EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

When you put 1,520 miles on a car in two days, you learn right away where it needs to be improved.

I recently piloted a 1996 Saturn SC2 from Orlando to the Saturn factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., and came home the next day in the redesigned 1997 model.

That Saturn got it just right with the 1997 Saturn SC is no surprise to me. I am conditioned now to expect great things from this innovative unit of General Motors.

Saturn has consistently flattened the tires of its critics in the six years it has been selling cars. Each year, Saturn has improved its sedan, coupe and wagon while leading the industry in customer satisfaction and loyalty – unheard of for a line of economy cars.

On the way to the Saturn factory in the 1996 SC2, I noticed the car:

Rode a bit choppily over small bumps in the road.

Needed more foot room on the driver’s side.

Was too noisy when the engine’s rpms reached 4,000.

Could use a tether for the gas cap.

On the way back from Tennessee, the 1997 SC2 impressed me with how much smoother it handled those same small bumps. The 3-inch stretch in wheelbase (from 99 to 102 inches) makes the SC a much more civilized sports coupe.

It has, in a sense, grown up.

The styling, while bearing a strong resemblance to original 1991-96 model, has a mature look.

The SC’s new front is an offshoot of the styling treatment used on the Saturn sedan, which was overhauled last year. Reflecting the growing demand for safety, Saturn has equipped the SC with daytime running lights. And the pop-up headlights, trendy items in the ’70s and ’80s, are gone now.

Both cars were very comfortable on the 12-hour drive each way. But the 1997 SC offers slightly more room to the left of the clutch pedal, so that when you set the cruise control, there is a place to rest your foot.

Slight improvements have increased the user-friendliness of the 1997 model. For instance, there is now a holder on the fuel door in which to place the gas cap when you refuel.

Engine can get growly

Noise, vibration and harshness are down somewhat in the 1997 model. Saturn engineers put more padding between the dash and the engine compartment and improved the rubber door seals.

But the Saturn engine, though smooth-running, growls harshly when the tachometer needle hits 4,000 rpms. It makes you want to shift into the next gear. Do so, and you won’t get to tap into the engine’s pleasing performance.

Acceleration is peppy from a stop, but the 124-horsepower, 1.9-liter engine in our SC2 delivered a nice blast of power in the 4,000 to 5,000 rpm range. I had no trouble easing past slower traffic at highway speeds.

The 1997 SC is a very easy car to drive in congested city traffic. The transmission shifts smoothly and quickly, and the clutch pedal goes down easily.

Our test car’s cruise control worked flawlessly. I set it at 65 mph while driving through the mountains of Tennessee near Chattanooga . No matter what grade the incline or decline, the car stayed at 65 mph.

The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes work well. So does the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. The car is easy to turn, but it doesn’t feel too light.

The Saturn SC may be a compact car, but it can carry large items. On the way back, I couldn’t help stopping at an antique store during a break. I spotted on old bicycle and bought it. I unbolted the front wheel, folded the SC’s coupe’s rear seat forward, stuffed the bicycle in and closed the hatch.

Our test car, priced at $18,185, came fully loaded, and that included a leather interior, an option I would not buy in an economy car. Load up a Saturn with options and the price creeps into a range populated by much more substantial cars. For about $18,000, one could buy a nicely equipped Chevy Lumina with a V-6 engine.

You can buy an SC2 with a stick shift, air conditioning, power windows, door locks, fancy wheels and cruise control fora out $16,700.

In any case, our test car sipped unleaded fuel, getting a solid 38 mpg on the highway.

The 1997 Saturn SC is a fun-to-drive, high-quality small car. And it can be a very smart buy is you don’t buy every option.

In a world where the sports coupe is becoming an endangered species, the Saturn SC looks poised to be one of the strong survivors.

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