Orlando Sentinel's view

Few auto companies have been as influential as Saturn, the small-car unit of General Motors.

In its 10 years, Saturn has elevated the standard for customer satisfaction for economy cars to a level that no other nonluxury car company has been able to match.

Just the other day, a good friend told me of an incident with his Saturn sedan. At 48,000 miles the water pump broke. Although the car was far out of warranty, the dealer made the repair for nothing.

It’s customer service like that that has endeared Saturn to its customers.

But this good will may not last forever – especially if Saturn doesn’t update its sedan and coupe, which, despite a host of styling and mechanical improvements, are still basically the same cars that were introduced in late 1989.

Performance, handling

We tested a 1999 SC2 coupe, which remains powered by a 1.9-liter, double overhead cam, inline four-cylinder engine. Horsepower is rated at 124. Saturn has tried hard over the years to make this motor more civilized. But when revved to about 5,000 rpm, the engine still sounds like a buzz saw.

Saturn has designed a horde of new parts to quiet the ruckus, but the engine still is not as refined as the average Toyota, Nissan or Mitsubishi engine.

Yet performance is respectable. The car feels lively and quick. Saturn says it will reach 60 mph in about 9 seconds – not bad for an economy car. Drive easy and you’ll get about 26 miles per gallon in the city and about 35 on the highway.

A four-wheel independent suspension system helps keep things under control on the road. Although the car handles reasonably well, it feels its age. The ride is soft and somewhat vague. Perhaps an extra-stiff chassis would enable Saturn engineers to ready the SC for the next century. Next to a VW GTI or Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Saturn’s lack of refinement is particularly noticeable.

Quietly, Saturn has removed the rear disc brakes and replaced them with a less expensive drum system in order to keep costs down. But the brake system still performs adequately.

And the power rack-and-pinion steering system works well, though the 37.1 foot turning radius is large for a small car.

Our car came with traction control – an unusual safety feature for an economy car.

Fit and finish

Saturn made a bit of history in November when it announced the addition of a third door to its sport coupe.

Turns out that this is no gimmick, but a real nifty innovation that works well. I won’t be surprised if it’s copied by other automakers. It’s just too good an idea not to appear on other two-door cars.

Without altering the appearance of the coupe, Saturn has solved the car’s biggest drawback. Getting in and out of any two-door compact car has required a person to twist and contort like a Slinky.

Not anymore.

With the rear door open, an average-size adult can easily settle into the rear seat. No more flipping the front seat forward, pushing it on its tracks and turni ng sideways to squeeze in.

Aside from the addition of the third door – which is a no-charge, standard item – not much else has changed. And that’s too bad.

The front bucket seats in our test car were far too soft and offered little support in the lower back area. You just sort of sink into the seats.

The plastic trim around the controls for the air conditioner and radio was loose. I’ve noticed this on other Saturns, and it doesn’t do much to enhance the car’s quality.

But everything worked just fine. And that’s the thing about the Saturn. Although it may not be as well-made as your average Toyota or Nissan, you do trust it. It has a sturdy, hardy, over-engineered American feel to it.

The big analog gauges are nicely styled and easy on the eyes, the shifter works smoothly and the switches have a firm feel to them.

Once, Saturn was at the top of my list of cars that I’d recommend to friends. But now there are too many better small cars – some of which even cost less.

The thirddoor on the coupe may buy Saturn some time. But, in my estimation, nothing less than an overhaul with no increase in price will be enough to put Saturn back on top.

1999 Saturn SC2 3-Door Coupe

Base price: $15,005. Safety: Daytime running lights, traction control, anti-lock brakes and dual air bags. Price as tested: $17,910. EPA rating: 27 mpg city/38 mpg highway. Incentives: None.

Truett’s tip: Saturn’s SC2 sports coupe is starting to feel old. The addition of a third door is a smart move, but the car needs an overhaul.

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