How Saturn Cars Work

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide  | 
A 3D image of a white car in front of a concrete wall.
GM created Saturn cars to compete with the rising Japanese car market. gremlin / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Saturn, launched by General Motors in 1982 as "Project Saturn," was an initiative to compete with Japanese dominance in the U.S. small-car market.
  • The brand was characterized by innovations in car manufacturing and customer service, aiming to redefine the American automotive industry with high-quality, cost-effective vehicles.
  • Despite early success and a unique business model focused on customer satisfaction and team-oriented manufacturing, Saturn faced challenges maintaining profitability, leading to its eventual phasing out within GM.

General Motors' first new nameplate in over 60 years was born in 1982 as Project Saturn. Conceived in part by then-chairman Roger Smith, it was an all-out effort to stem the growing Japanese dominance of the U.S. small-car market that had begun in the early '70s.

Smith realized that although GM was highly successful with traditional American cars, it badly lagged behind Japanese makers for small-car quality, design, and cost. As a result, younger buyers were deserting GM's smaller U.S. products for Hondas, Toyotas, and other Japanese models -- and they weren't coming back.


More than eight years passed before the first Saturns were sold. For some, that long gestation reinforced doubts that GM could field a competitive, profitable, all-American small car -- especially given recent efforts like the problem-plagued X-body front-drive compacts.

Heady pronouncements along the way didn't help. For example, at the November 1983 unveiling of a full-scale sedan prototype (later dubbed "the little red car"), Smith promised Saturn would be a "a quantum leap ahead of the Japanese, including what they have coming in the future. In Saturn we have GM's answer -- the American answer -- to the Japanese challenge. It's the clean-sheet approach to producing small cars that in time will prove to have historic implications."

Originally, Saturn vehicles were to be sold by Chevrolet, starting with a front-drive four-door sedan somewhat smaller than a contemporary Chevy Cavalier. The projected price was $5000-$7000 and its introduction was vaguely described as sometime in "the late '80s." A two-door coupe and a sport-­utility vehicle (SUV) were to follow later.

By the time Saturn opened for business, however, it was Saturn Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary charged with pioneering new ideas in everything from styling to service. The most successful innovations would then spread throughout GM itself, or so it was presumed. Saturn was supposed to make money, of course, preferably by stealing sales from the competition, not other GM makes.

In presenting the prototype, GM served notice that Saturns would be different: Body panels would be made of either metal or plastic and attached to a steel "spaceframe" as on Pontiac's then-new Fiero sporty car. The engine would be a brand-new, fuel-injected four-cylinder with an aluminum block and cylinder heads formed by a precision "lost foam" technique. Oil passages would be designed in instead of drilled in after casting to save both time and material. Astonishing EPA-rated fuel economy was promised: 45 mpg city, 60 mpg highway.

Other components need not come from corporate bins, and Saturn was free to devise its own engineering and manufacturing methods. A major goal for this experiment was finding ways to close the cost gap with "Japan, Inc.," then estimated at more than $2000 per car. The resultant savings, Smith said, would finally make GM a small-car power in the U.S. market. In fact, he declared Saturn nothing less than "the key to GM's long-term competitiveness, survival, and success."

As announced in January 1985, Saturn Corporation would have its own plant, its own employees, its own contract with the United Auto Workers union, and a separate dealer network. Initial funding was $150 million, and up to $5 billion was earmarked for future expenditures, including some $3.5 billion for a "greenfield" factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Smith hoped production would start by fall 1987, and vowed to drive the first car off the line himself. Oldsmobile general manager Joseph Sanchez was tapped as Saturn president, but died of a heart attack less than three weeks later. Pontiac general manager Bill Hogland was named to replace him.


Saturn Rethinks Car Manufacturing

Saturn, a division of GM founded in the 1980s, had its own dedicated car factory from the beginning. A prime reason for locating in Tennessee was to distance Saturn from other GM facilities, thus allowing a unique "corporate culture" to flower more easily.

Just as important, tiny Spring Hill (pop­ulation 1400 at the time) was about 35 miles south of Nashville and 30 miles from Smyrna, Tennessee, home of Nissan's North American factory, so vital railroad lines, interstate highways and suppliers were all conveniently close. Groundbreaking took place in April 1986, by which time fledgling Saturn, barely a year old, had its third president: Richard G. "Skip" LeFauve, transferred from GM's Buick-Olds-Cadillac Group after Bill Hoglund, LeFauve's predecessor at Saturn, was named to head that unit.


Saturn's self-proclaimed mission was to "market vehicles developed and manufactured in the United States that are world leaders in quality, cost, and customer enthusiasm through the integration of people, technology, and business systems and to exchange knowledge, technology, and experience throughout General Motors."

That was a tall order for an established car company, but Saturn was starting from scratch. The job was monumental, and ensuing months witnessed delays, cost overruns, and difficulties in signing up dealers that forced pushing back the production start date to summer 1990, shortly before GM Chairman Roger Smith's scheduled retirement. Yearly volume was first set at a half-million units, then reduced to a more manageable 240,000, and GM's total investment was trimmed to about $3.5 billion.

Smith envisioned the Saturn plant as the last word in automated manufacturing, with computer-guided vehicles delivering parts to robots that did most assembly chores. But like so many GM leaders before him, Smith was a financial manager, not an engineer or manufacturing expert, and he didn't really understand "high tech" or its limits.

Spring Hill would use robots for welding, applying adhesives and painting the cars, but the plant wasn't nearly as futuristic as Smith envisioned. The real innovation came in labor/management relations. As LeFauve noted: "People are going to make the difference for Saturn."

The first employees were recruited from other GM operations. There were just 3800 jobs but more than 16,000 applicants, all evidently intrigued by the Saturn experiment and wanting to be part of it. Candidates were invited to Spring Hill for a two-day screening session, and 90 percent of those who came were hired.

The eventual employee roster showed migrants from 46 states with an average of 13 years GM experience. Being so accustomed to GM's old ways, "associates" were required to undergo comprehensive training in the new Saturn way of thinking and working.

UAW members received 350 hours of training on average, though some high-skill positions got twice as much. Base pay for all workers was 80 percent of GM's national average, but there were bonuses for meeting productivity targets and a ­profit-sharing plan -- if Saturn turned a profit.

Saturn's labor agreement had few traditional industry "shop rules" and gave employees more say in how they did their jobs. Workers were organized into teams responsible for monitoring the quality of parts and their own work, and any worker could stop the assembly line to fix safety or quality problems on the spot, a common practice in Japan but unknown in U.S. auto plants.

That allowed doing away with separate quality-control inspection areas. In addition, workers sat alongside managers in meetings, helping to make decisions as "team members," and everyone ate in the same dining room. LeFauve even shared the executive office suite with the UAW's Saturn coordinator.

The team approach also figured in Saturn product development. Designers, factory workers, engineers, and outside suppliers came together for what was called "simultaneous engineering." This was in sharp contrast to the old way of having designers, once finished with their part of the car, "throw it over the wall" to engineers, who did their jobs before tossing the project to manufacturing, and so on down the line.

Just as important, Saturn planners, some of whom already drove imports, put aside personal preferences to focus on what buyers wanted. Said engineering vice-president Jay Wetzel: "Most great cars in history reflect the personality of one person. In our case, that person just happens to be the consumer."


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.


Saturn Emphasizes Customer Service

Saturn sales officially began on October 25, 1990. Advertising never mentioned a GM connection -- arguably wise, considering GM's sullied reputation among the targeted buyers, though also appropriate for Saturn's freewheeling status.

The Saturn plant at Spring Hill, Tenn., was still moving slowly on a single shift to assure the highest possible assembly quality, now a must for even entry-level cars. The first Saturns were sold by some 30 dealers in Tennessee and neighboring states as well as on the West Coast, long an import stronghold. Dealers opened in other areas as production ramped up. By the following spring, Saturn counted 130 "retailers" in 33 states, most of them in 70 major urban markets.


It was in the retail area that Project Saturn had its greatest impact. Saturn carefully selected dealers who agreed to build separate showrooms and service facilities and to operate under strict guidelines for customer treatment. Sales personnel were trained in "consultative selling" to replace hard-sell tactics. A "retail associate" would sit down with customers, discuss their needs, explain their options, and arrange a test drive.

Pricing would be just as buyer-friendly. Federal laws on price-fixing prohibit car companies from forcing dealers to sell at a set price. That's why window stickers carry the legend "manufacturer's suggested retail price." But Saturn strongly urged its dealers to avoid the usual haggling, saying no customer should ever wonder about paying too much. Dealers agreed, and Saturns sold at full retail price -- no more, no less.

With production slowed to solve nagging quality problems, demand quickly exceeded supply during the 1991 model year. A good thing, then, that dealers obeyed another Saturn commandment: Thou shall not gouge. Buyers used to seeing "added dealer profit" signs on popular cars were pleasantly surprised by Saturn's "no ups, no extras" policy.

The red-carpet treatment didn't end there. Buyers were given a tour of their dealer's service area and met the mechanics who would work on their cars. Before driving off, new owners were photographed in their Saturns amid rousing cheers from dealership employees.

Almost all dealers invited owners in for weekend service clinics and even a free lunch. They also followed up with customers on a regular basis after the sale. If for any reason an owner was unhappy with a Saturn, the car could be returned within the first 30 days or 1500 miles for a full refund, no questions asked.

When Saturn announced its first recall in February 1991, dealer technicians drove to where the owners were just to replace a seatback bracket on about 1200 cars. A few months later, Saturn learned a supplier had provided a batch of improperly formulated antifreeze that might cause engine damage. Instead of replacing the antifreeze, Saturn replaced more than 1100 cars.


Saturn Car Company: Buyer Satisfaction

In Saturn's early days, 50 percent of customers bought a Saturn for the buying experience -- only 25 percent went for products like this 1991 Saturn SC. See more pictures of Saturn cars.

Saturn's extraordinary approach to customer care drew derisive comments from competing dealers, but it worked. With the Spring Hill factory managing only 48,629 units the first model year, dealers sold every one they could get. Most customers were ecstatic. Some even volunteered to help sell Saturns on their days off.

Another key part of Saturn's sales strategy was giving dealers broad "market areas" so they would compete with other brands instead of each other. Thus, a metropolitan region like Chicago might have more than 60 Chevrolet stores but only nine or 10 Saturn dealers. Limiting the number of retail outlets helped Saturn become the industry leader in sales per dealer, and Saturn franchises quickly became both profitable and sought-after.


This new way of doing business got an immediate endorsement in the form of J.D. Power and Associates' 1991 surveys of new-car owners. Respondents ranked Saturn third in both customer satisfaction and sales satisfaction. In its very first year, the "different kind of car company" leapfrogged Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and other rivals in two key measurements: how well customers liked their cars and how well they were treated by dealers. Only Lexus and Infiniti, the new Japanese luxury brands whose cars sold for three and four times as much, ranked higher.

And this was no first-year fluke. Saturn again ranked No. 3 in both Power surveys for the '92 and '93 model years, and was No. 1 in sales satisfaction and third in customer satisfaction for '94 and '95. More impressive still, Saturn would remain tops in sales satisfaction each model year through 2001 except for 1999, when it tied for sixth with Lexus and Germany's BMW at a mere four points behind first-place Cadillac and Jaguar.

These and other accolades buoyed values of used Saturns, which retained a higher percentage of their original price than other cars in their class. Saturn's own research showed that fully 50 percent of its customers bought primarily for the positive shopping experience, versus 25 percent for the product itself. This led one Saturn executive to remark, "We're not trying to sell people a car. We're helping them buy a car."

Other brands scrambled to "Saturnize," hoping to boost their customer satisfaction and sales with it. Struggling Oldsmobile, in fact, soon implemented many of Saturn's policies in the "Oldsmobile Edge" program. Some other dealers switched to "one-price" and "no-haggle" appeals, but many of those also selling other brands eventually returned to high-pressure tactics.

As Saturn President Richard G. "Skip" LeFauve observed, Saturn's success stemmed from many factors, including being true to its mission statement. "You can't just tell your retailers to be nice to people," he said.


Saturn Car Company's Early Success

Saturn's first big product change occurred late in the 1992 model year: an optional driver-side airbag. The cars had been introduced with motorized shoulder belts to meet the federal require­ment for dual front-seat "passive restraints," but Japanese rivals were rapidly adding airbags and Saturn needed to match them. The motorized belts continued through model-year '94.

The driver-side cushion became an across-the-board standard for 1993, when four-door wagons and optional traction control arrived. The wagon, striding the same wheelbase as the sedan and otherwise identical to it ahead of the rear doors, came in sohc SW1 and dohc SW2 versions.


Also added was a lower-cost coupe, titled SC1, with the single-cam engine and exposed headlamps. The dual-cam coupe retained its hidden-headlamp face as the SC2.

The new traction control was available for just $50 on models ordered with ABS and automatic. There was hardly any hardware involved. Saturn simply wrote new software allowing the ABS computer to counteract wheel slip in three stages: retard spark timing to reduce engine power, shift the transmission to a higher gear, and interrupt fuel flow. Traction control was a Saturn class exclusive and thus a big coup for the brand; even many luxury cars didn't have it yet.

Saturn production finally hit full stride during model-year '93. Spring Hill ran two shifts to crank out some 244,000 cars, almost 75,000 more than the year before. But dealers were still short of stock and asking for more, so a third shift was added and all shifts rescheduled to four days a week, 10 hours a day. That had the plant going six days a week to squeeze out nearly 60,000 additional cars each year. The cars themselves were little changed for '94, but there was big news on the financial front. In January 1994, Saturn announced its first operating profit, achieved in calendar '93, though the amount wasn't made public. The workforce had grown to 8500 by then, and each employee received a profit-sharing check for about $5100.

Though Saturn was still a long way from paying back GM's initial investment, officials hastened to point out several benefits accruing from the new company. On the technology side were the lost-foam engine casting technique, a new water-borne paint process, and team-oriented assembly systems, all being adopted or studied by other GM operations.

In addition, Saturn's four-cylinder cars were earning valuable corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) credits for GM as a whole to offset sales of gas-guzzling V-8 models, including a fast-rising number of thirsty full-size light trucks.

Most important perhaps, 75 percent of Saturn sales represented "plus business," meaning they came at the expense of non-GM brands. More than half of Saturn owners said they would have bought a Japanese car instead, thus realizing one of Roger Smith's goals -- stealing customers from the likes of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan.

To say thanks, Saturn invited its customers -- all 700,000 of them -- to a "Homecoming" weekend in Spring Hill in late June 1994. It was another extraordinary thing for a car company to do, but even Saturn was surprised when more than 44,000 ­people showed up. All came at their own expense, some driving in from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.

Drenching rains and muddy fields didn't dampen the family-oriented fun, which included plant tours, picnics, a concert, and sharing the gospel with fellow owners and Spring Hill workers. Two employees from Pennsylvania Saturn retailers got married during the event; Saturn President Skip LeFauve gave the bride away, plus a 1995 Saturn as a wedding present.

Beyond great PR, the Homecoming testified to how well Saturn was making friends and fostering customer loyalty. It was judged a success, despite the soggy weather and other problems, and would be repeated in 1999.


Saturn Car Company's Economic Downturn

The 1995 Saturn SW1 station wagon was part of a redesign of the Saturn lineup, but the company really needed an overhaul of its product portfolio.

Saturn was a hit in the years after rolling out its first car, but dark clouds were gathering. Saturn bowed in 1991 amid huge losses for GM as a whole: $2 billion in 1990, $4.5 billion in 1991, the latter a U.S. business record to that time.

New top-level executives came in during 1992, and though they had GM back in the black by mid-decade, the company's total market share continued to shrink and profits were down. With funding tight, sibling rivalry broke out within the GM family.


As AutoWeek observed in its report on the first Saturn Homecoming in 1994: "General Motors has already poured $5 billion into Saturn, and there are people at places like Chevrolet, Buick, and Oldsmobile…who would frown upon more of their corporation's dollars heading south. They'd like to see their younger sister pull some of her own weight; that's how families work." Trouble was, Saturn had only small cars to sell, and the small-car market was weakening.

In short, Saturn needed more funding and new models, yet other divisions were needy too, and there wasn't enough money to go around. Some observers recommended that GM cut overhead by merging Saturn with Oldsmobile Division, as both were growing ever closer in products and sales practices.

By summer 1995, however, GM decided to delay additional Saturn models and shift development resources to other brands, Olds included. This thinking probably made sense at the time, as Saturn was doing great business. Though sales eased fractionally for calendar '95 to less than 286,000, production for that model year rose 18 percent to a record 303,000.

Saturn's lineup would expand, but the fast-changing economics of the auto business meant future models would share more with other GM cars. Tellingly, Saturn President Skip LeFauve was promoted in 1995 to head all GM small-car programs and "small-car convergence" efforts. GM veteran Don Hudler took over as president and CEO at Saturn Corporation after serving as its vice-president for sales, marketing and service since 1987.

Several changes marked the 1995 Saturns. A passenger-side airbag in a redesigned dashboard allowed manual three-point seatbelts to replace the never-liked shoulder "mousebelts." Multipoint fuel injection added a welcome 15 bhp to the single-cam engine, coupes got mildly freshened faces, and the SC2 sported a new rear panel and spoiler.

A prime rationale for spaceframe construction with bolt-on body panels was to make styling updates relatively easy and cheap, but Saturn said it couldn't afford to redesign the whole car at once, so it focused on the interior first. Exteriors were updated for '96. Sedans and wagons retained familiar cues, but grew slightly longer and more rounded; a newly arched roofline increased sedan head room fore and aft.

But the biggest change was reserved for coupes. After a brief run of '96 carryovers, the '97 models bowed in early 1996 on the sedan/wagon wheelbase to gain a whopping 4.5 inches of rear leg room. All models got additional side-impact protection in advance of 1997 federal standards, plus daytime running lights (inboard of the headlamps), a safety feature spreading throughout GM.

Traction control was now available with either transmission as part of the ABS option. Prices had been creeping up, ranging now from $9995 for the basic SL sedan to $12,695 for the top-line SW2 wagon. Despite the restyle, calendar-year sales slipped 2.5 percent to around 278,600 -- not a good sign.


Saturn's Battery-Powered Car: The Saturn EV1

A widely hailed sign of the future arrived at select Saturn retailers in December 1996. The EV1 wasn't GM's first battery-powered car, but it built on decades of company experiments with electric vehicles.

And it wasn't just for fun. California and other states had enacted laws requiring automakers to sell a percentage of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) as a condition for doing business in those states. Though lawmakers kept fiddling with deadlines and sales counts, clean-air mandates were a fact of life demanding alternatives to the internal-combustion engine. Most automakers started with electric cars.


EV1 was built to gain real-world experience with advanced technology and, just as important, to assess consumer interest in electric vehicles. Saturn owners liked new ideas, and the small lozenge-shaped electric coupe had plastic body panels over a steel skeleton, so it was right at home in Saturn showrooms. EV1 was not a Saturn, though, wearing the GM logo as a new one-model "make."

Evolved from the 1989 Impact prototype, the EV1 had a front-mounted AC induction motor driving the front wheels through a "1-speed" transaxle with reduction gear. The juice came from 26 lead-acid batteries arranged in a central T-structure and weighing some 1175 pounds, nearly half the car's curb weight.

For maximum driving range, a "regenerative" feature reversed the main motor on braking to replace some of the power used; a transaxle "coastdown" feature gave a similar effect when coasting on flat surfaces or when or descending hills. Recharging was by a 220-volt stand-alone unit or a 110V onboard charger. Recharging took 12-14 hours with the onboard unit, about three hours with the 220V equipment.

The EV1 cost a cool $350 million to develop, and GM said it should have sold each one for at least $35,000 just to break even on the project. That was deemed excessive for a fairly impractical car with unclear market prospects and embryonic technology. So instead, GM offered three-month leases that included all normal servicing, though not the required home charger.

Fittingly, EV1s were first leased in smoggy Los Angeles and San Diego, California, and in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. The program was extended to Sacramento, California, in 1997 and to San Francisco the following year.

"Owners" loved the cars, happily passing gas stations in eerie silence and zipping through traffic or along winding roads with verve. Acceleration was strong -- about 8.0 seconds 0-60 -- but you dare not use full power very often. Even careful drivers were hard-put to get more than 60 miles on a full charge.

With that and the rise of more-practical gasoline/electric "hybrids," interest in the EV1 tailed off. GM ended production in late 2000 after fewer than 1000 units, but continued the lease program for a time.


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.


Saturn Car L-Series

The Saturn L-Series, including this 2000 LW2, were Saturn's initial foray into the mid-size car market.

With sales flat in the late 1990s, and after several years of dithering, GM had finally decided to fund the additional products Saturn so badly needed. First up was the all-new mid-size L-Series, launched in early 1999 for model-year 2000.

A $1.2-billion effort, the L-Series was loosely based on GM's European Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, and Saturn took pains to make sure reporters understood how loose the relationship was. Though the L-Series used the Vectra's basic architecture and front-drive powertrains, only about 130 parts, ­mostly fasteners, were said to be interchangeable -- as one engineer demonstrated by pouring them out of a small laundry basket at the press preview. "That is literally everything this car has in common with the Vectra," he declared.


Saturn took over an older GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, and retooled it for the L-Series, which was built under a more-traditional labor agreement than existed in the initial Saturn factory in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Despite similar "global GM" styling, the L-Series strode a 2.5-inch longer wheelbase than its Euro cousin and looked recognizably Saturn. It even had plastic fenders and door skins, though they attached to a conventional unibody rather than a spaceframe.

Two engines covered five models with familiar Saturn nomenclature. Powering the LS and LS1 sedans and LW1 wagon was a dohc 2.2-liter four-cylinder, part of GM's new "L850" engine family and marketed under the "Ecotec" name. The LS2 sedan and LW2 wagon carried a twincam 3.0-liter V-6, also designed by GM Europe and shared with Saab of Sweden (by now part of the GM empire).

The V-6 teamed only with a four-speed automatic transmission, which was also available for four-cylinder models in lieu of five-speed manual. Options included ABS with traction control across the board, leather upholstery except on the base LS sedan, and a rear spoiler for LS1/LS2. V-6 models came with rear disc brakes.

Hopes were high for the L-Series, though the odds seemed against it. After all, Saturn was wading into a very crowded and competitive market where the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were perennial contenders as America's best-selling car line.

But with total sales of some 3.5 million units a year, the mid-size class offered huge growth potential for Saturn and GM -- an irresistible opportunity. What's more, critics found the L-Series had most everything necessary for success. Said Car and Driver: "We're not about to bet against the top dogs…but the LS1 covers all the sedan bases very well and could make the others sweat a little if Saturn can persuade Americans to take notice of its new model."

Unfortunately, Saturn fumbled. Unexpected production glitches kept supplies tight in the critical early weeks, and initial advertising touted "the next big thing from Saturn" without giving a clear idea of what the L-Series was. As a result, calendar-2000 deliveries were just over 94,000. Saturn had projected 192,000 the first year and up to 300,000 a year thereafter.

Cars started piling up once the factory got cranking, forcing Saturn to slash production twice in quick succession. To jump-start sales, Saturn granted a $1000 per car "advertising allowance" that retailers could use any way they liked. Many simply passed it on to customers as a hidden rebate, but even that didn't help. Zero-down leases were being offered by July, when Business Week reported that average incentives for all Saturn models were at a record $1116 per vehicle.

With the L-Series in the lineup, the smaller Saturns were named S-Series for 2000. The SW1 wagon was dropped. Remain­ing models sported a new gauge cluster and switchgear, redesigned center console, revised front seats with more rearward travel, plus new lower-body panels that increased length by 1.2 inches but were hardly noticeable.

Coupes had a short model year, with slightly restyled '01s arriving in early 2000. Powertrains were fiddled with yet again, getting a new induction system and other changes in the continuing quest for smoothness and quietness. Consumer Guide® thought a decade of effort had "finally paid off -- at least in the '2' models. Their twincam engine now feels coarse and buzzy only at maximum rpm. The changes don't affect [output], so acceleration with either transmission remains slightly better than the class norm."

But at age 10, the original Saturn design looked downright old against most rivals, and sales took a beating in calendar 2000, dropping 23.7 percent to a little over 177,000. With that, Spring Hill was put on furlough to give dealers time to clear stocks -- including some leftover '99s. Still, Saturn's total sales rose 16.9 percent to 271,800. The L-Series, disappointment though it was, more than made up for the S-Series' decline.


Saturn Car Company Losses in 2000 and 2001

In 2002 Saturn trimmed its S-Series to just a coupe (shown here as an SC2) and sedan, and dropped the wagon version.

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 [to] 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.

Saturn Vue

On the heels of healthy sales for the SUV, the Saturn Vue debuted its Red Line version in 2004 as part of a line of performance-oriented Saturns.

The national nightmare of September 11, 2001, was the unforeseen backdrop for the rollout of Saturn's vital SUV, the Vue.

Americans were flocking to car-based "crossover" wagons like the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Vue was intended to match or beat them for roominess, versatility, performance, and fuel economy. Significantly, Vue introduced the "Theta" platform destined for similar vehicles at other GM brands, but maintained Saturn tradition by wearing thermoplastic vertical body panels.

Vue initially offered the two L-Series engines. The V-6 came only with a new five-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel drive system (AWD) with no transfer case or low-range gearing. The four-cylinder teamed with front drive and five-speed manual or with front drive or AWD operating through the promised CVT, called VTi (for "Variable Transmission, intelligent").

Developed by GM's Hydramatic Division and sourced from Europe, the CVT was another Saturn first in American production. Like similar designs at Honda and Audi, it used a special drive belt running between two laterally expandable pulleys to provide a near-infinite number of drive ratios. Electronic control insured the transmission was always in the right "gear" for optimum performance and fuel efficiency.

Interestingly, Saturn claimed 0-60 mph acceleration of 10.2 seconds for the front-drive Vue with CVT versus 11.1 with manual. The AWD V-6 was pegged at 8.4 seconds, which Car and Driver verified in its first full Vue test. Another class exclusive was electric power steering, with motors replacing power-sapping hydraulics.

Otherwise, Saturn's SUV closely matched its rivals in dimensions, utility, and fuel economy. Consumer Guide® found that it "leans more in corners than Escape or CR-V and tends to nose-plow where most compact SUVs feel nimble." Steering was "vague on-center and doesn't impart much road feel."

But ride was judged a "strong point. Tires and suspension [four-wheel independent] do a good job of absorbing the worst bumps…" CG's overall assessment: "What Vue lacks in handling it more than makes up for in versatility, ride quality, and interior comfort. Even more attractive are its competitive pricing [about $16,300-$22,600] and the high customer-satisfaction ratings for Saturn's dealership experience and no-haggle price strategy."

Vue got off to a good start, finding more than 75,000 buyers in calendar 2002 and nearly 82,000 in '03. Though that was a modest showing by historic U.S.-industry standards, it was creditable in the far-more diverse and ruthless new-century market.

Most buyers preferred the AWD V-6 with its orthodox automatic transmission -- a good thing, as the CVT was delayed by teething troubles to mid-2002 and was hard to get even then. Automotive News estimated that only 37 percent of Vue production was so equipped. No matter. The V-6 increased its popularity for 2003, when Saturn offered it with front-wheel drive, too. One other change that season was the new option of leather upholstery and heated front seats.

Calendar 2004 deliveries rose six percent to nearly 87,000. Making sense of that 2000 press release, Vue exchanged the 181-bhp 3.0-liter GM V-6 for a 250-bhp 3.5-liter Honda unit, basically the same engine used in Honda's popular Odyssey minivan.

Though the swap did wonders for Vue acceleration and mechanical finesse, it was a telling move for the world's largest automaker. Awkward, too, as Saturn now had to sell, service, and warranty a competitor's engine while avoiding mention that it was a competitor's engine.

But the Honda V-6 made a fine starting point for the Vue Red Line, the first in a planned series of sporty Saturn submodels. Arriving at mid-2004 as a $1995 package for V-6 versions, the Red Line also included a lower-riding firmed-up suspension with 18-inch wheels and tires, plus specific trim inside and out.

All '04 Vues received recalibrated steering, chrome-ringed white-face gauges, and available satellite radio; AWDs added standard 17-inch wheels, a new option on mainstream front-drivers.

Saturn Sales Plunge, Company Restructures

Vue was a timely tonic for total Saturn sales, which inched up some 20,000 in calendar '02 to exceed 280,000. But the car side was still slipping, and the 2003 total retreated to around 271,000.

Though that partly reflected the transition to a new small car, the real culprit was the L-Series: down 17 percent in '02, then by 20 percent more -- to just 65,000 or so -- despite facelifted '03s with standard curtain side airbags and detail chassis improvements.

Worse, as Consumer Guide® noted in '03: "A decent mid-size car is now less of a value because Saturn charges extra for ABS and traction control, yet increases base prices…except on the manual-transmission L200…At least the L-Series has been a tepid seller, so lease incentives and low financing rates may be available."

They were indeed, as Saturn was pushing incentives harder than ever, including zero-percent financing with GM's market-priming "Keep America Rolling" promotion in the wake of 9/11. Yet neither that nor later lures could spark buyer interest in the mid-size Saturn, and orders plunged a whopping 70 percent in calendar '04 to less than 19,500.

All were L300s with standard ABS/traction control reinstated and no manual shift offered. Not surprisingly, the unloved L-Series faded away during model-year '05, when only an unchanged V-6 sedan was available with far fewer options. Just over 5000 were sold.

Saturn by now had a capable new leader in Jill Lajdziak. She reported both to G. Richard "Rick" Wagoner, named GM chairman and CEO in 2001, and to the celebrated "product czar" he quickly brought aboard, former Chrysler Corporation president Robert A. Lutz.

Lajdziak enjoyed rather less freedom than her predecessors, however. Bit by bit, Saturn was losing its independence, a shift highlighted by the untimely death of former president Skip LeFauve in January 2003. As Automotive News observed at the time, "LeFauve's Saturn organization [now] looks noticeably different. Decision-making is often conducted higher in the GM organization, and Saturn operates more like a standard GM division with traditional GM practices."

But tightening Saturn's orbit was necessary in light of a worsening financial crisis that would have GM on the brink of bankruptcy by 2006. With Oldsmobile already being phased out as a recovery measure, Business Week wondered whether struggling Saturn might soon be dumped, too. "That is out of the question," Lutz told the magazine in mid-2003.

Three years later, Lutz revealed an entirely new game plan for Saturn. From here on, most of the brand's core products would be rebadged versions of select Opel models designed and engineered at GM's German subsidiary. The aim was to save money and get out new product more quickly through the closest ever collaboration among GM's worldwide business units.

The pattern, Lutz said, was the British Vauxhall branch, which had been building and selling retrimmed Opels for years. Saturn might advise Opel on design tailoring for the American market, but innovation was no longer a part of its brief. Even Spring Hill was increasingly seen as just another plant supplying all GM makes, not just Saturn.

A tangible early sign of Saturn's shifting status was the 2003 Ion, the belated successor to the subcompact S-Series. This was the first in a planned global family of GM small cars on the new front-drive Delta platform conceived largely by Opel. Ion styling was Saturn's own, however, and plastic was once again used for the front fenders and outer door skins, though the inner structure was a conventional steel unibody.

A simple twist-beam axle replaced the S-Series' tri-link rear suspension to keep cost down. Antilock brakes shifted to the options list, but now included traction control. Curtain side airbags were newly available, a plus for Saturn's safety-minded clientele and for the small-car field.

Saturn Ion

The Saturn Ion bowed with the all-aluminum "Ecotec" four-cylinder tuned for 145 bhp, a whopping 40 bhp up from the previous single-cam base engine. Sedans launched first with trim levels prosaically named 1, 2 and 3, plus an extra-cost five-speed automatic transmission as another class plus.

The two-door Saturn returned in spring '03 as the "Quad Coupe." Sporting rear access doors on both sides, it came in 2 and 3 versions with roughly the same features as like-named sedans. The wheelbase of all Ions went up an inch over the S-Series span, while overall length stretched 6.4 inches more on sedans, 4.5 inches on coupes.

With that and a two-inch rise in overall height, Ion claimed class-leading interior and cargo space. A bold departure -- controversial, too -- was a central dashtop gauge cluster canted toward the driver. Only Toyota's subcompact Echo dared something like it.

Also brave was making coupes available with the CVT as well as the torque-converter automatic. Unusual, too, was the interchangeable roof-rail trim available through Saturn dealers in colors and patterns to mix and match with paint and interior decor.

As Saturn's most affordable car and the replacement for its top-seller, the Ion was critical for near-term success. Saturn planned to peddle 160,000 a year, yet hardly budged the sales needle from the S-Series' last calendar year: about 114,000 through the end of '03.

Reviewers were critical on many counts, none more than Car and Driver, which pronounced Ion "probably the most disappointing all-new American car in a decade…Its chassis refinement, advanced safety systems and value for money are impressive" -- base prices ran around $11,600-$16,000. "But uncomfortable seats, funky ergonomics, cut-rate materials and low-quality engine sounds send the message, 'You should have spent more if you wanted a real car'."

Consumer Guide® was more charitable, noting that established Saturn virtues made up for the Ion's various vices. But plenty of shoppers thought otherwise. Within seven months, Ion inventory had ballooned to 100 days versus the desired 60-day supply. In all, it was a disheartening and worrisome debut.

To its credit, Saturn went right to work on fixes. Interiors gained visibly better-quality materials for 2004 and again for '05, when an early facelift gave most Ions a simple oblong grille and more exterior chrome, an attempt to add visual class.

Adding visceral appeal at mid-2004 was a racy Ion Red Line coupe with a supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec pumping out 205 eager horses. The $21,000 list price included mandatory five-speed manual, a tauter suspension on 17-inch wheels and performance tires, rear disc brakes, big-bolster front seats, snazzy leather/cloth upholstery, and the obligatory "go faster" body addenda, though Saturn wisely left a bulky rear spoiler to the options card.

This Ion aimed at the fast-growing youth market for tuned-up, glammed-up "sport compacts." It was mostly on target: nimble, eye-catching, and noisy but quick. Car and Driver clocked 0-60 mph at a brisk 6.1 seconds versus a sedate 8.4 for the base 140-bhp manual coupe.

Turning up the Red Line's wick for 2006 was a little-promoted $1375 Competition Package. This delivered a limited-slip differential to get max power to the pavement, dashboard lights to guide gear-swapping, plus a turbo-boost gauge, fog lamps, and unique alloy wheels. The Red Line wasn't the sort of car Saturn customers were used to, but that was the point. After so many years of sensible shoes, it was a refreshing dash of exuberance.

Red Line wasn't, however, a tonic for Ion sales, which slipped in calendar 2004 and again in '05, landing at just under 101,000 despite the availability of a 170-bhp 2.4-liter Ecotec for Ion 3s. Buying a Saturn might still be a first-class experience, but even the beautified Ions seemed second-rate against many import-brand foes.

Worse, model-year '05 brought intramural competition in Chevrolet's Delta-based Cobalt, which had no trouble luring buyers with its mainstream styling and superior fit and finish. It was an odd situation for a company founded on small cars, especially as Saturn seemed unsure of what to do about it.

In April 2006, Automotive News reported that Saturn was scrapping a planned Ion replacement and was looking for another GM car to take over after model-year '07. Trouble was, this substitute couldn't get to market until model-year '08, leaving Saturn dealers with the prospect of having no entry-level car to sell for eight or nine months, an eternity in auto retailing.

2004, 2005, 2006 Saturn Cars

Another in a series of blows to Saturn's pride came in 2004, when GM decided to scrap the still-troublesome CVT option for both the Ion compact and Vue SUV. This, too, seemed strange, as Audi, Ford, Honda, and Nissan all had vehicles with CVTs that worked like a charm. But maybe it wasn't so strange. GM had made many mistakes since Saturn's birth, and it wasn't the company it used to be.

A first-ever minivan should have brightened Saturn's sales picture considerably, but proved another miscalculation. A triumph of marketing style over product substance, the new-for-2005 Relay was basically a rehash of an eight-year-old GM design that had always lagged the class leaders and was no more competitive as a "crossover sport van" with SUV-flavored styling.

It even lacked Saturn's trademark plastic body panels, and had little to recommend it over close cousins Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, and a first-ever Buick minivan, the Terraza. Buyers saw through the 1980s-style cloning and mostly stayed away from all four models. Relay, though, was particularly disappointing in light of Saturn's still-strong consumer image, drawing a little more than 17,000 orders from late 2004 through the end of '05.

Reflecting the ho-hum response to both Relay and Ion, overall Saturn sales fell a sharp 21.8 percent in calendar 2004 to just over 212,000. The '05 total was just 640 units higher. The one sort of bright spot was Vue, which edged up to some 87,000 in '04, then to nearly 92,000 in '05.

Like Ion, Vue got unwanted in-house competition: the 2005 Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent built on a stretched Theta platform with different engines. At least tidier size and the available Honda V-6 helped Vue stand apart from that twosome, as well as a thundering herd of class rivals. A modest 2006 facelift and interior sprucing helped keep it looking fresh.

Serving the cause of fresher air was the Vue Green Line, General Motors' first mainstream vehicle with a low-emissions, high-mileage gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain. An early 2007 addition, it employed a 2.4-liter Ecotec four and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack feeding 10 kilowatts to an electric motor/generator. A four-speed torque-converter automatic transmission channeled a maximum 170 net horsepower to the front wheels.

Like Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system, the Vue's hybrid drive used the motor/battery pack to give the gas engine a kick when needed. The motor would charge the battery pack in coasting or braking, so no plug-in charging was required as on the pure-electric EV1. Also like most other hybrids, the engine would automatically shut off on coming to a stop to save gas, then restart on applying the throttle.

Projected EPA fuel economy of 27 mpg city and 32 highway was mighty compelling at a time when gas had shot above $3 a gallon and looked to go higher still. Saturn eyed a $23,000 starting price, around $4000 less than Ford's year-old Escape Hybrid and a whopping $10,000 below the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

Saturn Sky and Saturn Green Line

The 2007 Saturn Sky roadster, a true performance machine, represented a departure from Saturn's traditional philosophy.

The environmental-minded Vue Green Line arrived in summer 2006, promising to generate much-needed showroom traffic. So, too, did three more newcomers that made the 2007 line the broadest in Saturn's short history. Though those models also await history's verdict, they looked to give Saturn the competitive reach it had so long been denied.

First on the scene was Sky, a genuine two-seat sports roadster with an even higher fun factor than the Ion Red Line. Starting sale in spring 2006, it was an upscale version of the rear-drive Pontiac Solstice that had launched in late 2005 with a long waiting list. Sky caused the same clamor, orders pouring in before the first one left the Wilmington, Del., plant that had been refurbished after finishing with the L-Series.

Sky wore a Saturn face on an all-steel body that was four inches longer than the Pontiac's but with the same general look. It also sported a spiffier cockpit and a $23,000 base price, about $3000 upstream of its sibling. That was owed to no-cost anti­lock brakes, air conditioning, cruise control and power windows/door locks, all options for Solstice.

Sky also had its own suspension tuning for the plusher ride Saturn thought its customers would prefer. Otherwise, it was the same appealing package: base 177-bhp 2.4-liter Ecotec four, manual or optional automatic five-speed transmissions, all-disc brakes, 18-inch rolling stock, a manual-folding cloth top with heated rear window, and an options sheet showing limited-slip differential, leather upholstery, satellite radio, rear spoiler, and chrome wheels.

Released in fall was a performance-minded Sky Red Line. A counterpart to the Solstice GXP, it packed the same new supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec with 260 bhp. That was the highest specific output in GM history, abetted by direct fuel injection, a first for a North American GM car.

Naturally, Sky Red Line had specific styling touches inside and out, including a deeper front fascia with large brake-cooling ducts. Regular or Red Line, Sky was an exciting symbol of a hoped-for Saturn renaissance.

But the real money is always in mass-market products like midsize sedans, so a lot was riding on the 2007 Aura. Scheduled for release in August 2006, it embodied the new Bob Lutz strategy for Saturn, being a close relation of the European-bred Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, but built at GM's Kansas City plant.

On paper -- and in the showroom -- Aura looked light years ahead of the old L-Series, with crisply honed styling, solid engineering, and most of the features buyers craved. It bowed in two versions, each a front-wheel-drive V-6. The entry-level XE married an iron-block 224-bhp 3.5-liter pushrod engine to a four-speed automatic transmission. The uplevel XR boasted an all-aluminum twincam 3.6 sending 252 bhp through a new six-speed GM automatic.

Variable-valve timing enhanced efficiency on both V-6s, and was a claimed first for the "cam in block" 3.5. Headlining a long standard-equipment roster were front torso and curtain side airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and GM OnStar assistance with a year's free service. XR added 18-inch wheels to replace 17s, GM's Stabilitrak antiskid system, remote engine starting, extra interior amenities, and a little more brightwork.

Due later in the '07 model year was a Green Line Aura, GM's first hybrid-power passenger car, using the basic Vue Green Line powertrain. With all this, Aura seemed poised to be the sales success the L-Series was not.

No less important to the profit outlook was the aptly named 2007 Outlook, a large crossover SUV. Saturn was entering new territory here, but badly needed a presence in the booming market for new-age family wagons with carlike comfort and road manners.

Significantly, Outlook introduced the unibody Lambda platform that had been designed expressly for cross­over vehicles and that would soon serve other GM marques. Wheelbase was a generous 118.9 inches, nearly a match for the big truck-based Ford Expedition and more than sufficient to allow for the three-row seating most all shoppers demanded.

Like most every class rival, Outlook offered a choice of front-drive or AWD in a four-door package with passenger-car amenities, plus versatile accommodations for seven or eight. A lone powertrain mated GM's new six-speed automatic with a 3.6-liter V-6, basically the Aura engine tuned for 217 bhp and more low-end torque. With a full slate of standard safety aids and useful options like power liftgate, remote starting, and rear-obstacle-detection system, Outlook loomed as another big Saturn sales booster upon its scheduled early 2007 showroom debut.

Set to follow Outlook is a new-generation 2008 Vue, likely with bold new styling patterned after the Opel-designed PreVue concept presented in April 2006. That and a fill-in for Ion will complete a remarkable product expansion for a make that seemed to be at death's door just a few years earlier. Even so, Saturn is hardly of the woods yet, because General Motors itself must still hack through a forest of daunting challenges. But assuming everything works out, Saturn may at last be set for a truly bright, successful, and permanent future -- even if it is no longer "a different kind of car company."

Frequently Asked Questions

What initiatives did Saturn take to ensure customer satisfaction during its early years?
Saturn implemented no-haggle pricing, offered exceptional customer service, and allowed returns within the first 30 days of purchase if customers were unsatisfied, setting a new standard in customer care.
How did Saturn's approach to car manufacturing differ from traditional methods?
Saturn utilized a team-oriented approach in its production process, focusing on simultaneous engineering and quality control, which allowed workers to stop the assembly line to fix issues immediately, a practice adopted from Japanese manufacturing.