Parallel Universe 

The new Saturn doesn't seem like much of a bargain.

The new Saturn doesn't seem like much of a bargain.

I’ve always sorta considered Saturn cars to be “out there” just a little bit. It’s a perception the company seems to encourage. After all, this is the “different kind of car” and “different kind of company” that both belongs and doesn’t belong to General Motors. It’s the car that’s sold in friendly, no-haggle showrooms staffed with guys and gals in golf shirts—advisors, rather than salespeople, who coach their customers through the car-buying process. If you believe the ad pitches and PR hype, Saturns provide sensible, safe, and affordable transportation for interesting people who’ve got lots more and better to think about than what they’re driving.

Even the nomenclature for Saturn’s technical features is slightly askew. Instead of a traditional powertrain, which includes engine, transmission, and drive line, Saturns have “power modules.” The term is meant to draw attention to the computer resources that manage engine and transmission performance. Every modern car employs similar technology, but only Saturn gives it the cachet of a space shuttle’s booster rocket. Body panels (except for hood, roof, and upper-deck lid) are polymer plastic; that makes ’em rust-proof and ding-deterrent—and, oh yes, responsibly recyclable.

An air of aloofness attends the purchase of a Saturn, as if this were the only acceptable way to gorge on fossil fuels and perforate the ozone layer. But far from standing apart from the competition in the crowded subcompact car category, Saturns are actually right in the thick of it; and under all that aura is a plain-vanilla car with, shall we say, some eccentricities.

The Saturn Coupe #2 or SC2 is the company’s concession to sportiness. It more or less looks the part with its forward-swept profile. Carried over into ’98 is last year’s redesigned snoot that looks a little pinched and puckered to some; personally, I like the cat’s-eye gaze of the (always illuminated) headlamps. On the up-level SC2, fog lamps are standard; they lurk, ever watchful, in the shadows of the air collector that feeds the radiator. In back a discreet, full-width spoiler suggests puma-like performance, despite the tabby-cat reality.

Actually, what enhances the appearance of Saturn’s coupes most dramatically is the lengthening of the wheelbase in ’97 to 102.4 inches. That’s over 3 inches longer than its predecessor, and the change results from Saturn’s decision to build both its sedans and coupes on the same platform. Aesthetically, the SC2 appears a lower-slung sweet chariot than before. Practically speaking, there’s an increase of interior room—particularly for the rear passengers—to near-sedan proportions. A slightly lengthened door makes a valiant effort to assist ingress/egress to/from the back, and a new “memory” feature lets you tip the front seats forward without resetting all your hard-won ergonomics. But routine yoga lessons remain the best-proven stratagem for contorting into the backseat on a regular basis.

The seat that counts, though, is behind the wheel, and it’s from this perspective that Saturn’s mission gets a little blurry. For one thing, even with $4,000 worth of options, including A/C, cruise control, power locks/windows/mirror, alloy wheels, leather accents, ABS brakes, and a premium cassette stereo, the SC2 I tested felt like an econobox. No problem with that, of course, except that I thought there was a rule somewhere that econoboxes can’t cost over 18-grand, as this one did.

Or, to put it another way, I would have thought that a car costing over 18-grand would be quieter, perkier, and more “tossable” to drive. Although I’ve been an admirer of Saturn’s twin-cam “power module” since its inception, the engine is a “spinner”: It makes adequate horsepower (124 HP), but maximum torque is only 122 ft.-lbs. at a relatively high 4,800 rpm. Either you’re sleepwalking off the line under normal acceleration, or you’re sending the revs sky-high (and beyond polite society standards) to thrash out what only amounts to a 9-second zero-to-60 when all’s said and done. A sport coupe worthy of the name should be quicker than that.

Instead, the SC2 is mostly just sound and fury—a characteristic of overhead-cam engine design—without a lot of significant thrills. More sound deadening to insulate engine and tire noises appeared in ’97, and many thanks for that. Four-wheel independent suspension and a trim 2,400-lb. curb weight assert what nimbleness they can; but without a little more “oomph” factor, you don’t so much make speed in the twisties as try mightily not to scrub off whatever speed you’ve got.

Meantime, you’re sitting amidst Spartan accoutrements that probably delimit the border between “no frills” and “just enough.” The controls for the wing mirrors are a case in point: Whereas virtually every other manufacturer combines right and left controls in a single switch, Saturn puts a manual joystick controller in the driver’s door for the left mirror and an electronic servo-controller in the central console for the right mirror. The impression is one of Puritan “waste-not-want-not” frugality; the effect is just irritating.

The Euro-style cluster of power-window switches in the console is less objectionable—there are precedents, after all. And the location and readability of dash instrumentation are especially praiseworthy since the dash was redesigned for ’97. Radio and HVAC controls, however, require split vision and rub-your-tummy-pat-your-head dexterity to manage while driving.

What I’m driving at is that Saturn has been positioned as a giant killer ever since the first model was launched out of Spring Hill, Tenn., in 1990; and now here’s a Saturn sports coupe with a sticker price that suggests incipient gigantism itself. Better, perhaps, to opt for a base SC2 at $13,895, add the $930 or so for A/C (in Nashville, at least), and swallow the obligatory $440 destination charge. The resulting total barely crests the magic $15,000 econocar threshold that separates “a good buy” from “gettin’ took.” Thus enfranchised, there’s no more to stop you from joining the offbeat orbit of fellow owners who have tossed their hats and hopes into Saturn’s ring.

Off the floor

Drive of their lives

Customers and wanna-be customers of BMW of Nashville logged 2,171 miles last Saturday to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. BMW of North America is contributing $1 per mile in a nationwide Drive for the Cure intended to raise $1 million for cancer research. “We set a record in Nashville for the number of preregistrations for test drives,” says Nancy Allen, who organized the event for the dealership, “and we’ll get credit for $5,041 raised, due to the 154 test drives we conducted, plus the miles covered transporting the cars.” Judy Rieshick, who has been the dealership’s warranty administrator for 27 years, is herself a breast cancer survivor and was honored as the “local hero” for the daylong event. As drivers completed their jaunts in 16 new BMWs specially prepared for the event, they signed the fender of a 740iL sedan, resulting in more than 250 inches of new signatures by day’s end.

You can always give ’em away

First, The Wall Street Journal noted in its Aug. 14 edition that minivan sales aren’t nearly so van-tastic as they used to be. That same day, Chevy announced a Venture van giveaway via the Web site at To top off this concatenation of coincidences, Nissan chose Friday, Aug. 15, to kick off its clever “Nissan Quest Carpool Parent of the Year” contest, featuring none other than a Nissan Quest minivan as grand prize. To win the Quest, applicants must submit, in 500 words or less, up to 10 tips for fun and safe carpooling. Applications can be obtained by calling 1-800-955-4500 or by posting an e-mail request via Nissan’s Web site at OK, so what if fewer folks are actually buying minivans; wouldn’t you take one for free? Please?

As if it really mattered

Mercedes finally announced formal pricing last Wednesday for its lustfully awaited M-Class All Activity Vehicle (AAV). Aimed squarely at the heart of the yuppie SUV phenomenon, and built just down the road in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the ML320 will list for $33,950. Only one “full frills” option package is available for $2,950; there will be just three stand-alone options: sunroof for $1,095, premium audio for $1,050, and metallic paint for $475.

For the absolutely-gotta-have-it crowd, a fancy-dress AAV will top out at $39,520 (before destination charge). That’s still under the magic boundary of $40-grand for a luxo-sport/ute. Meanwhile, Jay Page at Middle Tennessee Motor Cars is sitting on some 70 orders that were placed sight-unseen with deposits—and he’s only expecting 62 models by Dec. 31. Looks like somebody’s gonna have to do without for one more winter of Nashville Slip’n’Slide.

Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to


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