You can't blame fans of General Motors Corp.'s Saturn subsidiary for wondering when the company would finally create a true competitor for the best-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the two Japanese-brand jewels in the mid-size segment. Sorry, folks. Looks like you'll have to wait a bit longer. Saturn's new L-series sedan and wagon are the company's first mid-size models and the first all-new cars from the self-styled import fighter since the introduction of the original S-series compacts nine years ago. The underpinnings are sturdy enough, coming from the German-designed Opel Vectra. And the new powertrain - a twin-cam 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission - is world class. But the LS1 sedan we tested was afflicted with a rash of design, engineering and assembly flaws - enough to make us wonder if the attractive $18,000 sticker really is a good value. She: When you were in Asia for two weeks, I spent a lot of time in the new Saturn LS sedan and LW wagon. I sent you an e-mail saying, "Pretty nice cars." Then you show up on Devil's Night with your evil clipboard, nitpicking all kinds of things on the LS1. And now GM is going to hate us. Do you care to explain yourself? He: My clipboard always tells the truth. If you were to be really candid - which, unfortunately, we tend to be most of the time - you'd have to admit the current S-series Saturn compacts aren't really ground-breaking designs. In fact, they're getting pretty dated, the original cars having been developed back in the mid-80s. So people's hopes are really up for these new "big" Saturns. The company itself has set up the Accord and Camry as the chief targets for the L-series. Sadly, judging from the car we've been driving, the LS just isn't in the same class as the Honda or the Toyota, at least not from a quality standpoint. She: But it sure is a cut above the old Saturns. And that was my basis of comparison. If you look at it like I did, the interior is far more luxurious than you'd expect from a Saturn. They've gotten rid of the junky plastic center console. I was satisfied with the LS - until you showed up. I was also really amazed at the reaction of women to the sedan. One told me at the gas station that she liked the exterior design because it was reminiscent of Saab, and didn't seem to have as much of a cookie-cutter appearance as the old Saturns. It may not be groundbreaking, but you can live with it. He: I think you may be missing the point here. Is it really fair to compare a new entry in a totally different size class with the old entry? That's like measuring the new Ford Focus against the old Ford Contour - not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. But more to the point, the new Saturn LS falls considerably short of the benchmarks in the class in terms of quality and content. Let me be more specific. Our test car lacked antilock brakes; they cost extra. And you can't order side airbags i n the LS; they're just not available. But I was more appalled at the poor quality of the materials used in the car, as well as the sloppy fit of the trim throughout the cabin. The cloth seats were poorly sewn. Plastic pieces didn't fit together properly. Fabric was bunched up at various points on seat backs and edges. A piece of cloth was sticking out from under the top of the plastic trim on the A-pillar. The material lining the trunk just looked plain cheesy. She: I can't get a word in edgewise. And now you're never going to be invited down to a barbecue at the next Saturn homecoming in Tennessee. But let's look at the big picture. You can't argue with the price. It's a bigger Saturn for less than the average price of a new car today. Plus you get the added benefit of being able to walk into a showroom where you don't feel like Darth Vader is behind the sales desk or the service counter. I know. I've mystery-shopped Saturn dealers. And I like them. Put a price on that, pal. He: Let me be blunt. If Saturn had simply taken the Vectra and brought it over here, slapped a Saturn badge on it and put it in a showroom, they probably would have wound up with a much better car. In terms of its ride and handling and acceleration, the LS is a pretty decent car, and is nicely equipped in the base version. I just hope they get the quality problems sorted out. In the meantime, I believe you're better off spending that 18 grand on a Chevrolet Malibu - which, by the way, is built in the same assembly plant in Wilmington, Del. 2000 Saturn LS1 Anita's rating: above average Paul's rating: acceptable Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan Price: Base, $17,610; as tested, $18,220 (inc. $440 destination charge) Engine: 2.2-liter I-4; 137-hp; 147 lb-ft torque EPA fuel economy: 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $937 (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.) Where built: Wilmington, Del. What we liked: Finally, a bigger Saturn. Refined chassis borrowed from Opel. Surprisingly powerful four-cylinder engine and smooth four-speed automatic. Roomy, easy-to-access trunk. Affordable and nicely equipped, at only $18,000. What we didn't like: Quality of materials. Trim fits are sub-par in a highly competitive market segment. No side airbags or antilock brakes on test car. Exterior styling is disappointingly bland (Paul). Rear-seat leg and head room is limited. Chevrolet Malibu and Hyundai Sonata are better values.
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