“Look before you leap,” the adage says.
That, too, is the warning for those who have fallen head over penny loafersfor the Saturn lineup of coupes, sedans and wagons, though anyone who has beensmitten by a Saturn wagon, or any wagon for that matter, needs more help than any adage can provide.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave or are a Cubs fan, in either case meaning you have no concept of reality, the rest of the world has become awarethat Saturn has been selling every vehicle it can assemble.
What makes this feat even more remarkable is that most Saturns go out the door at full sticker. If the sticker says $15,000 and your first born, that’s what you have to pay and folks have stood in line to do so.
Saturn is a very good car, but not a great machine. Try as they might, the engineers still haven’t been able to keep engine/transmission noise from filtering into the passenger compartment.
The car is secondary to the organization that builds, sells and services it. There are no sticker discounts, but many buyers have been won over becausethat means no haggling over price, either. That eliminates the traditional bludgeoning by the salesman trying to get the last dollar out of your pocket. And it means you don’t have to pull into your driveway in the new machine and have a neighbor tell you a friend just got one for $1,000 less.
And consumers seem to relish the little things Saturn dealers do, such as offering free car washes or free rides home or to the train during a service repair or simply calling regularly to ensure customers are happy and the car is functioning properly.
And how many small cars offer a driver-side air bag, anti-lock brakes, traction control and a plastic body that won’t rust? Saturn gives the perception you’re getting value for the dollar, and that’s why it has been so successful in winning over converts to an automaker named for a planet.
But, as we said, look before taking that leap.
Saturn has a pair of coupes, the SC1 and the uplevel SC2. We test-drove a 1993 Saturn SC2 coupe in regal purple, though some will simply refer to it in the vernacular-plum. In a world gone crazy to paint its machines various shades of green, plum stands out as a pleasant change of fashion pace. We aren’t sure whether we would be as enamored of plum five years from now as we would by sticking with red, but if you’re looking for a car to stand out in the crowd, plum will do.
But we digress.
We looked before leaping behind the wheel of the SC2 coupe and found the base price-$12,795 with 5-speed manual-staring up at us.
Standard equipment includes power brakes and power steering, 15-inch radialtires, stainless-steel exhaust, tinted glass, trip odometer, fold-down rear seat backs for added carrying capacity, body-side moldings, driver’s seat height adjustment, body-colored mirrors/bumpers, intermittent wipers, leather-wrapped and adjustable steeri ng wheel, independent four-wheel suspension and rear-window defroster.
Options added $775 for automatic transmission, $675 for anti-lock brakes and traction control, which comes with ABS when you order automatic, $340 for AM/FM stereo with cassette, $155 for decorative rear deck spoiler and $1,585 for option Package 2, which consists of power door locks, power windows, powerright side mirror, air conditioning and cruise control. With $315 for freight,the sticker was $16,640.
That $16,640 got us thinking, so we made a call and found that the base price before options on a new 1993 Chevrolet Camaro is $13,399, or $604 more than that of the Saturn SC2 coupe we were driving.
Automatic transmission costs $775 for the Saturn, $595 for the Camaro. Anti-lock brakes are a $675 option on Saturn, but standard on Camaro. Those two options on Saturn not only erase the $604 base price advantage for Saturn but give Camaro a $251 edge.
And while Saturn offers a drive r-side air bag as standard, Camaro offers driver- and passenger-side bags as standard, giving Camaro another $300 to $500 in value.
Saturn offers plastic body panels-except hood-which means it won’t rust. Camaro offers plastic roof, doors, fenders, hatch lid and spoiler, but not hood or deck lid. Slight edge to Saturn.
Saturn is slightly smaller than Camaro, a 99.2-inch wheelbase and 175.8-inch length to 101.1 inches and 193.2 inches, respectively, for Camaro. Neither offers ample rear seat room, though the Saturn does seem a bit roomierin coach class than Camaro.
The Saturn SC2 is powered by a 1.9-liter, 124-horsepower, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine, whereas the base Camaro has a 3.4-liter, 160-h.p., V-6. Saturn’s 1.9 is rated at 24 miles per gallon city/33 m.p.g. highway and the Camaro 3.4 is rated at 19/28.
Saturn delivers the mileage, Camaro the performance, though the 1.9 in Saturn is peppy enough to muscle its way from the light without having to eat exhaust. But you must slide the transmission shift selector button into the “perform” mode and from the “normal” mode to enjoy quick-shift points rather than the regular trip through the gears designed for optimum mileage. The smooth 5-speed manual helps spring the 1.9 to life more so than the 4-speed automatic.
In its first two years, Saturn offered only one coupe and called it the SC.Saturn obviously realized how high the coupe’s price had risen, because for the 1993 model year it offers a base level SC1 coupe and an uplevel SC2. The SC2 is basically the SC, and the SC1 is the new fewer-frills-and therefore lower-cost-version. The SC1 has 14-inch tires standard versus 15-inch on the SC2; the SC1 doesn’t have concealed headlamps, the SC2 does; the SC1 doesn’t offer a rear deck spoiler and the SC2 does; and the SC1 has a 1.9-liter, 8-valve, 85 h.p., 4-cylinder engine that’s far less powerful than the SC2’s 1.9-liter, 16-valve, 124-h.p., 4. Base price shows the difference-$11,200 for the SC1 with manual, $11,900 for the SC1 with automatic.
Why the pricing similarity between a Saturn SC2 coupe and a Camaro?
Perhaps Saturn has been so swept up by the sales attention it figured few would notice that the price of its high-mileage sports coupe has crept as highas a performance sports coupe.
Perhaps Saturn figured the way to be profitable when its cars are in great demand was to attach a hefty sticker and keep it there until consumers open their eyes and close their pocketbooks.
Perhaps Chevy got tired of complaining that Saturn was eating its lunch in sales and decided the way to win people back was to offer an attractive price on a car loaded with lots of the safety features consumers demand. So rather than Saturn being too high, maybe Camaro is awfully low.
“It’s not our intention to take sales away from Saturn,” Chevy general manager Jim Perkins told us. We couldn’t see whether his fingers were crossed.
Perhaps, however, if Chrysler Corp. lives up to its boast to underprice Saturn by at least $1,000 when it introduces its Dodge and Plymouth Neon subcompacts in January, Saturn should reconsider plans to add a second plant.
Neon will be offered only as a four-door sedan at the outset but will be joined by a two-door sport coupe six months later with a high-performance, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. And dual air bags will be standard, though there has been no decision on whether to make ABS standard or an option.
The Saturn SC2 has its merits. The coupe offers good room and comfort up front and the bucket seats with side bolsters help hold you in place in aggressive maneuvering. The SC2 comes with what Saturn calls “enhanced suspension,” which means you get good road feel without a lot of harshness coming back through the seat or steering wheel.
The SC2 provides a lot of security for the motorist-ABS, driver-side air bag and traction control. Having driven t he car in a recent cloudburst that flooded parts of Lake County, the traction control proved a blessing. We enjoyed a good grip not only when water soaked the pavement but also when the water ran off and left mud, slime and debris behind.
While the SC2 coupe has lots of admirable qualities, Saturn may only be fooling itself that the popularity will last. If Camaro doesn’t wake Saturn upto the reality that price has its limits, Neon will.
Remember when the Honda Accord was the most sought-after car, the top-selling nameplate for three consecutive years? That was until the Ford Taurus took the title away by offering equal value at a lower price.