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By Jim Mateja
February 21, 1999
One of the best-kept secrets in the automotive industry is that Saturn makes a station wagon. No surprise because station wagons themselves are one of the best-kept secrets in the industry. Only a handful are
offered and anyone who can name three of them should be considered an automotive historian. Of course, anyone who can name three wagons now sold also needs to get a life, but we digress. We tested the 1999 Saturn SW2 wagon, with the 2 after the SW
(station wagon) designation meaning it has a 1.9-liter, 125-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, larger 15-inch radial tires and body-colored fenders. (Saturn wagons designated SW1 get along with the less potent and slightly noisier 1.9-liter 100-h.p. 4, 14-inch
radials and black fenders.) The 1.9-liter, 125-h.p. 4 is a mileage treasure. With 4-speed automatic, the SW2 is rated at 25 miles per gallon city/35 m.p.g. highway. You'll spend very little of your free time leaning against a gas pump. The
Saturn wagon was brought out in 1993 to do battle with the industry's wagon sales leader, Ford Motor Co., whose Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer account for more than 40 percent and at times approach 50 percent of small wagon sales. Saturn has captured only
a 10 percent share. For 1999 only a few modest changes have been made. Seat-belt latches were lengthened to make them easier to reach; the plastic washer solvent tank under the hood was expanded to hold a full gallon of fluid ; both 1.9-liter engines
have been modified to reduce noise; and a new green exterior color has been added. Nice vehicle, peppy and relatively quiet engine, ample stowage in the cargo hold for the small family needs, plastic body panels that won't rust, and best of all, when
you order the optional anti-lock brakes, you get traction control as well. We traveled the snow-covered roads in the front-wheel-drive Saturn SW2 and found it held up well, even more stable than the huge two-wheel-drive version of the Ford Expedition
we recently tested (Transportation, Jan. 17) thanks in large part to the traction control. The "traction active" light went on often, signaling that the system was working to control wheel spin and keep the vehicle moving in a straight line. The
ABS worked well, too, enabling us to come to a straight stop at one intersection that was approached faster than weather and common sense dictated. There was some pedal pulsing and audible commotion from the system, but those are the sounds that signal
ABS is working as designed. We'd much rather cope with a little pulsing and a little noise than a ditch, abutment or rival fender. But while testing the SW2 there was a little black cloud that seemed to hang over the vehicle. What troubled us about
this--or any--Saturn wagon is that it isn't needed in the lineup much longer. Saturn will bring out a new larger midsize LS sedan and wagon this fall as 2000 models, finally offering what Saturn loyalists ha
ve begged for: a vehicle for larger families and those whose income has risen since the subcompact first arrived in 1991. Following the midsize model, built off an Opel platform from GM's German subsidiary, the SL1 and SL2 sedans will be redesigned
for 2001, the SC1 and SC2 coupes will be redesigned for 2002. But the big news is that a sport-utility vehicle will arrive in 2002, a machine with even more cargo capacity than the wagon and features such as plastic body panels that won't rust. The
SUV will do everything the wagon does and more because it will offer 4WD. (And don't be surprised if Saturn adds a second, larger midsize sport-ute built off the LS sedan/wagon platform as a companion to the 2002 compact Saturn SUV.) Saturn won't
need a wagon that accounts for 10 percent of sales when it has an SUV that should account for 25 percent of sales. But don't expect the wagon to depart with a whimper. When Saturn introduced discounted lease rates on its sedan and coupe, s
ales rose sharply. Look for Saturn to consider a special lease rate on its wagon to get sales going and justify the vehicle's existence. A lease serves another useful purpose. A three-year lease on a '99 Saturn wagon would expire in 2002, the year
the new sport-ute would arrive. Get out of one family hauler and the dealer will have an all-new family hauler with four-wheel-drive waiting to take you home. Not a bad strategy. The SW2 we tested starts at $15,115. Standard equipment included power
brakes (front discs), independent four-wheel suspension, air conditioning, fold-down rear seat backs, adjustable steering column, rear window washer/wiper/defroster, AM-FM stereo with clock, daytime running lamps and remote hatch and fuel-filler door
release. Our vehicle added power door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, power remote right-side mirror and cruise control in a $1,095 package, plus ABS for $695, alloy wheels for $350, AM/FM stereo with CD player for $510, fog lamps for
$160 and carpeted floor mats for $60. With the $440 freight charge, the sticker read $18,425, which is pricey and may send some potential shoppers to the Chevrolet showroom for a look at the Malibu sedan, which is bigger, roomier, quieter but doesn't
have never-rust, plastic body panels. >> 1999 Saturn SW2 wagon © 1999 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 102.4 inches Length: 176.9 inches Engine: 1.9-liter, 125-h.p. 4-cylinder Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 25 m.p.g.
city/35 m.p.g. highway Base price: $15,115 Price as tested: $17,985. Add $1,095 for power locks/windows/right outside mirror and cruise control package; $510 for AM-FM stereo with CD player; $695 for ABS with traction control; $350 for alloy wheels;
$160 for fog lamps; and $60 for carpeted mats. Add $440 for freight. Pluses: Plastic body panels that won't rust. ABS with traction control. Above average fuel economy. Peppy yet quiet engine. Minuses: ABS an option to keep base price down. Options move
this compact into range of some midsize cars. A station wagon whose time is numbered as an SUV will soon join the lineup. >>