EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

It would be almost too easy to take GM’s Saturn division for granted.

One of the few bright spots during former GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Roger Smith’s erratic reign, this division is just slightly different from every other. For the most part, this difference has shown up at the dealership, where Saturn’s level of customer satisfaction is at the top of the heap.

It shows how common sense and the realization of the importance of the customer can sell more than 1.5 million cars.

If the marketing was different, the cars weren’t. Until now.

With trucks selling faster than most automakers can build them, car makers are looking at their cars and wondering how to make them more like trucks. This cross-pollination has been very successful for Subaru with its Outback and Toyota with its RAV4 and Lexus RX300 — cars that look like trucks.

So Saturn, for the moment without a truck to call its own, took a look at the extended cab pickup. The current rage among extended-cab pickups is the “door wars” — specifically, rear hinged doors that allow access to the rear compartment. Most coupes have an equally hard-to-reach rear compartment. So, why not apply the idea to a coupe?

The result is the radical, practical three-door coupe.

The door is on the driver’s side and is hinged at the rear. To use the door, one first opens the driver’s door. There’s no center pillar, rather the front edge of the rear door serves as the front door’s jamb. On the jamb is a handle which opens the rear door, in the same manner as a rear door on an extended cab pickup. The result is unobstructed access to the rear seat, which can be used for storage or a child safety seat.

Because the door handle is hidden, the only clue as to the door’s existence is a seam running down the side of the rear edge of the door. It detracts little from the coupe’s looks and is well worth the trade-off in terms of utility. Once you start using it, you’ll wonder why someone didn’t think of this long ago. It adds a big dose of practicality. Every Saturn coup produced as of last month will have it, whether in SC1 or SC2 trim.

Aside from the usual new wheels, fabrics and colors, Saturn’s engine gets further revision this year.

New crankshaft, engine cover, timing chain and other changes help improve noise/vibration and harshness. The result is improved fuel economy this year.

It also makes the engine a lot more refined. Previous iterations of this 1.9-liter overhead-cam engine could produce an incredible racket. The newest refinements get the engine a lot closer to the small car norm. This should hold true whether opting for the SC1 with the single-overhead-cam, 100 horsepower and 14-inch tires or the SC2 with a double overhead-cam, 124 horsepower and 15-inch tires. There’s less buzzing, although the DOHC version with automatic runs at 2,750 rpm at 65 mph, endowing this car with a hum at highway speed. Add in some wind rustle around the rearvie w mirrors and tire noise, and the overall din is about on par with any small car. It no longer is the loud talker of the bunch.

But if noise is what used to get all the press, what doesn’t is the fact that the DOHC version pulls the Saturn’s 2,400 pounds with authority. Coupled with quick steering and an obedient 4-speed automatic (5-speed manual is also available), this car has that slot car agility that makes imported small cars so appealing. The power doesn’t come at the expense of fuel economy, with the test car rated at 27 mpg city, 37 highway. The city mileage was easily surpassed, even with a heavy foot.

Braking is okay, although Saturn eliminated rear discs on the upper-level SC2 in a cost-cutting move. Anti-lock is still available, as is traction control.

Saturn retains a fully-independent suspension, which has been a victim of cost-cutting among other small cars. The suspension endows this car with a firm ride that helps mute bumps, but you’ll kn ow they’re there. Overall, it offers good control over rippled road surfaces.

Inside, little has changed since the re-do a couple seasons back. A large arched hood holds a truely mammoth speedometer and tach, flanked by fuel and temperature gauges. The center dash contains stereo and climate controls. The slider activates the climate control, which seems a bit buried. There is no front map light, meaning the driver must reach overhead to turn on the roof lamp. The switch felt very flimsy. Otherwise, storage is okay, with room for most things.

The front bucket seats were comfy enough, although long-legged drivers may wish for more leg room. The seats may be too narrow for some. But they proved to be supportive for long drives. Over the shoulder visibility is good on the right side, but totally obscured on the left.

The trunk holds a respectable 11.4 cubic feet of gear.

Of course, the car is still built with dent-resistant polymer panels over a steel space frame.

While the thee-door coupe doesn’t alter the driving experience of this sporting Saturn, it renders the coupe a much more livable alternative to those who might not otherwise consider it.

If this idea came from Toyota or Honda, the automotive press would be proclaiming the rear access door as further proof of Asian cars’ greatness. But since it hails from an American manufacturer, particularly GM, it seems to have received a less enthusiastic welcome.

I think it’s a neat idea and a neat car.

1999 Saturn SC-2 three-door coupe

Engine: SOHC or DOHC 1.9-liter four-cylinder

Transmissions: 5-speed manual or four-speed automatic

Tires: P175/70R14 or P195/60R15

Standard: DOHC engine, front disc/rear drum brakes, P195/60R15 tires, fold-down rear seat, intermittent wipers, rear window defroster, AM/FM stereo, dual air-bags, daytime running lamps.

Options: Power locks, remote keyless entry, security system, power windows, power right side mirror, cruise control, 15-inch alloy wheels, floor mats, anti-lock brakes with traction control, AM/FM/cassette stereo with premium speakers.

Base price, base model: $12,445

Base price, test model: $15,865

As tested: $18,770

EPA rating: 27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway

Test mileage: 30 mpg

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