EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Budget a bit squeezed?

At the point where you’ve started pulling out the sofa cushions in search of coins?

Do you cruise down the roadway slowly to spot recyclable aluminum cans discarded in the weeds?

The folks from Saturn figured there would be a person or two not quite willing or able to come up with the dough to drive home the sporty SC2 coupe, so they came up with the lower-priced SC1 in the 1993 model year.

So by going without some luxuries, the SC1 can carry a base price of $11,695, or $1,200 less than the $12,895 sticker on the SC2. At present, one of every four Saturn coupe buyers has opted to keep the $1,200 in his or her pocket or purse rather than put it into Saturn’s coffers.

The SC1 differs from the SC2 primarily in that it is powered by a 1.9-liter, single overhead cam, 85-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine instead of the SC2’s peppier 1.9-liter, dual overhead cam, 124-h.p., 16-valve version.

Also, the SC1 has to go through life sans the concealed headlamps and optional leather seats of its more expensive sibling.

We test-drove the ’94 SC1 and found it to be as advertised, a lower-cost rendition of the higher-priced sports model.

The biggest sacrifice, other than the open-eyed headlamps, is the engine. The 85-h.p., 4 is no screamer. It’s meant to provide optimum mileage, the old getting from point A to point B without having to stop for a fill.

Though not prone to bursts of power when the light turns green, the SC1 does deliver top mileage-28 miles per gallon city/37 m.p.g. highway. It took two days of driving before the fuel-gauge needle on our test car moved and proved it wasn’t frozen.

Our test car came with a 5-speed manual. Make that the Saturn 5-speed manual, one of the smoothest-shifting, quietest 5-speeds on the market. Honda had set the standard for ease of operation among manual transmissions until Saturn’s design displaced it.

In fact, the 5-speed is so slippery smooth in moving one gear to the next that if it’s time to teach the youngster or spouse how to drive a “stick,” this is the car to do it on.

Easy shift movement, easy clutch play. No balkiness or hesitation or arthritic hangups or resistance through the gears. This is a fun 5-speed. Thisis how manuals used to shift before General Motors uttered the now infamous German word-Getrag.

The 1.9-liter, single overhead cam engine may develop only 85 h.p., but the5-speed gets every ounce of sinew out of the 4 cylinder. And the Saturn is quieter with manual than with automatic for an added benefit.

Other pluses, of course, include the standard driver-side air bag and the availability of anti-lock brakes. The SC1, as with all Saturn’s, will be even better when a passenger-side air bag is added in 1995 and when ABS becomes standard rather than a $675 option.

By the way, when the passenger’s bag is added, Saturn will do away with themotorized shoulder belt that f astens around your upper torso when you turn on the key and releases when you turn off the key. While we’ve caught glasses andpens from the shirt pocket in the power belt, we’ll miss it because it ensuresboth front-seat occupants have at least some protection.

The SC1 has four-wheel independent suspension that controls up and down movement very well without lots of jostling in the passenger cabin. The coupe could react better to lateral maneuvers, however. It tends to wander a bit in corners and turns. Moving up to the optional 15-inch tires for better road grip would help.

We would hope Saturn would incorporate a few changes in future models, one being a thinner door armrest to provide improved hip room as well as give stylists the space they need to widen the seat-bottom cushion for those of us for whom life in size 28 britches always will be but a dream.

And in 1994, Saturn has chosen to save a few dollars by making the dash in each of its cars a solid d ark gray, regardless of the car’s exterior or interior. The dark gray didn’t seem quite the match with the beige interior onour test car.

Base price of $11,695 includes power steering and brakes, stainless-steel exhaust, dent-resistant plastic body panels, full wheel covers, bodyside moldings, adjustable steering column, intermittent wipers, AM/FM stereo, digital clock, fold-down rear seat backs, tinted glass, passenger vanity mirror, rear-window defroster, remote trunk and fuel filler release, 14-inch radial tires, four-wheel independent suspension and trip odometer. The car also is covered by a 24-hour roadside assistance program.

Option package No. 1 was added with power locks, power windows, air conditioning, power remote right sideview mirror and cruise control at a cost of $1,640. With the $675 ABS and $355 for a radio upgrade to include cassette,equalizer and coaxial speakers, the sticker came to $14,365. Add $330 for freight.

Options you might want to add are a power sunroof at $650 and automatic transmission at $800. Yes, the 5-speed is smooth and with winter coming there are those who prefer downshifting rather than applying the brake, but when youget automatic and ABS you also get traction control. With traction control a few more sensors are added to the ABS system to prevent wheel slippage when moving over slick surfaces. You don’t get the optional traction control with the manual transmission.

We hope Saturn will add one other option soon-a convertible. Hint, hint.

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