Open Menu
Open Menu

Gone but not forgotten, the first Saturns are now eligible for AACA judging

Published in

1991 Saturn models, including the SC (left), SL1 (center) and SL2 (right). All photos copyright 2016 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive.

By the early 1980s, General Motors was once again ready to take on the imports to prove that an American manufacturer could build affordable, desirable and high-quality subcompacts. Though the bold experiment took until 1991 to reach consumers, the end result, the Saturn S-series, was indeed a different kind of automobile from a different kind of car company.  Twenty-five years after Saturn’s debut (and, sadly, seven years after its demise), the first S-series models are now eligible for Antique Automobile Club of America judging.

1991 Saturn SC

1991 Saturn SC coupe.

While GM chairman Roger Smith often gets credit for the birth of Saturn, it was Alex C. Mair, then the vice president of GM Advanced Engineering, who conducted a small car study on what it would take to target import brands on quality and desirability. Phil Garcia, the chief designer at GM’s Advanced Design Studio, is credited with suggesting the Saturn name; after all, if the Saturn V rocket was good enough to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon, perhaps a domestic automobile bearing the same name could beat imports to the top of the sales and customer satisfaction rankings.

1991 Saturn SL2 sedan

1991 Saturn SL2 sedan.

It was Smith, however, who proclaimed that GM would have a brand capable of beating imports in quality before he retired from the automaker’s helm. The first Saturn prototype was shown to the market in 1984, but it would be another six years before the cars would reach Saturn dealers, and then, the general public. Smith would be around to see the first car delivered in 1990, but would retire shortly afterward.

In 1985, GM established Saturn as a separate subsidiary, and appointed Joseph Sanchez its first president. A GM vice president since 1979, Sanchez had extensive experience in the management of foreign divisions, but had served as general manager of Oldsmobile from 1983-’85. His background made him unique, an insider with an outsider’s perspective, and the general belief was that Sanchez would embrace technology while eschewing the red tape that could potentially kill a new and unproven GM division. Just three weeks after his appointment as Saturn president, Sanchez died of a heart attack at the age of 54.

1991 Saturn SL1 sedan

1991 Saturn SL1 sedan.

That left GM veteran and former Pontiac head Bill Hoglund in charge of the new Saturn division, with much work to do. Under Hoglund’s watch, the brand built a state-of-the-art production facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee, appointed a network of dealers and began to refer to Saturn as “a different kind of car company.” Identifying the sales process as a stumbling block to consumer satisfaction, Saturn implemented an innovative “no haggle” pricing policy, in which the sticker price was supposed to be the amount paid by each and every consumer.

Though some of Roger Smith’s marketing promises (including fuel economy of 45 MPG city and 60 MPG highway) never materialized, others did. The Saturn S-series models came to market with dent and rust-resistant polymer body panels (on vertical surfaces), as well as their own four-cylinder engines, cast using a lost foam process that saved on material cost, minimized tool wear and reduced machining time and expense. They also came with a previously unheard of money-back guarantee, giving customers 30 days or 1,500 miles to return a Saturn S-series to the dealership for a refund, no questions asked.

1991 Saturn

The 124-horsepower, 1.9-liter double overhead-cam four-cylinder used in the 1991 SC and SL2; SL1 models received a 1.9-liter SOHC four good for 85 horsepower.

Customer satisfaction was a big part of Saturn’s focus in the early days, and one recall (to install a modified seat bracket) saw technicians visiting customers instead of the other way around. When 1,836 Saturn S-series models were found to have been manufactured with improperly formulated coolant, the brand replaced entire cars instead of simply replacing the engine or the cooling systems. While such actions were expensive, they also served to foster remarkable brand loyalty.

And remarkable customer satisfaction scores. In 1992, Saturn was the highest-ranked non-luxury brand in the J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Index, with defect rating on par with the best-performing models from Honda and Nissan. That year saw another milestone as well, with Saturn delivering its 100,000th automobile in March.

Sales climbed into 1993, a year that saw Saturn dealers deliver an average of 1,072 vehicles per franchise, considerably higher than second-place Honda, whose dealers delivered an average of 654 vehicles per showroom. For the first time, in May 1993, Saturn even turned a profit, and by the end of the calendar year would repeat this in every month except July (resulting in the brand’s first profitable year).

1991 Saturn SL2 sedan

1991 Saturn SL2 sedan.

Demonstrating what a phenomenon the marque had become, in 1994 Saturn held its first “Homecoming” at the Spring Hill plant, attended by 44,000 owners, while regional Homecoming events attracted another 130,000+ participants. Not all was well in Saturn-land, however; faced with declining profits across the board, GM opted to cut back on Saturn marketing and advertising, simultaneously delaying planned product updates. As a result, sales of Saturn automobiles fell from a high of 25,000 units per month in 1993 to 15,000 units per month in 1994.

1991 Saturn

Saturn SL1 interior.

In 1995, Saturn delivered its 1,000,000th S-series vehicle, and in 1996, the brand expanded into the Japanese market with the debut of six appointed dealers. That same year saw the announcement of a new model, the L-series, which would carry the brand into the mid-size segment. Unlike the S-series, it would be built in Wilmington, Delaware and not in Spring Hill, and also unlike the original Saturn, it would be based upon an existing (foreign) model, the Opel Vectra.

The Saturn L-series debuted in 1999, but proved to be an answer to a question that consumers simply weren’t asking.  The Vue SUV appeared in 2002, followed by the subcompact Ion (which replaced the S-series) in 2003. The Ion would go on to be the last Saturn model to use composite body panels, and by 2008, the year of GM’s Congressional hearings, there was little to differentiate Saturn from other brands within the GM family. The once-innovative division had become redundant, and faced with its own demise, GM could no longer afford superfluous brands.

1991 Saturn SL2

Saturn SL2 interior.

For a brief period in 2009, it appeared that automobile retail giant Penske would be Saturn’s lifeline, taking on the brand and its products, but none of the factories. In September of 2009, perhaps faced with the same issues that plagued potential buyers of Saab (namely, licensing and patent issues with GM), Penske backed away from the deal, and in October of 2009, Saturn ended production. One year later, in October of 2010, the brand was discontinued by GM.

Ultimately, Saturn did deliver on its promise of building a car that exceeded the quality of the imports, as documented by J.D. Power and Associates. Saturn also proved that an American-built subcompact could outsell the imports, too, at least for a brief period of time. Given these milestones, perhaps it’s best to remember Saturn for its achievements instead of its failings, and for its promise of what might have been.