EXPERT REVIEW

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NEW YORK — The car was plain enough to escape larcenous attention, nimble enough to move through urban traffic, small enough to fit into a downtown garage.

It was a 1997 Saturn SC2 coupe with all of the trimmings — automatic transmission, power sunroof and door locks, and an okay sound system.

And it was boring — blah. Good blah. But blah, nonetheless. At least, that was my first impression, through a jaundiced eye.

Such blurred vision is an occupational hazard of automotive gigolos, those of us who earn money jumping from one car to another, always looking for something new. If something isn’t “new,” we get bored.

The 1997 Saturn SC2 coupe and its sedan and station wagon siblings aren’t new, per se. They are refined carryovers of modest little cars that entered the market in 1990, and have been selling well ever since.

Though it lacks a significant pizazz factor, the new SC2 coupe most likely will help continue Saturn’s favorable sales trend — 1 million sold in a little less than six years. That’s because auto writers and auto buyers generally aren’t the same people.

Auto writers look for sex. Auto buyers look for value, because they have to live with their vehicles far beyond a one-week flirtation with a test model. Viewed from that perspective, the new SC2 coupe is more than enough car to satisfy someone whose primary passions are affordability and practicality.

Background: Numbers are the best way to judge Saturn’s success thus far. Here are several:

In terms of sales satisfaction, Saturn ranks No. 1 in polls conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, a consumer marketing research firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif. That puts Saturn ahead of plush nameplates such as Acura, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Saturn ranks sixth in overall product quality in the Power polls, making it the top-rated domestic car for quality.

Saturn is maintaining its sales pace without incentives.

For 1997, Saturn’s motto is: “Don’t mess with success,” not with major changes anyway. That approach is reflected in the 1997 SC2 coupe, which has a modestly redesigned exterior — new fascias front and rear, new head and tail lamps, and an overall sleeker body than its predecessor.

Interior changes in the new SC2 coupes are more pronounced: all-new door trim, increased headroom front and rear, improved access for rear-seat passengers and — finally! — a low-fuel warning system to grab the attention of motorists who have been ignoring the fuel gauge.

Functional changes for 1997 include improved engine mounts and torque struts to help reduce engine noise and vibration and — ah! — a power-steering system that finally makes the car feel like it’s equipped with power steering.

The standard engine in the SC2 coupe is a dual overhead-cam, 1.9-liter in-line four-cylinder job: 124 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, with torque rated 122 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm. A single-overhead cam version of the same engine in the base 1997 S aturn SC1 coupe is rated 100 hp at 5,000 rpm, with torque rated 114 pound-feet at 2,400 rpm.

Both the SC2 and SC1 are equipped with standard five-speed manual transmissions. An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic is optional.

The tested SC2 coupe was equipped with optional four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock backup. Standard brakes on the SC2 and SC1 are power front discs/rear drums without anti-lock.

Both coupes are front-wheel drive and hold five passengers with standard dual-front air bags, improved side-impact crash protection systems and daytime running lights.

1997 SaturnSC2

Complaint: A utilitarian car with sporty pretensions, which might not be a complaint at all for many people.

Praise: A well-made utilitarian car with sporty pretensions.

Head-turning quotient: Pleasantly anonymous.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Compares well with any of the leading small cars in all three categories. Delightfully nimble in inner-city t affic . Adept at dodging potholes. Excellent braking.

Mileage: About 25 mpg in the test car with automatic transmission. Fuel capacity is 12.2 gallons. Estimated range is 300 miles on usable volume of recommended unleaded — running combined city/highway, driver only, with light cargo in the trunk (11.4 cubic feet).

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio cassette with optional Uplevel Speakers and 12-disc CD changer mounted in the trunk. Quite decent small-car sound.

Price: Base price on the 1997 SC2 coupe is $13,695, 3 percent more than the base price on the 1996 model. Estimated dealer invoice (without options)on the 1997 SC2 coupe is $12,188, pretty much in line with 1996. Price as tested is $16,275, including $2,180 in options and a $400 destination charge (a $10 increase over the 1996 freight charge).

Purse-strings note: An excellent value for the money. Compare with any small economy coupe from any automaker.

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