EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

A moment of silence, please, for the often-prototyped-but-never-produced Saturn convertible, which has been laid to rest before ever setting treads in the showroom.

Unlike Lazarus, the droptop Saturn stands little chance of rising from the dead, at least not until the next decade, when it may be given another chance.

“We couldn’t put together a business case for the convertible with the corporation,” said Donald Hudler, Saturn president, in an interview here at a media preview of Saturn’s 1997 redesigned coupe.

“It came down to offering a wagon or a convertible, and it was decided we’d get three times the volume with a wagon than with a convertible–and the convertible would cost three times as much to build,” he said.

“I want a convertible and look wistfully at having one, but based on the volume and the cost, the decision not to do one was a no-brainer,” Hudler confessed.

Considering Saturn can sell every car it builds without adding a convertible and will offer a larger sedan for the 1999 model year to satisfy demand, there was little reason to add a convertible coupe, Hudler said.

If Saturn sedan and coupe sales were stumbling and a vehicle was needed to motivate buyers and fill a void on the assembly line, a convertible would make more sense, he said.

But life must go on–even if it’s life with a roof that won’t retract.

Last year Saturn brought out its second generation SL, SL1 and SL2 sedans. This year, it’s the coupes’ turn, with a freshly redesigned SC1 and SC2.

The ’97 coupe is now built off the same platform as the sedan, meaning the wheelbase has swelled to 102.4 inches from 99.5 inches and overall length has grown to 180 inches from 174.6 inches.

The low-priced SC1 and top-of-the-line SC2 were easy to tell apart in the past. The SC2 had a deck-lid spoiler; body-colored bumpers, door handles and mirrors; and pop-up headlamps.The SC1 had no spoiler; black bumpers, door handles and mirrors; and exposed headlamps.

For 1997, the SC1 and SC2 have body-colored bumpers and exposed headlamps while the SC1 sticks with black mirrors and door handles. With common parts and platform, Saturn has cut costs.

Saturn boasts that cost-cutting helped hold down price increases for 1997. The SC1 coupe starts at $12,495, up $300 from ’96; the SC2 starts at $13,695, up $400. But add $840 for automatic transmission, up $10; $930 for air, up $10; $270 for cruise control, up $10; and $695 for power sunroof, up $5; as well as $400 for freight, up $10.

Option package No. 1, with power windows, door locks with keyless remote, power right-side mirror, air and cruise control went up $45, to $1,860. And option package No. 2, which includes all of No. 1 plus alloy wheels, went up $70, to $2,180.

The SC1 and SC2 remain different from one another in that the SC2 offers a 1.9-liter, 124-horsep ower, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder engine and the SC1 offers a less lively 1.9-liter, 100-h.p. single overhead cam version.

The SC2 sports a suspension aimed at performance, the SC1 aimed at smooth ride. The SC2 has slightly stiffer tuned shocks, a rear stabilizer bar and speed-sensitive variable effort steering for quicker response in keeping with the aggressive image of Saturn’s top-of-the-line coupe.

The SC1 comes with14-inch tires, the SC2 with 15-inch performance treads. A 15-inch touring tire is optional on the SC1 to provide a smoother ride upgrade.

We tested the SC2 and SC1 coupes. As in the past, theSC2 provides quicker off-the-line spurts and a quieter engine/transmission from its 124-h.p. 4-cylinder than the SC1 with its 100-h.p. 4. Thanks to a focus on isolating noise sources, the SC2 and SC1 are quieter than they had been from changes to engine mounts, struts, power-steering pump, dash sealers and brake pads to reduce noise filter ing into the passenger cabin.

The dramatic difference between the two coupes for 1997 comes from the choice of tires. The SC1 comes with 14-inch tires as standard, the SC2 with 15-inch performance tires. A 15-inch smooth-riding touring tire is optional on the SC1.

Saturn officials played a little trick in bringing a host of coupes to Barrington for a Midwest media preview. They quietly equipped all the base model SC1 coupes with optional 15-inch touring tires, a move akin to implant surgery in trying to win favor with the audience.

The difference in ride, handling and performance, based just on the tires, is dramatic. TheSC1 had the smoother, softer, quieter ride thanks to the 15-inch touring tires, while the SC2 was harsher and let out with a continuous “ping” whenever the stiffer 15-inch performance tires met a tar mark in the pavement or an expander joint over a bridge. With the SC2, you felt each bump in the seat and steering wheel.

The SC2 was somewhat less harsh with manual transmission than 4-speed automatic, but it didn’t take much driving to realize that the Saturn buyer has two choices to make in 1997:

1) Get the lower-cost SC1, settle for slower off-the-line movement and cough up$430 for the optional touring tires; or

2) Get the top-of-the-line SC2 with its peppier engine, but dump the performance tires and settle for the touring treads.

The touring tires aren’t offered on the SC2, Saturn officials said, so you’ll have to do some cajoling to get the dealer to swap them for the performance treads.

The SC2 with performance tires and speed-variable power steering provides better handling than the SC1. You take corners quicker with less lean, switch lanes faster without body sway and generally play more aggressively. But tire harshness is like suffering with a rattle that just won’t go away.

In addition to the new design and larger platform, Saturn has made some other needed changes for 1997. The new roof design expands headroom by 1 inch; the wheelbase stretch increases rear-seat legroom so an adult’s knees don’t have to dig into the seat ahead; and the rear-seat console sports dual cupholders plus pockets to hold odds and ends.

Also, roof and decklid have been redesigned to channel water runoff away from the window or trunk openings; daytime running lamps are standard; a low-fuel indicator flashes on to warn you have1.5 gallons left in the tank; driver’s seat track has been lengthened by 1 inch for taller drivers; fog lamps have been made standard (SC2); the large trunk not only has low liftover height, but with folding seat backs, you can slip long objects such as skis through the trunk into the cabin; and the key fob activated security system means once the doors are locked, not only does the horn honk for two minutes but the starter also is disabled if someone tries to enter.

Fuel economy is also a strong point: 27 m.p.g. city/37 m.p.g. highway with the smooth-shifting and short-throw 5-speed manual in the SC1, 24/34 with 4-speed automatic. The SC1 rating is 28/40 with manual, 27/37 with automatic.

While dual air bags are standard, ABS is still an option in a package with traction control. But the price of the ABS/traction control package was lowered by $100, to $695.

Shortcomings include no coinholder (one of three cupholders has to serve that purpose), no power plug for accessories other than the cigarette lighter, a protruding armrest that rubs up against the driver’s/passenger’s thigh and rear seat headroom that remains at a premium for adults.

To gain some headroom in back, the seat bottom, or “butt bowl,” has been lowered so it looks like a cloth-covered foxhole. The lower you sit, the more headroom you gain. But the front edge of the seat sits high, is very stiff and doesn’t help keep the head from hitting the rear glass.

Ther e would be no headroom problem in a convertible.

>> 1997 Saturn SC2 coupe Wheelbase: 102.4 inches Length: 180 inches Engine: 1.9-liter, 124-h.p., 4-cylinder Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed automatic optional) EPA mileage: 27 m.p.g. city/37 m.p.g. highway (24/34 automatic) Base price: $13,695 Price as tested: $17,640. Includes $2,180 for option package No. 2 with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power locks, power right-hand outside mirror and aluminum alloy wheels; $695 for ABS with traction control; $375 for AM/FM cassette; and $695 for leather interior. (Automatic transmission, the choice of most drivers, runs $840.) Add $400 for freight. Pluses: Fresh new styling. Built on the same larger platform as the SL sedan, meaning a 3 inch longer wheelbase for increased interior room and improved ride and handling. An added inch of headroom as well. Engine/transmission have gotten quieter. Dual air bags standard and option price of ABS, which comes with traction control, has dropped by $100. Minuses: The performance tires on the SC2 coupe deliver too harsh of a ride over irregular surfaces such as tar marks. Driver’s armrest protrudes out so far it becomes a thigh handle. Despite larger dimensions, rear-seat headroom still lacking for adults. >>

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