Now that Saturn is officially, truly dead, we thought we'd reflect on the history of a GM division that tried, with varying degrees of earnestness, to be a different kind of car company. Luckily, we've done that once already.
About nine months ago our own Wes Siler wrote a thoughtful obituary for Saturn in which he mourned the brand's failed potential at least as much as the cars it produced. Certainly the cars, themselves, were mostly just there, with only the Sky Redline Roadster giving so much as a nod to valuing driving pleasure over convenience of ownership. The cars weren't bad, exactly, but they were unremarkable, and towards the end they weren't even Saturns but Opels. Now that Penske has turned its back on a deal that would have seen them take over stewardship of the brand and dealer network, we're once again left with nothing much more than memories of a nameplate or sub-company or whatever that couldn't, or maybe just plain decided it wouldn't, live up to its admirable promises.
Wes Siler's eloquent memorial continues below.
In many ways, Saturn's short history, bland products and ultimate failure are emblematic of the wrong thinking and flawed practices that got GM and the American car industry into such trouble in the first place. Established in 1985 (sales began in 1990) to offer a riposte to the growing success of small imports, Saturn's first products adopted the bland economy of cars like the Toyota Corolla, but combined it with the kind of lackadaisical attitude that was rife throughout GM.
Touted as a "new idea, using the tag line "A brand about people" and "a different kind of car company, a different kind of car," you'd have expected Saturn to offer a genuinely revolutionary product. Unfortunately, the one genuine innovation was an all-plastic, dent resistant body, which Saturn originally claimed would allow for frequent restylings of its vehicles; something it didn't take advantage of until 1997, then dropped altogether in 2001.
Saturn's first line of cars was the S Series, available as a sedan, coupe or wagon. Power was provided by a small inline-four with either single or double overhead camshafts. The former made 84 HP, while the latter produced a sparkling 124 HP. The trade-off for limited performance was good fuel economy, which exceeded 40 MPG for the less powerful, manual transmission-equipped cars.
Sales were initially strong. It seemed there was a desire for appealing, small, economical cars and a small audience of American consumers believed Saturn was actually selling those vehicles. As the ‘90s drew to a close and it became apparent that GM wasn't bothering to significantly update, much less redesign the range, buyers finally caught on and sales weakened — except for a small, but still-rabid rag-tag group of fans.
The first significant new product came in the form of the 2000 L Series mid-size. It was based on the Opel Vectra, a car so horrendously bland Jeremy Clarkson was famously banned (we're told) from reviewing GM products after he said, "One of my least favorite cars in the world. I've always hated it because I've always felt it was designed in a coffee break by people who couldn't care less about cars. One of the worst chassis I've ever come across." Since Americans, at the time, had neither Top Gear nor an honest source for car reviews, some actually made the mistake of buying an L Series, encouraging GM to base future Saturn models on equally horrendous Opels. We now have the re-badged Antera (Vue), a re-badged Opel GT (Sky), a re-badged Opel Astra (Astra) and a version of the new Vectra (Aura). There's also a crossover called the Outlook, but since it's shared by almost every other brand under the GM banner, I'm not going to write anything more about it.
Thus ends our description of Saturn's products because, as you can tell, it was never a brand about product. Saturn was a brand about people. Mostly about exploiting them.
The "unique labor contract" that defined the brand's beginning was defined by such revolutionary ideas as allowing workers the flexibility to perform non job-specific tasks. For example, a welder might be allowed the freedom to sweep up his work area the end of the shift, thus allowing one worker to perform the job of two. Sales staff and factory workers were also encouraged to interact and share ideas. Workers also had the freedom to earn less money than their equivalents at traditional plants, but make up for that loss with production-based bonuses of up to $10,000. Unfortunately, those bonuses only lasted while sales were up and the most revolutionary part of the arrangement seemed to be the brand's ads that featured happy workers in lieu of appealing products. The agreement was dissolved in 2004.
Much was also made of Saturn's "no haggle" pricing and friendly dealership experience. The former disappeared as soon as sales started to slump, while the latter has been matched, if not exceeded by current market practice. The customer-tracking feature advertised in the famous "Jelly Donut" ad, for instance, highlights nothing but the integration of computer networks into service centers that took place throughout the industry in the ‘90s.
Along with Saturn, we also hope the US auto industry loses the assumption that the US car buyer is easily manipulated by marketing and will happily accept sub par products even while far better are offered by foreign competitors. Judging by GM's latest enthusiast products — the Corvette ZR1, Cadillac CTS-V and Pontiac G8 GXP - not only does someone at GM know that consumers want good products, but also how to make ones that are better than anything else in the world. It's that kind of thinking that might keep the rest of GM's brands intact.