Sometimes it pays to be different. Sometimes nobody cares. With the arrival of 2004, America’s “different kind of car, different kind of car company” will be 22 years old. Intended as General Motors’ great Yankee hope for stemming the import tide, the Saturn Division was conceived in June 1982, chartered in 1983 and consigned to its fate in Middle Tennessee in 1985.
Building vehicles in Spring Hill, Tenn., symbolized the kind of bold, different thinking that was meant to invigorate the entire Saturn project. So was the negotiation of an unprecedented labor contract with the United Auto Workers that, among other things, traded national-level wages for a promise of permanent employment immune from layoffs. With terms like these, what gritty Michigander could resist the low costs of rural living in a verdant automaking utopia southwest of Nashville?
Then, of course, there were the plastic cars bearing their no-haggle prices. In July 1990, the first Saturn production car, a sedan, rolled off the assembly line as a 1991 model. Excitement over Saturn’s import-fighting coupes and sedans flourished momentarily in a burp of marketing creativity.
But Saturn never properly left the launch pad. Plastic cars that shopping carts couldn’t ding never really galvanized the motoring public. The virtue of no-haggle negotiations became an inconvenient vice when Saturn salespeopleer, “consultants”discovered they were hamstrung by inflexible prices for vehicles perceived as inferior to comparable Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans. When sales and assembly lines slowed, a policy of no layoffs suddenly became synonymous with a policy of fence-painting and landscaping chores for a contractually irreducible workforce.
In short, the vaunted Saturn mission is in jeopardy; and mid-course corrections intended to restore Saturn’s upward trajectory appear unintentionally ironic. First comes news that plastic bodywork will become a thing of the past as new Saturn models are introduced henceforth. “The heck with dings,” the car-buying public seems to be saying, “give me proper fit and finish for my $15-grand.” Compared to the micro-fine tolerances between the sheet metal panels of a Honda or a Toyota, the inherently unavoidable width and irregularity of gaps between plastic panels look positively sloppy.
Then it’s announced that Saturn’s tardy but competent contender in the compact SUV category will be boasting an optional 3.5-liter V6 for 2004. What the press materials don’t actually reveal, however, is that the V6 is a sexy single-overhead-cam VTEC engine built by Honda. Wasn’t it a pseudo-Zenmaster in the movie Karate Kid who intoned, “You must become the enemy to defeat the enemy”or something like that?
Taking another page out of the import playbook, Saturn is now kinda-sorta haggling with its prices and financing. How else to interpret an aggressive $159 down and six-year $159 per month incentive deal for a base-model Ion? Or more to the point, how else can Saturn effectively parry sales threats from the likes of Hyundai and Kia?
Then, just last week we have word that Saturn’s UAW workforce is finally contemplating an “hasta la vista, baby” for its very different and unique labor agreement. In return for substantial GM investments in Saturn’s manufacturing facilities and a redoubled corporate commitment to make future Saturn products fly, Spring Hill’s UAW rank-and-file have voted overwhelmingly to put their no-layoff status on the table. Over the next four years, Saturn wages will slowly evolve to match those of their UAW brethren elsewhere in the U.S.; and future layoffs become a distinct possibility as a result. As reported in The Tennessean and the Associated Press after last week’s vote, “We are in a position that either we adapt or die,” said Mike Herron, chairman of Saturn’s UAW Local 1853.
With this realizationapplied to the Saturn concept overall, not merely to its labor arrangementsSaturn reaches the end of its beginning. For the 12 model years from ’91 to ’03, Saturn vehicles attempted to define themselves in terms dictated by their predominantly Asian archrivals. What the import automakers do, Saturn elected not to do. The Asians generally succeed; Saturn pointedly does not. It’s time to adapt, to modify principles, to re-define Saturn not as a myopic “import-fighter” but as a broadly appealing sales enticer. The 2004 Saturns, despite belonging conceptually to Saturn’s past, are nevertheless important transition models for a car company determined to reach its apogee in the future.
2004 Saturn Vue
For 2004, Saturn has planted optional Honda VTEC engine technology under the hood of the Vue. The resulting 250 horsepower and 242 ft.-lbs. of torque are now best-in-class among compact sport/utes. And the V6 Vue still achieves 19 mpg/city and 25 mpg/highway with regular gas.
The Vue boasts all-independent suspension; but brakes, curiously, remain an outdated front disc/rear drum combo. Priced at $26,730, as tested, my Vue featured zippy engine personality and roomy cargo capacity up to 64 cu. ft. Ride was comfy, but handling was imprecise; and for nearly $27 grand, this Vue’s “value message” seemed particularly obscure.
2004 Saturn Ion
What the new Ion has got is potential; what it presently lacks is fulfillment. Driving the Ion through rambling backroads, one quickly senses the handling advances derived from its stiff new “Delta” frame. GM’s 2.2-liter Ecotech only makes 140 hp and 145 ft.-lbs.; but as an economy car, the Ion is very fun to toss around in twisties.
It’s also noisy, despite newly added sound insulation; and its interior components feel thin and cheap. The four-door Quad Coupe is one of Saturn’s different ideas that works, and the 14-cu. ft. trunk is generous in this class. For its $14,660 base price, however, the Ion coupe’s present chances of shouldering significantly in upon Toyota’s and Honda’s import party remain very small.