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By Jim Mateja
October 31, 1993
In only its third year on the market, Saturn cracked the auto industry's Top 10 sales leader list for the 1993 model year. It had to settle for the 10th and last spot among the industry leaders, but if you think No. 10 isn't all that important,
ask No. 11 (the Toyota Corolla) if it would like to switch. Considering the short time Saturn has been offered for sale, it was a most respectable showing by the compact, especially because so many have criticized General Motors Corp. for having
spent eight years and $3 billion to bring the vehicle to market. Saturn hasn't generated a yearly profit for GM since then-Chairman Roger Smith announced the venture to build a new small car in the U.S. in 1983. However, there are those
who would argue that even if it lost money, Saturn captured 210,775 new-car buyers in 1993, a vast majority of whom would not have entered a GM showroom if the machine weren't available. And the outlook for 1994 is 300,000 or more buyers, people swayed
from Toyota, Honda and Nissan showrooms. If the profit motive alone dictated whether a car is successful, you'd have to write off the Chevrolet Corvette as one of the industry's all-time losers; in 40 consecutive years, it's never made a
profit. It will be interesting to see whether Saturn reaches that 300,000 mark, because it has new competition for 1994. In January, Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge/Plymouth Neon (Business, Sept. 13) bows. As with Saturn, the goal in bringing out Neon is
to build a small car in the U.S. at a profit. But winning buyers from the Japanese imports is also on that priority list. Though Saturn awaits new competition for 1994, it did little in the way of major change for the new model year to draw
attention from Neon. The 1994 Saturn differs only subtly from the 1993. We test-drove a '94 SL2, Saturn's top-of-the-line sedan. Its strengths are the same it enjoyed for 1993-a standard driver-side air bag, optional anti-lock brakes, optional
traction control (available when you buy automatic transmission), a plastic body that won't dent, ding or rust and thus will help the car retain its value, and a 24-hour roadside assistance program so if you get a flat tire, run out of gas or lock the
key inside, a toll-free call will bring out a rescue party. The other Saturn strength originally was considered its weakness when it appeared in the 1991 model year. Saturn sells at full list. It's referred to as the "no-dicker sticker." What
you see is what you pay, which initially annoyed consumers accustomed to haggling. Now the no-dicker sticker is one of Saturn's strong points because it means you won't walk into work Monday and have a colleague tell you he or she bought the same car
for $1,000 less. It doesn't work that way. Another benefit is the so-called Saturn experience, which basically means that dealers and their salespeople treat customers like they
were treated 20 years ago. Drive by the dealer, stop in, and chances are you'll get a free car wash. Have service performed, and, when the freshly scrubbed car is pulled from the bay, you may find a flower on the dash. The dreaded recall? Saturn
had one this year for a wiring problem. Many dealers turned their showrooms into party headquarters offering pizza or hot dogs and pop for their customers while they waited to have the work done. And many of those customers ended up buying another
Saturn while noshing. Some will consider it a strength, or at least an attraction, that Saturn has changed some of its color offerings. Plum is offered on all Saturns except the SL. Champagne also is new. Blue-black has replaced black and silver
and two tones have been discontinued. Still no yellow, but then, still no convertible. The Saturn folks insist no convertible before its time. Quality comes first, and the quality of convertible prototypes has been bel
w expectations. We'll buy the quality-comes-first explanation, but we'll still ask Saturn to hurry up with the drop top. A Saturn plus is the 1.9-liter, 16-valve, 124-h.p., 4-cylinder engine teamed with 4-speed automatic. You get good
off-the-line power and a respectable 23 mile-per-gallon city/32-m.p.g. highway rating. There are a few other gripes with the car, the main one being that you have to wait until the 1995 model year for a passenger-side air bag. Also, to save
a few dollars and simplify assembly, Saturn in 1994 offers only one dash color, a graphite gray. That's a suitable choice when the outside is plum, but a graphite dash when the exterior is champagne? Donna Karan obviously didn't have a say in the
Saturn color schemes. The other annoyance is one that we've had since August 1990, when we first test-drove prototypes of the Saturn line at GM's Milford (Mich.) Proving Grounds. The cars tend to be noisy, especially at initial acceleration with
automatic transmission. For 1994, Saturn has taken great pains to temper the noise. The dash has been insulated to keep engine compartment noise from filtering into the passenger cabin. The automatic transmission geometry was refined and shift
points modified to quiet it. A higher-power starter is used for faster engine cranking and less time spent noticing engine commotion. Spark timing was changed to improve low r.p.m. engine response, where you typically get rumble or roar. A black molded
composite valve cover replaces the cast aluminum cover on the SL2's 4-cylinder engine to reduce the amount of sound passing through. Also, to reduce the noise filtering into the cabin, the anti-lock brakes respond at 8 m.p.h. rather than at 3
m.p.h., which meant virtually every time the foot touched the pedal. But for the quietest operation you still need press the "performance" switch on the transmission selector rather than the "normal" mode of operation. You may sacrifice a tad of
mileage from the shift-point settings, but you gain quieter operation overall. Push "perform" and, once up to cruising speed, the engine/ trans is as quiet as that in a Buick. If Saturn started at $20,000, we'd expect and demand less noise when
motoring away from the stoplight. But it doesn't, so we won't. Other subtle refinements to the SL2 include faster response power steering for more nimble handling, beefed-up windshield wiper blades for greater contact with the glass and
therefore better cleaning, a higher rear-deck spoiler so it looks like a spoiler and not a bump, the addition of extended-range front speakers to improve sound-system quality, chlorofluorocarbon-free air conditioning and a new door-locking feature in
which one turn of the key locks/unlocks that door and a second turn locks/unlocks all doors. Base price of the SL2 sedan is $11,795 with manual, $12,595 with automatic. Our test car ca
me with the 4-speed automatic. Standard equipment included AM/FM stereo, digital quartz clock, rear-window defogger, intermittent wipers, passenger vanity mirror, adjustable steering column, remote fuel filler door release, fold-down rear seat backs,
rear-seat heater ducts, tinted glass, body-side moldings, power brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, driver-side air bag, side door beams, child security rear door locks, anti-siphoning fuel tank and stainless-steel exhaust. The test car added ABS
brakes at $725, fog lamps at $150, upgraded radio with graphic equalizer and coaxial speakers at $355 and leather interior including shift knob at $660. It also had option package 2, which consists of power locks/windows, air conditioning, power remote
right side mirror, cruise control and 15-inch alloy wheels at $2,065. About the only option missing was the power sunroof at $650. With a $330 freight charge, the sticker totaled $16,880.