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.
For more information on Saturn cars, see:
- Saturn New Car Reviews and Prices
- Saturn Used Car Reviews and Prices