1996 Saturn SL1
Saturn has built idyllic images around its no-haggle pricing, benevolent senior managers in polo shirts, and a homecoming weekend for buyers at their adopted alma motor, Spring Hill, Tenn. Such gilding has effectively diverted attention from a rude question: How well does Saturn build cars? The ruder answer: Not much better than anybody else at General Motors these days. And conveniently displaced by happy chatter about the environmental invisibility of its plant and rehousing displaced bluebirds is the fact that Saturn is a division of General Motors. Also a division that has never made money; a Southern subsidiary currently wrestling with parental decisions to overlap executives, clone designs and share more parts. It is almost certain that an Opel-GM drivetrain and chassis under development in Europe will become the basis of a mid-size Saturn. Which, of course, will certainly move Saturn further from the individuality that was its original charm and closer to GM's uniform processing and global concepts. So see the 1996 Saturns with their Pontiac air bags and Chevrolet brakes and everybody else's steering columns as an interim version of the Stepford Cars. Having got that fret off our chests--especially the nonsense of a family picnic for a 6-year-old plastic car--it should be noted that Saturns are wheels with proven purpose and a decent reputation. With 1996 prices starting at $10,495, these compact sedans, coupes and wagons have maintained the initial promise of affordability. And the new cars come with a 30-day, 1,500-mile, money-back guarantee. No questions asked. Nationally, according to J.D. Power surveys, Saturn ranks third behind Infiniti and Lexus in customer satisfaction after one year of ownership. Last month, it topped both luxury marques as a satisfying showroom experience. And with 286,000 units sold last year, with resale values holding high, the car certainly slashes a swath through the compact clutter of Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cavalier, Nissan Sentra, Dodge Neon and Mazda Protege. Saturn, in fact, outsells all but the Ford Escort. Yet purchasers are still more likely to be buying the company barbecue instead of the car. Stripped of pastoral hype and refocused down to its slogans, Saturn Corp. remains a very Different Kind of Company manufacturing a rather Ordinary Kind of Car. * When front-drive Saturns first rolled six years ago, times and the public appetite were different. Buyers were hungry for a capable, American-built compact and a sales environment that didn't duplicate the anxiety of a parole hearing. In effect, domestic duplication of product quality and showroom courtesy being delivered by Asian dealers. Appealing by its thrift, affordability, ding-free plastic body panels and "dealers" gentrified into "retailers," Saturn was a perfect ride for the moment. Sales w ent into orbit. But now there are cuties like the Dodge/Plymouth Neon with a more powerful engine for about the same price. Other builders are bringing a la carte options to their cars and espresso and back rubs to their showrooms. The "Leave It to Beaver" aura of Saturn marketing is looking suspiciously like a summer rerun. And this year's changes are not as drastic as one might expect for a second generation; more of a restyling than a redesign, and applying only to Saturn's wagons and sedans. The coupes will be revised next year. The new look is smoother and rounder thanks to refashioned polymer body panels, window glass, lights and fascias at both ends. Gone are the boxes, angles and edges. Here is a gentle flow that is not unattractive, very Asian but still relatively commonplace. Length and width are unchanged, but the full lineup of SL, SL1 and SL2 sedans are two inches higher for additional headroom. Thanks to a noticeable curving and swel ing around the rear window pillar, back seat passengers earn the maximum gain. Rear riders also receive the additional bonus of larger doors for less contorted access and exit, and that oversizing is carried through to Saturn's SW1 and SW2 wagons. Interior changes are slight and subtle. The instrument cluster and large, accessible center console are carried over from last year. But cushions have been recontoured, seats raised, separate front head rests added and rearseat back angles increased. Shoulder belts are now height adjustable and a curious eyebrow has been added to the passenger side of the dash, presumably to guide the height of air bag deployment. Saturn's space frame chassis and independent suspension haven't budged. Anti-lock brakes with traction control remain an option. Power plants continue to be a 1.9-liter, single-cam, 100-horsepower, inline-four for SL and SL1 models, with a dual-cam, 124-horsepower four-banger on the sportier, more expensive SL2. * For next year, all Saturns will ride with daylight running lights, higher profile tires for improved ride comfort, and a new "fuzzy logic" that keeps the four-speed automatic from having anxiety attacks on hilly highways. Early Saturns were noisy rascals, with excessive engine clatter and road din slopping into the living room. Double rubber seals on doors and windows, sound-soaking sandwiching of the dash, and acoustic plugs wherever cables or controls penetrate the fire wall between engine compartment and cabin have been installed to soften the row. They muffle it. They do not prevent Saturn from maintaining its position among the buzziest of compacts. Such a blatant noisemaker, in fact, that whenever car and engine speeds build, one should increase radio volume accordingly. Granted, our SL2 test car was a production prototype with the gaps and misalignment common to pilots. But the steering was vague, suspension easy to overpower and we suspect those characteristics will not change in production models. And why, amid all our equal rights as endorsed by male strippers and female combat pilots, would Saturn build a car with only one vanity mirror? And on the girl's visor? Six years ago we decided the first Saturns were as good as, but not better than their Asian counterparts. We suspect the latest Saturns may become compacts Americans buy only if they still shiver at the thought of driving anything born in Osaka or Seoul. 1996 Saturn SL2 The Good: Affordable, capable, reliable and attractive. Dealers treat customers like people. Larger doors and increased headroom for rear seat riders. The Bad: Cars are starting to feel General Motorized. Still noisy. The Ugly: Down-home hype. Cost Base price: $12,295 (Includes standard dual air bags, variable effort power steering, front head restraints, adjustable steering, cup holders, remote fuel filler release.) As tested: $16,180 (Includes optional air conditioning, anti-lock brakes with traction control, power locks and windows, cruise control and premium sound system.) Engine 1.9-liter, DOHC, inline-four developing 124 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-drive, compact sedan. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with five-speed manual, 8.7 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA estimate, city and highway, 25 and 35 m.p.g. Curb Weight 2,421 pounds.
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