Saturday, November 11, 2006

Saturn's Resurgence

As a fan of the automotive industry, it's great to see the new, compelling offerings that come out each year. For the 2007 model year, I'm especially heartened by what I am seeing from Saturn.

As many people know, Saturns were first sold to the public in 1990, and the company was intended to be separate from the rest of the General Motors organization, and to offer outstanding customer service, a pleasant sales experience (with no-haggle pricing), and good, solid cars that competed with the import brands. Its first cars were the S-series small sedans and coupes.

As Saturn evolved, GM starved the division of new product. In 1999, it eventually got a midsize sedan, the L-series, which was a rebodied Opel Vectra. In 2002, Saturn got its first SUV, the VUE. The S-series was retired in 2002, replaced by the ill-conceived and somewhat homely ION. 2005 brought a re-hashed Saturnized version of the Chevrolet Venture minivan, called the RELAY. (Annoying how all of the names are supposed to be in ALL CAPS, isn't it?) The RELAY has sold terribly, mainly because it's supposed to look sort of like an SUV, but instead is based on a van that was not competitive at its introduction in 1997, and is nowhere NEAR being competitive in 2006. I think it's fair to say that Saturn was not stealing away many import-intenders, but at least the selling and dealership experience stayed true to their concept. I'm allowed to bash Saturn's past offerings, since we owned two different L-200s (a 2001 five-speed and a 2003 automatic).

So finally, against that backdrop of cars selling based on the merits of the dealers, instead of on their own merits, GM decided that Saturn is actually a brand that didn't have the negative associations as a "division of GM" that Pontiac, Buick, and Chevrolet cars have.

The Saturn AURA concept was first shown at the NAIAS in Detroit in January 2005, and it was extremely well received. Soon afterward, GM announced that it would build the AURA, and that it would be very similar to the concept. When the production AURA was finally shown in mid-2006, it was slightly watered down, but still received a lot of praise. However good or bad the car is, it's almost guaranteed to be a far better car than the L-series had been, which were generally reliable but also generally unrefined and noisy.

The Saturn SKY roadster was also shown in concept form at the NAIAS in Detroit in January 2005, and GM announced that it would build the SKY as well. It's built on GM's new Kappa platform, which also underpins the Pontiac Solstice. The Opel GT and Daewoo G2X are identical to the SKY except for the grille and badges, and are built in the same factory in Wilmington, DE. The Kappa platform itself is basically a shrunken Corvette chassis, and the Kappa roadsters feature a hodgepodge of GM parts-bin pieces to keep development costs down (such as the rear differential from a Cadillac CTS, the five-speed manual transmission from the GMC Canyon/Chevrolet Colorado, the backup lights from a GMC Envoy, the engine from the Saturn Ion/Chevrolet Cobalt, etc. The SKY has been well-received by the buying public, and most of the criticism has surrounded subpar interior materials, a lack of interior storage, and an extremely small trunk, even with the top up. They really are nice cars for their price, though! Other than its fraternal twin, the Solstice, the SKY's main competitor is the Mazda MX-5 (the artist formerly known as the Miata).

The Saturn OUTLOOK large crossover SUV made its debut alongside the AURA at the 2006 NYIAS. It is built on the all-new Lambda platform, which also underpins the GMC Acadia and upcoming Buick Enclave. The OUTLOOK can seat up to eight adults comfortably, and has a very large interior. I haven't sat in one yet, but it's said to be larger than a Chevrolet Tahoe inside. The second and third row seats fold flat into the floor, and even when the seats are not folded, there is a very large cargo area behind the third row. Interior detailing and refinement from all the high-resolution photos I have seen is pretty impressive. They go on sale in Fall 2006.

VUE (2008/2009)
The Saturn VUE was the division's first SUV, and it was reasonably successful. It originally had an interior very similar to the L200 sedan's, which was not the best car in the world to copy the interior of. For the 2006 model year, the VUE received a new nose (which isn't the best looking schnoz in the business, in my opinion) and a new interior, which is extremely attractive. When the VUE's refinement improved, so have sales over the past several months. For the 2008 model year, the VUE will be all-new, based on the Opel Antara. Compared to the SKY, and even the AURA, the 2008 VUE doesn't really have a very exciting style in my opinion. It looks like an anonymous Korean or Japanese compact SUV, and doesn't have the cool headlight shape that the SKY and AURA have.

ASTRA (2008/2009)

Since Saturn and Opel (GM's German subsidiary) will be sharing many models going forward, and since the Opel Astra is about as well-regarded as the current Saturn ION is poorly regarded (particularly in terms of exterior appearance and interior refinement), Saturn will be importing Astras, badged as Saturns, from Europe beginning soon. Eventually, the next-generation Astra will be built at several plants throughout Europe and North America.

It's great that GM has finally decided to give Saturn some of its best efforts to date. I really like what I am seeing from the future Saturn lineup, and I predict record sales for Saturn, when you combine good products with excellent customer service (rather than in the past, when it was adequate/fair products with excellent customer service). Many people aren't even aware that Saturn is a part of GM. This may actually be an asset, because that also means that import-intenders can see a Saturn for what it is, rather than having preconceived notions about what a GM car is.

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