About a dozen years ago, General Motors chairman Roger Smith
drop-kicked the Saturn Corp. into existence. Its mandate: build
a small car that could compete with the Hondas and Toyotas that
were allegedly killing the domestic smallcar industry.
Saturn was to be, as the corporate slogan now puts it, "a
different kind of company". Elimination of physical and
psychological barriers between worker and supervisor, management
and union, company and community, were also to help show GM the
way of the future.
Six years later, the first Saturn rolled out of the
greenfield factory in Spring Hill, Tenn. Despite scepticism from
many sides, Saturn has become a player in the small-car
business, primarily due to its innovations in retailing, which
include nodicker pricing and respect for the buyer.
Corporate philosophy calls for continual change. For 1996,
sedans and wagons receive their first major exterior makeovers,
taking advantage of Saturn's sheetsteel substructure and
bolton, mostlyplastic, exterior panels. (The coupes get redone next
To check on Saturn's progress, we arranged a test of a
top-of-the-line wagon, denoted SW2 in Saturn's simple nomenclature.
(SW1: Station Wagon, first level, is the label for the base
wagon; SC means Saturn Coupe; SL is Saturn sedan. We don't know
what the "L" stands for. Okay, so it's not that simple.)
The all-plastic concept is compromised by the new wagon's
steel roof and rear fascia. The roof, anyway, isn't prone to
rust or shopping cart dings. As do many wagon models, Saturn's
version utilizes the rear doors from its corresponding sedan
model. The shiny, all-black greenhouse trim successfully
disguises their deeply curved rear contour. It's a pert, cheeky
car that avoids the utilitarian look of most wagons. It's closer
to the European squared-off hatchback style of wagon, like BMW's
The uplevel 124 horsepower, 1.9 litre twin-cam 16-valve
four-cylinder engine is tuned to deliver over 90 per cent of its
peak 122 poundfeet torque value at a low 2400 r.p.m., to
improve low and mid-range acceleration.
My test car had the optional electronic four-speed automatic
with fuzzy-logic shift controller, which adapts shift quality
and timing to your way of driving. A two-position switch offers
normal and performance shift programs, the latter delaying
upshifts for better performance.
MacStruts up front and three-link struts at the back are the
suspension basics. Uplevel models get a rear stablizer bar and
vehicle-speed sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.
Disc front/drum rear brakes were augmented in my tester by the
anti-lock (ABS) option, which also includes an
engine-power-reduction traction assist system, now fitted to ABS-equipped
Saturns with manual or automatic transmissions; formerly it was
restricted to automatics.
I really want to say that Saturn runs rings around the
opposition. I really do. But first, the editor would probably
slap me upside the head (for cliche abuse, surely — Ed.). And
second, it just isn't true.
One major failing is evident the moment you step inside. Or
attempt to. This is a small car. Lady Leadfoot fits, of
course. But people closer to average stature will have to
wriggle their way around doors that don't open very wide, and
squeeze into an interior that's not very spacious.
The back seat in my wagon was particularly tight. When
"sitting behind myself" — with the front seat adjusted for my
5-foot, 10-inch frame — my knees touched the back of the front
seat. I sure wouldn't want to spend more than a few minutes back
It would be okay for small children. But other cars with
similar exterior proportions do a better job of packaging.
The 1996 Saturns do have slightly more headroom than before –
21 mm in front, 43 mm in the rear — and the front seats have
been raised slightly to offer a better driving position. Still,
there's only so much you can do, given the limitations of the
To its credit, the bodyshell has been reinforced to meet the
1997 U.S. dynamic side-impact standard a year ahead of the law.
Last year's interior makeover brought dual air bags to all
Once the seat's reach, rake, lumbar and head-restraint are
adjusted, and the steering column tilted to suit, the driver's
seat is quite comfortable. The ergonomics are generally good,
although I found the turn signal lever a bit high, and the
heater's sliding levers awkward to work in the dark.
The other major drawback to Saturn is engine noise: a problem
from Day One. Every year, they introduce more noise reduction
techniques; for 1996, these include revised engine mounts,
additional sound-deadening materials, and a seal between
instrument panel and windshield to cut noise transfer from the
But the fact is, Saturn's engine is plain loud. One plus: part
of the noise comes from a steel timing chain, which is more
reliable than the more common, and quieter, rubber belts, and
causes less damage to the engine should it fail.
To be fair — aren't we always? — the Saturn engine calms down
as it warms up, and the gearing is tall enough so that highway
cruising isn't too tiring. But first impressions can be lasting
ones, and you're always aware that it's thrumming away up there.
The high-torque concept works: there's plenty of realworld
grunt. And on our Zamboni-resurfaced, i.e., icy, rural roads, I
had ample opportunity to use the traction assist system. It
works better than most, dialing out engine power gently, and
upshifting the transmission as required, to reduce wheelspin. It
can be switched off too, if you need to rock the car back and
forth out of a snow bank. No, thank you, I didn't need to.
A road tester is handicapped when evaluating an adaptive
autobox. In just a few days, we must see how the unit shifts
under a variety of conditions, so it never "learns" my regular
In normal driving, Saturn's tranny upshifts as smoothly as any
in my experience. It downshifts into third as the car rolls to a
stop, thereby eliminating a harsh downshift if you reaccelerate
before coming to a complete halt a pretty typical situation.
At other times, this thing has a mind of its own, catching
third gear on slight upgrades in what appears to be random
fashion. With enough time to learn, I think this transmission
would work well. I failed to note much difference between
performance and normal modes.
The ride is on the firm side, especially at low speeds. It
reminded me of an older German design, as it smooths out as the
pace increases. Handling is very good, with light, direct
steering and flat cornering.
Saturn's quality image is marred by visible screws attaching
the plastic panels to the frame you see them on the upper door
jamb every time you open the door and, on my tester, by
indifferent interior trim assembly and a recalcitrant and
flimsy-feeling folding rear seat mechanism.
I really want to love Saturns, especially after reading quotes
from the people who design and build them. They seem genuinely
sincere in their expressed desire to produce a quality product
that puts the others in the shade.
But Saturn still has some work to do to reach the top rung of
the small-car ladder. Their main problem is that the Honda
Civic, their target in 1984, has undergone four major
re-engineerings in the meantime, each one moving the goalposts
farther down the field, notably in packaging and refinement.
At the same time, other small GMs, notably Chev Cavalier, have
improved immeasurably, and now offer better value.
Neither Civic, nor Cavalier, nor anyone else, offers Saturn's
30 day/2500 km moneyback guarantee. And Saturn has managed to
imbue its cars with that indefinable trait: character. Maybe
it's the passion of the people who build them; maybe it's the
cheerful "put me in, coach" underdog attitude that elicits
affection from their owners.
Hey, I can understand that. I used to own, and love, Fiats.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on
driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.
Saturn SW2 Wagon
MODELS AND PRICES
Sedans, fourdoor: SL $12,998; SL1 $14,398; SL2 $16,148.
SW1 $14,898; SW2 $16,748.
SC1 $15,348; SC2 $18,048
SW1 wagon: dual air bags; power steering; child-proof rear door
locks; dual sideview mirrors, leftside manual remote; tilt
steering column; remote fuel door and tailgate releases;
intermittent wipers; rear wiper/washer; rear heater ducts; front
console with dual cup holders; front door map pockets; cargo
area light; cargo securing net; passenger visor vanity mirror;
6040 splitfolding rear seat back; AM/FM stereo 4-speaker radio
with cassette, seek and clock.
SW2:as above, plus: twin-cam engine; sport-tuned
suspension; specific exterior trim; cargo area cover with
storage bag; driver's lumbar and cushion height adjustments;
adjustable front head-restraints; full cloth upholstery; radio
Standard (SW1): 1.9 litre 4-cylinder, OHC, 100 h.p. at 5000
r.p.m.; 114 poundfeet torque at 2400 r.p.m.
Standard (SW2):1.9 litre 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16-valve; 124 h.p. at
5600 r.p.m.; 122 poundfeet torque at 4800 r.p.m.
5-speed manual; front-wheel drive
Manufacturer's figures: WB 2601 mm; L 4492 mm; W 1695
mm; H 1385 mm; front headroom 999 mm; rear headroom 983
mm; trunk capacity 705 litres rear seat up, 1379 litres rear
seat folded; fuel tank 48.5 L; weight (with air conditioning,
as equipped) 1151 kg
PRICE, AS TESTED
SW2 model: $21,303 (excluding extra charges and taxes)
OPTIONS ON TEST CAR
4-speed electronic automatic transmission: $1,000; 1SH package,
includes cruise control, passengerside power mirror, power
windows with expressdown for driver, power locks with remote
keyless entry: $1,150; air conditioning: $1,090; anti-lock
brakes and traction assist system: $915; aluminum road wheels:
Freight and pre-delivery inspection: $400; federal air
conditioning excise tax: $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax:
Dual air bags: std.; anti-lock brakes: opt; meets 1997 U.S.
sideimpact standard: yes; theft deterrent system: none;
height-adjustable shoulder belts std.
TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 9.8 L/100 km; highway: 6.7 L/100 km; estimated maximum
range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 724 km
Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler
and tailpipe — $133; front fender — $280; taillight unit:
Entire car — 3 years, 60,000 km, includes 30 day/2500 km
refund/exchange guarantee (no deductible, no transfer fee);
catalytic converter and powertrain control modules 8 years,
130,000 km; rust-through 6 years, 160,000 km; roadside
assistance 3 years, 60,000 km
Toyota Corolla — starting at 20 grand, it should be (and is) the
class of a very limited
"small-wagon" field; Ford Escort — the rest of the field, and an
all-new one this spring should give Saturn a tougher run
Bold face denote's Kenzie's rating: 14: yeah, it's a car;
56: it's got price going for it;
78: good value; 9: great value; 10: where do I
1996 Saturn SW2
About a dozen years ago, General Motors chairman Roger Smith