The Saturn folks must be feeling pretty jovial these days. Their new midsized "L" series cars are getting good reviews and they've just announced that their first foray into the sport-utility market will roll out about a year from now. Flush with these innovations, the folks down in Spring Hill, Tenn. are hoping their old stalwart "S" series subcompact sedans, wagons and coupes can hobble along for a couple more years with only superficial changes. I'm not so sure - the cars were never the equal of some in their class, and the more time goes by, the farther behind they fall.

I recently checked out a 2001 Saturn coupe. All the coupes now have the clever feature Saturn pioneered a year ago, a hideaway third door. Opened via a latch in the jamb behind the driver's door, this auxiliary portal can't perform a miracle in making the back of a subcompact truly habitable for any but the tiniest of people, but at least it makes access far more pleasant than it is on any other coupe. Best of all, it does so without making the coupe look dorky, as the kids say. The two rear bucket seats are deeply scooped, almost unpleasantly so. Sales of the Saturn coupe rose 17 percent in 1999, and that extra portal probably had a lot to do with it.

For this model year, they're trumpeting "all-new" sheetmetal below the beltline, i.e., hood, doors, quarter panels, fenders, fascias, rocker panels, headlamps and taillights, rear spoiler and decklid applique, whoopee-do. You notice anything in that litany about what you CAN'T see? Noooo. And that's where the work is really needed.

Driving down even a moderately uneven road in the Saturn reveals it for a third-rate piece of work by today's standards. After all, we're not talking about a giveaway here - the one I tested would set you back 20 grand by the time the tax man got his due. That price range has a plethora of contenders for your bucks.

The Saturn coupe comes in two series, SC1 and SC2, distinguished by trim level and engine treatment. Both share the same 1.9-liter engine, but in the SC2 it has twin camshafts and 16 valves, which allow it to make 124 hp and 122 foot-pounds of torque, vs. the 100 - 114 available in base form. With automatic transmission and air, the SC2 weighs 2,463 pounds. Do the math and you'll see, as I found, that the factory claim of sub-10-second 0-60 times are predicated on a following wind, and the 130-mph speedometer is similarly optimistic. The throttle linkage is quite sudden, a trick designed to improve the driver's perception of responsiveness, but ultimately annoying.

On the plus side, however, noise isolation is much better than in earlier Saturns, keeping that engine's raspiness under the hood where it belongs. The powerplant, even in its "hot" form, is plebeian enough to sip the automotive equivalent of vin ordinaire, and sparingly, at that. EPA ratings for the SC2 with automatic are impressive: 25 mpg city, 35 highway. I logged 29.9 i n a relentless attempt to bankrupt my employer.

The SC2 engine seemed a pretty good match for the automatic, with a broad torque curve mitigating too-widely-spaced gears. Top gear is a thrifty 0.70:1 overdrive ratio - that plus the aerodynamic shape (drag coefficient of 0.31 with the spoiler, which for once, HELPS flow air) boost highway mileage. The transmission was sometimes hesitant, and I hate having to jerk the lever from D to 3 to kill overdrive and gain some compression braking. How much does an electrical switch cost?

The interior of the Saturn certainly benefits from the optional leather seating package. The leather is soft and generously laid on. Cockpit room for a hefty driver was reasonable, even with the intrusion of the optional moonroof. Instruments are models of legibility, and ergonomics well thought out.

It's when you get under way that the Saturn experience starts to sour. The test machine, which I can only assume had been checked out a st as well as those that real people buy, felt like a loose assemblage of parts when I took it over my favorite rough road. It creaked, it groaned, it rattled like nothing else I've tried in recent decades. I had the moonroof open, and even it contributed to the cacophony, rattling over every bump. The steering was fairly light and rather quick, but rubbery and vague. The SC2 has what Saturn calls an "enhanced performance" suspension. It felt as if were just throwing in the towel when the washboard surface was taken a bit fast. The SCs have MacPherson struts in front, a "tri-link" design in back, with anti-roll bars fore and aft.

The SC1 has 14-inch wheels, while the SC2 steps up to 15-inchers, with good-sized 195 - 60 tires. The tester had optional alloy wheels, which in this case are parfum on a porker from a performance standpoint, but they do LOOK better than the standard wheel covers.

Worth mentioning as always are the polymeric body panels that stand up to attacks by shopping carts and sundry road debris. I'm surprised they haven't been more widely adopted.

The brakes - discs front, drums rear - were soft and vague, but produced comfortable stopping distances. To get antilock brakes, you must pop for a package which includes traction control, not a bad parley, and not unreasonably priced at $695. The included four-speaker AM-FM-CD stereo was just so-so. The standard air conditioner was dynamite, coping quite well with temperatures and humidity in the 90s.

Reduced-force air bags are standard, although the coupe does not have access to the side-curtain head-protective bags available this year on the S-Series sedans and wagons. No crash-test data are available for Saturn coupes; the sedans got top marks from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when it tested 2000-model-year machines.

Consumer Reports subscribers rated their 2000 Saturn sedans and wagons as well above average in reliability, but trailing such competitors as Toyota Corolla - Chevy Prizm, Acura Integra, Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza.

Base price on an SC2 with automatic is $16,505. Mine had the power moonroof, $725; ABS - traction control, $695; alloy wheels, $350, and leather seating, $700, for a total, with freight, of $19,415. Tip of the week: Check out the new L Series Saturn; it's bigger, far better executed and in the same general price ballpark.

"The Gannett News Service"