Every year Saturn's engineers have tinkered and tuned and tweaked. They've been on a mission to take their extraordinarily durable, well-engineered cars and enhance them with world-class refinement. After spending a week behind the wheel of a light gold 1998 Sc1 coupe, I'm inclined to say that, for the most part, Saturn engineers have accomplished their goal.

But at what cost?

At more than $17,000, the Sc1 I tested hardly could be considered an economy car. And it isn't fast enough to be counted as a true sports car. The Saturn Sc1 is just a nice small car - one for which you'll pay a premium. You'll pay extra because the car retains a greater percentage of its value than competitive cars. You'll pay extra because its high-tech body won't rust, dent or ding. You'll pay extra because of all the perks that come with owning a Saturn.

Visit a Saturn dealer and you'll be treated as if you were about to drop $60,000 on a Lexus. If you don't have extra money to spend, a high-quality Ford Escort Zx2 or a Chevy Cavalier Z24 with the same equipment can be had for about $2,000 less.


Saturn engineers have performed admirably in their quest to reduce noise, vibration and harshness in the 100-horsepower, 1.9-liter ''Saturn Power Module,'' otherwise known as an overhead-cam four-cylinder engine.

I visited the Saturn factory in 1990 just before the first Saturns were introduced. I remember driving around the big complex in Spring Hill, Tenn., in an SC coupe and hearing the din from the engine. Saturn has come a very long way since then. The 1998 model felt as smooth, quiet and refined as a Toyota or Nissan. Our car, equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission, delivered excellent all-around acceleration.

I've said many times that small cars perform best with manual transmissions, because shifting yourself is the most efficient way to send power to the wheels. Yet this car was so enjoyableto drive and its automatic transmission shifted so precisely that I never yearned for the standard five-speed manual gearbox.

When I floored the accelerator for a quick trip up the ramp to the interstate, the engine hunkered down and propelled the car forward quickly and without fuss. The tachometer needle floated across the face of the dial until it hit the red zone, then the transmission shifted with perfect timing.

Fuel mileage was excellent. Even though I drove fairly aggressively and used the air conditioner most of the time, our SC1 test car returned an average of 31 mph in combined city/highway driving.

Last year when Saturn overhauled its sports coupes, engineers took that opportunity to improve the ride and handling of the car. The coupe now rides on the same basic chassis as the SL sedan.

TheSC1proved quiet over all types of roads. Although it didn't feel as athletic as a pure sports coupe such as an Eagle Talon or Nissan 240SX, the SC1 more than hel d its own in sharp corners and during hard braking.

When the driving gets rough - such as during an emergency maneuver - the SC1 is easy to handle and very forgiving. The four-wheel independent suspension system delivers a semi-firm ride, which prevents the body from leaning much in curves.

The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and front disc/rear drum anti-lock brakes are well-matched to the car's weight and performance.

Overall, the SC1 is a refined and easy-to-drive sporty two-door coupe.


It's no fluke that Saturn routinely finishes among Lexus and Mercedes-Benz in overall quality. Our test car was screwed together tightly. There were no squeaks, rattles or loose trim parts - and that wasn't always the case with Saturns I have tested.

I think the 1998 model is the best car I have tested from Saturn. It had a solid feel you would expect in a much more expensive car. I like the fact that when you close the door, you clos out most outside noise. With the window up and the radio off, the SC1 is very quiet when cruising down the highway.

The seats are firm, comfortable and easy to adjust. It took me a while to get used to them, however. When I first settled into the driver's or passenger's bucket seat, I felt as if I were sitting too low in the car. But once I got situated, I had an excellent view over the hood and out of the car's rear.

Saturn's interior designers did a first-rate job. I particularly like the oversized speedometer and tachometer and their long, pointed needles. The style of the dash and the quality of the material of the door panels and console is excellent. You never feel as if you are in an economy car, which really is what the SC1 is.

I found the button-and-lever controls for the air conditioner were nicely designed and easy to use. Switches for the lights and wipers, on the stalks, were a cinch to operate.

Backseat room is adequate for two adults for short trips, but getting in and out can cause a bit of a stretch. However, the car has ample cargo room with the rear seats folded forward.

Though our test car sported a fairly stiff price, it came with just about everything you could want: cruise control, air conditioning, power windows, remote-controlled power door locks and more.

For the 1998 model year, many automakers are lowering prices or adding equipment and holding prices steady. Considering that the SC1 is smaller and less powerful than some of the other cars in its segment, it is up to potential buyers to determine if the Saturn's long list of high points cancels out what I consider to be a slight lack of value.


1998 Saturn SC1

LENGTH Overall180

FRONT COMPARTMENT Headroom38.5 Legroom42.6

REAR COMPARTMENT Headroom35.7 Legroom31

WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; six-year, 100,000-mile rust protection; 24-hour roadside assistance.

MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Transverse mounted front engine/transaxle, front-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted front-disc, rear drum with ABS. Engine: 100-horsepower, 1.9-liter, single overhead-cam, in-line four-cylinder. Transmission: Four-speed automatic.

OTHER MODELS SC2: $13,895.

Truett's tip: There's no question that the 1998SC1 sports coupe is the most refined, fun-to-drive two-door yet from Saturn, but the price of the tested SC1 is too high for an economy car.