Whenever anybody asks me about buying Saturn automobiles, the first thing I tell them is: Go for the better engine. There's a reason for that. The 124-horsepower twin-cam engine is a lovely mill, powerful and flexible, that gets good gas mileage and
provides pleasing performance. The lesser engine, a single-cam version, is a slug. Unfortunately, that's what Saturn provided for road testing - in a station wagon, no less - and coupled with an overworked automatic transmission. Naturally,
Saturn is a sentimental favorite with just about everybody. GM's grand experiment, cars built by people for people, American know-how, reliability, fun, friendly dealers, country music, mom, apple pie, all that stuff. Knocking a Saturn wins you no
friends. But when I'm out trying to merge on the Squaw Peak Parkway with a little wagon that can hardly get out of its own way, I feel somewhat less than positive about the situation. And it's such a shame to hobble this good-driving little
critter with that lump of a motor. It's been tweaked up to 100 horses from 85, but it's still too weak. I can imagine it struggling to pull a full load of passengers and their gear up a steep Arizona mountain. So take my advice: Go for the better
engine. And I would advise all like-minded individuals who enjoy driving: Go for the stick shift. Not that the automatic is bad, which it's not, but Saturn produces one of the nicest manual gearboxes anywhere. It's easy to tell which engine is in
any given Saturn because of the simple nomenclature. A sedan with single-cam is an SL1, with twin-cam, an SL2. The coupe is an SC1 or an SC2, and the wagon, SW1 or SW2. Other than the engine, the SW1 is a good little car, well-finished and
value-laden, with handsome, individualistic styling and a great reputation for durability. It has an attractive, European-style interior (though cramped for tall folk like me), especially nice for this price range. Restyled for '96, the
Saturns carry over the look that was somewhat controversial originally but presaged some of today's styling trends. With an ultra-modern space-frame design, plastic fenders and door skins that fend off bumps and bruises, Saturns have proved themselves to
be practical and economical in the real world, where they sell quite well. The styling of the original wagon looked very sporting, with its low belt line and aggressive stance. The new wagon also looks good, but some of that sharp edge got lost in
the design department. One of Saturn's draws is its handling, which is tight and well-dampered. The power steering on our SW1 was very nice, firm and direct, with a proper amount of boost and a good feeling of control. The gauges are simple,
traditional and easy to read. There are a few clunky switches, such as the one for cruise control, but nothing too bothersome. The dash is modular, with a separate center console that holds the radio and climate-control functions, logically arr
anged and easy to use. Actually, other divisions of GM would do well to look at Saturn's interior for styling cues. The plastic and fabrics are high-quality, and the look is very modern without being too techy or weird. The testcar hadthe
$2,000 package that provided the power windows and locks, remote locking, air-conditioning and cruise control. It seemed pricey, as didthe optional anti-lock brakes and traction control at $800. General Motors has been a pioneer in getting anti-lock
brakes into economy cars at a low price, and the Saturn should be no exception. As a station wagon, the Saturn is a bit small for heavy hauling, although with the back seat folded, there is a decent amount of cargo space. Wagons are something of a
rarity these days, having lost ground to minivans, but small wagons like Saturn and Ford's Escort make sense. Despite some warts, the wagon is a very nice car, worth considering, and a good value. Everything about Saturns feel we ll-built. Doo
rs go thunk, handles and switches feel firm and substantial, and the ride is solid. There's just one thing, and it's about the engine . . . Yeah, you guessed it. 1996 Saturn SW1 Vehicle type: Five-passenger station wagon, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $12,825. Price as tested: $16,375. Engine: 1.9-liter inline 4, 100 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 114 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 2,467 pounds. Length: 176.8 inches.
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes EPA fuel economy: 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway.