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May 28, 2009

So Long, Saturn

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe the title of this piece is premature. General Government Motors hasn't officially pulled the plug on its Saturn brand, but might by the time you read this (I'm drafting this posting 15 May).

As a car-mad kid I used to draw imaginary automobiles (still do, matter of fact). Pre-high school, I concocted brand names for some of these doodling projects. I recall that, for sports cars, I came up with the name "Siena" which I got by looking at a map of Italy -- Italian sports cars being hot stuff even in the days when Detroit ruled the automobile world. Another imaginary brand was "Saturn" which I selected because the planet of the same name was really cool looking: awesome, even.

Many years later, along came Roger Smith who, as GM Chairman and CEO made it his mission to shake up the corporation. As the Wikipedia link above indicates, many of his initiatives worked out poorly, to say the least.

One project was a new, innovative small car called the Saturn. The link lays out the history of the brand, so read it for the details; I'll toss in my own take here.

My dim memory is that the Saturn was supposed to be something pretty special. Rather than being a GM division, it originally was a semi-separate company that had its own deal with the UAW union as well as a specially-built factory in Tennessee, far from the automobile-intensive Detroit area labor market. The idea was to start with a clean sheet of paper and meld the best of American and Japanese practices. The company had its own dealer network where prices were set by Saturn and there would be none of the horse-trading hassle unpopular with many prospective car buyers. This last point was actually a nice move from a public relations standpoint; I know of a few buyers who considered it key in their decision to buy a Saturn. On the other hand, trade-ins opened the door for horse-trading practices, so I wonder what the buyer experience was under that circumstance.

The hype regarding the car itself was less that that for Ford's famously unsuccessful Edsel, but it was enough that I was curious as to whether GM could actually exceed Japanese cars by a noticeable margin.

Saturn prototype, 1984, Roger Smith at the left.

The first-series Saturn of the 1990s

Neither the prototype nor the initial production version impressed me, though they were better than other GM small cars such as the Chevy Cavalier. I test-drove one once, back in the mid 90s, and was even less impressed. In those days, most small cars equipped with automatic transmissions were underpowered, the little motors having to rev away while trying to push transmission fluid to the point where the car would actually move decently. The Saturn was no exception, yet it needed to be exceptional.

In recent years Saturn was melded back into GM. The current crop of cars and SUVs is a mix of badge-engineered (I exaggerate slightly) domestic models and Opels from Germany. Even so, I consider the present Saturn product line to be the best the brand has ever had. But it seems too late to save the situation. Perhaps if GM were healthier, Saturn might have been turned into something viable instead of a problem of two decades' standing.

My Monday morning quarterbacking position is that GM should never have launched the Saturn, instead putting a major effort into creating a truly desirable small Chevrolet as a weapon to fend off the Japanese and (later) the Koreans. I'm pretty sure this tactic would have been less costly, if nothing else.

Conclusion: I don't miss the Saturn at all (I miss Oldsmobile and will miss Pontiac). And it's not just because GM swiped my brilliant idea for a car brand name.



posted by Michael at May 28, 2009


When the Sky roadster came out a few years ago, many Saturn dealers conveniently forgot that they were supposed to sell cars at a stated, no-haggle price and began engaging in good, old-fashioned price gouging. Some buyers were charged several thousand dollars over sticker.

Posted by: Peter on May 28, 2009 2:24 PM

How 'bout getting rid of ALL of the self-competing "lines" at GM and just settling under one name? The Pontiac Firebird is exactly the same car as the Chevrolet Camaro, aside from some minor styling cues. There are a number of other crossovers for which there are no purposes aside to fan the fires of fan wars.

Nissan does the same thing with the Infiniti line, but they do so with the purpose. As I explained to my wife: the 2010 Infiniti G35 is the exact same car as the 2013 Nissan Altima. You're just paying twice as much to beta test new technologies and features a few years in advance...and maybe standard leather seats, too. The Chevy/Pontiac/Buick silliness serves no real purpose aside to increase inefficiency.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on May 29, 2009 1:02 PM

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