjamb for safety's sake. Opening both doors left a spacious unobstructed opening 62 inches wide.

The third door changed roof styling slightly -- but only on the left -- and added a mere 50 pounds despite required structural reinforcing. Unfortunately, it also cut rear hip room by three inches and rear shoulder room by 5.5 inches. Young Hal Lasser might have had an easier scramble in and out, but less space to move around in once inside.

For more information on Saturn cars, see: