Versus the competiton:
A huge part of our test-drive of the 1997 Saturn SL1 sedan occurred outside the car. Because the ’97 sedans have few dramatic alterations (a major redesign happened last year), we decided it was the perfect time to check out Saturn’s much-ballyhooed dealership experience, where shoppers don’t have to dicker over the sticker price or feel threatened by aggressive sales people.
Posing as an ordinary shopper looking for a sedan with a base price under $12,000, Anita ventured into two Metro Detroit Saturn dealerships. She not only emerged alive, she was smiling. (P.S. The test-drive was OK, too.)
She: I hate to go car-shopping by myself and I must admit I had sweaty palms when I pulled up in front of Saturn of Warren, a suburban Detroit dealership, on a recent afternoon.
He: I bet it got even worse when you went in and the salesman told you to come back with your husband, right? Was he wearing a burgundy sport coat and white shoes?
She: No. In fact, he looked more like a fraternity brother than a car salesman. He was wearing a blue knit polo shirt and khaki slacks. And he never said a word about you. He treated me like a serious buyer and I must admit, it was a rather pleasant surprise. I first browsed around the parking lot for a bit, and he greeted me outside the front door. But he wasn’t aggressive at all, and he asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee before we sat down.
He: Sounds like he went to dealer charm school.
She: We can joke about dealers all day, but the fact is I felt like this guy was listening to me. He absorbed the fact that I said I was on a budget and actually suggested that I might want to consider a used Saturn – not just a new one!
He pointed out that the original warranty can extend to the second buyer in many cases. And he had a lot of outside reading to give to me, like part of the Kiplinger’s 1997 New Car Buyer’s Guide. It was more like going to the library than a typical showroom. I would buy a car from that guy. Very impressive. Ditto with the second Saturn dealership I visited.
He: Too bad the products are not as superior as the dealership experience. Granted, Saturn keeps making modest improvements. On the SL1 we drove, there was a discernible improvement. Not a lot of squeaks and rattles like you’d hear on the older models.
The engine mount and torque struts were revised a bit to reduce noise and vibration, and new non-asbestos organic front-disc brake pads also are supposed to cut down on noise. But I’m still critical of the quality of trim on the interior of the car. If you ran your hand along the flashing of the A pillar on our test vehicle, you’d feel rough edges and the trim pieces didn’t fit perfectly either, which bothered me.
She: Before you take any more shots at the quality of the trim, may I remind you to look at the bottom line here? Our test car had a base price of $11,595 and once you added options like air conditioning, cruise control , power accessories and anti-lock brakes with traction control, the entire price was $14,975.
And there are other intangibles that attract people, including women, to Saturn. AAA of Michigan said that the Saturn sedan is one of the most economical vehicles to insure. And that’s got to count in some households.
He: I can read your mind. The next thing you’re going to say is that women like Saturn’s three-year/36,000-mile roadside assistance. Well, I can tell you that guys don’t care about that at all. If we break down, we tough it out.
She: I happen to like that, and it doesn’t mean that I’m a wimp. Besides, there are still things about the SL1 that I don’t like. The base 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine only makes 100 horsepower, which seems a little sluggish especially when you’re trying to merge on the freeway.
I still don’t like the fact that you have to pay extra for remote control mirrors, but you only get the feature for the right-side mirror. The left manual. That seems silly. There’s no driver vanity mirror and some people may not like the black bumpers. They’re kind of ugly. But you have to upgrade to the more expensive SL2 if you want body-colored bumpers.
He: I’d upgrade to the optional in-dash CD player for $495, which Saturn resurrected for this model year. That’s a must-have option on the SL1. And I’m not crazy about those fourteen-inch tires and wheels either. You feel like you have more stability with the 15-inch ones, but again, you’d have to step up to the SL2 to get them.
She: We’re probably missing the big picture, here. When you’re shopping in this price category, you want to keep it simple. Decent price, decent styling, decent handling and decent treatment when you buy it or get it serviced. The extras aren’t as critical as they’d be in a Mercedes or a BMW. Does any serious Saturn shopper really care that the SL1 has a new low-fuel indicator for ’97?
He: I don’t think so. But I’m surprised you actually got out of those dealerships without buying something. It’s not like you to come home empty handed after you’ve been shopping.
She: I’ll tell you what. I felt so comfortable – and brave – in those Saturn dealerships, I even attempted to dicker with one sales guy. But he told me he couldn’t accept a lower price. Used the word ‘integrity.’ I kind of felt bad that I didn’t buy one. Now that’s a powerful feeling walking out of a showroom. It tells me that Saturn must be on the right track.
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan.
Price: Base, $11,595; as tested, $14,975 (inc. $400 destination charge).
What’s new for ’97: New exterior colors (light green and copper), low-fuel indicator, optional in-dash CD player, revised power steering pump, noise-vibration-harshness reductions.
Standard equipment: Power steering, stainless steel exhaust, maintenance-free battery, power brakes with front disc, independent four-wheel suspension, tinted glass, tachometer and trip odometer, reclining front bucket seats, fold-down rear seats, adjustable steering column, intermittent wipers, passenger side vanity mirror, front console with cupholders, AM/FM stereo with speakers, digital clock, P175/70R14 radial tires, rear-window defroster, remote trunk and fuel cap release, headlamps-on chime, passenger assist straps, carpeted cargo area with light.
Safety features: Dual air bags, daytime running lights, side-door beams, adjustable front shoulder belts, three-point front and rear safety belts, child security rear door locks.
Options on test vehicle: SL1 Package 1 inc. power locks with remote keyless entry and security system, power windows, air conditioning, power remote control right side mirror and cruise control ($1,885); carpeted front and rear floor mats ($55); Anti-lock brakes with traction control ($695); AM/FM stereo with cassette and front and rear speakers ($245).
EPA fuel economy: 28 mpg city/ 40 mpg highway.
Engine: 1.9-liter SOHC four-cylinder; 100-hp at 5000 rpm; 114 lb-ft torque at 2400 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Competitors: Chevrolet Cavalier, Dodge Neon, Ford Aspire, Ford Escort, Geo Metro, Geo Prizm, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent GT, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Sephia, Mazda Protege DX, Mercury Tracer, Plymouth Neon, Pontiac Sunfire, Suzuki Esteem, Toyota Tercel.
Specifications: Wheelbase, 102.4 inches; overall length, 176.9 inches; curb weight, 2,321 pounds; legroom, 42.5 inches front/32.8 inches rear; headroom, 39.3 inches front/38.0 inches rear; shoulder room, 54.3 inches front/53.5 inches rear.
12-month insurance cost: $879 according to AAA Michigan rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.
Where built: Spring Hill, Tenn.