Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Implosion of GM's Saturn leaves fans marooned


Implosion of GM's Saturn leaves fans marooned

I'm not sure how I came to own five--that's right, five--Saturns during the General Motors' division's 19-year life, but it's true. My wife and I were early adopters back in the early '90s when those first plastic-bodied, import-fighting sedans and coupes arrived on the market. Having both grown up in GM families, we naturally gravitated toward this new darling in the GM fold, whose very existence seemed to mirror our need for a quality Honda or Toyota-like family sedan that would qualify for the GM employee discount program.

Ours was a bluish-green SL2 with a tan interior, with the strong-spinning twin-cam four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. It was our first family car, and we truly loved it.

So did many others, because as we drove it around our nation's highways, especially in that first year or so, people often would approach us in gas stations and restaurant parking lots, all wondering what we thought of this new idea of a car from GM.

The car also was significant for the story it produced. To wit: When we were first "kicking the tires" at the Saturn dealership, I popped open the hood, not so much to check out the valve covers or the plumbing, but to get a bead on the engine's potential for cooking. I'd been doing a lot of engine cooking (following the instructions laid out in Manifold Destiny, written by a pair of One Lappers) and I wanted to see what kind of oven space the car offered.

Apparently, word of my engine study caught someone's attention at Saturn, because not long after taking delivery we got a call from Hal Riney & Associates, Saturn's off-beat advertising agency from San Francisco. The agency twice sent representatives to Michigan to meet us and our car, and to check out the concept of a Saturn owner "who needed a family car that could really cook." I think the idea eventually died when the GM lawyers got involved and advised that it wouldn't be prudent to advertise the idea of putting foreign substances--even if they were bratwurst--on a Saturn engine. Imagine the fires, the horrors, the lawsuits. In retrospect, I should have recognized that reaction as one of the first signs that GM was pulling its wayward planetary body back into the mother ship--and not for any good reasons.

So we went on our way, eventually trading in the SL2 (it drew a surprisingly strong price) on what every Saturn owner seem to need right about then: A minivan. Of course, because of GM's binge-and-starve product strategy for Saturn, the little car company that could had no minivans or SUVs or pickups or sports cars to sell when the market began to shift to those popular segments.

Being from the aforementioned GM family, with a solid GM employee discount to work with long before rebates galore and "employee pricing for all" made the discount nearly meaningless, we bought back-to-back GM minivans, each successively worse, until we couldn't take it anymore and went back to Saturn for the closest thing we could get to a family minivan while still buying a GM product: a Saturn station wagon.

Being back in the Saturn fold was nice, but it was clear that the company's product and styling were getting long in the tooth at that point. We couldn't have been happier when the Saturn lineup expanded for the first time in a decade to include the L-series sedan and wagon. We jumped on an LW wagon as soon as it appeared in the showroom.

When the crossover craze hit, Saturn once was again left bereft of a competitive product, so we ended up in some underwhelming alternatives from other GM divisions until the Saturn Aura arrived, claiming the title of North American Car of the Year. My wife is driving an Aura now, and we recently added an Astra five-door hatchback to the stable, which we plan to keep when the Aura lease expires in the not-too-distant future. We like the little Astra--with its five-speed manual and little four-cylinder engine, I think it reminds us a little of our first Saturn.

So there you have it--five Saturns in two decades, and clearly we could've owned more if GM had only listened to its customers and provided the product-starved division with a few more options in a few more segments.

Sadly, like many Saturn owners who came to love the cars and the dealerships that supported them, we've lived through 20 years of the Saturn whipsaw only to be cast adrift, I suppose to seek out another "different kind of car company."

Wonder what that will be?

No comments: