You’re a college graduate, with student loans and need something reliable and cheap to get around in. What do you seek out? Like any gearhead, I spent hours on Craigslist and other online classified posting sites for the perfect beater err. second car to drive everyday. I ended up with the keys to a $2,000 Saturn. Why on earth would someone buy an 18-year-old, forgotten orphan child of the GM family? What car nut buys a 1995 Saturn SL1? Me.
Having done research on these cars and always having been intrigued by its sharp 1990s styling (no sarcasm there), I sprung for a nearly-mint, low mileage, rust-free gold SL1 at a local dealership. Good grief was this thing slow. Its’ 1.9-liter four-cylinder made 100 horsepower new…..”new” being the key word. It took me longer to prepare and brew a cup of Maxwell House coffee than it did for this little old Saturn to crawl towards 55mph on the interstate. But I still loved it. Its’ sluggish four-speed automatic was quite possibly the worst transmission I’ve ever laid hands upon. Roll-down windows, non-ABS drum-breakes, manual locks and mirrors and cassette player (what’s that?), made this a basic little car. And I still loved it. The vast majority of cars made within the past few years are just too busy and complex. No disatrous infotainment systems, no auto start/stop this and that, no touch-sensitive gizmos or over the top safety nancies. This SL1 was simple to operate, easy to drive, and effortless to work on. Spark plugs and wires took me under ten minutes to do. A thermostat and engine coolant temperature sensor were easier to replace than taking the battery out of my father’s 2007 Honda Odyssey. This little Saturn taught me more and more about wrenching, and gave me close-up lessons on what parts make a car run. The knowledge I gained –which may have been as a result of frustration at times– was beyond worth it.
Now, this isn’t a fairy tale because like many older Saturn SLs, it guzzled oil and had a head gasket slowly clinging on to its last leg of life. “You should invest in Shell or Mobil,” co-workers at my day job often joked, when I explained how my car went through nearly 4 quarts of oil in 1,000 miles. Yikes, you read that right. I took to the fourms for advice, fixed and cleaned up a few things to slow down the oil burning and the SL1 kept chugging on. I didn’t mind putting the time and money into keeping that little car running strong, eager to teach myself more about maintaining a daily driver. It was fun. People often commented on how good of shape the car was in, the once-a-week car washses and waxing helped.
On six-hour road trips to Northern Michigan, the car would cruise like a champ at (eventually) 75mph, and an entirely new exhaust system made the plastic-ridden car actually enjoyable –and quiet– to drive. Not a chick magnet at all but it could haul around three of my friends comfortably, a weekend’s worth of camping car, plow through Wisconsin snowstorms towards ski hills, and get me up to 44mpg during highway driving. Take that goofy Prius things. Even on -23 degree winter mornings, the SL1 cranked right up without hesitation. Every day this car proved its dependability. The high gas milage was great, which kind of off-set the number of dollar bills I’d throw away at 1qt jugs of motor oil. She drank oil like a drunken cougar out on the town for ladies night, but happily sipped gasoline, often times getting better gas mileage than newer hybrids and fuel-misers on the road today.
Despite this car’s impressive reliability, the minor “oil-sludge-in-the-coolant tank” head gasket fiasco continued to get worse, and I had my eyes set on a Saab 9-2x. So after 7,000 miles I threw it up on Craigslist, sold it to a guy who had had two Saturn SLs and ran a high-school auto shop, and bid farewell to a trusty companion. All this writing for some crappy old Saturn? Think what you want, but when you put in an extensive amount of time into cleaning, driving and wrenching on a car –any car– you’re going to be sad when it drives away with a happy new owner. To this day, I still miss that champagne Saturn Sl1, I’ll see you again soon…in my garage.
[Images: Copyright ©2013 Hooniverse/Robby DeGraff]