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An Ode to Ye’ Olde Saturn

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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.
 
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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.
 
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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]

Currently there are "21 comments" on this Article:

  1. Eric Rood says:

    I also spend most of my college years in a Saturn, a $3000 SW2. The twin-cam engine was still slow, but it was good for an easy 40 mpg on the highway. It hauled my band's gear admirably and the speakers had some good distortion with the tape deck at Top Volume.

    Would buy again.

  2. facelvega says:

    I drove an SL1 for about 1000 miles on a rental once. It had no particular character behind the wheel, the interior creaked and groaned miserably from cheapo build quality, and it wasn't particularly comfortable. And as mentioned, molasses slow. It did get high 30s mileage, though, and was honest in its cheapness. Among dismal rentals in my life, I'd put it above the Avenger and the Cobalt, but way below everything else. It made me feel bad for those kids in college that got Saturns instead of the ubiquitous Civics and Corollas.

    I can imagine, however, that I would've grown to love an SL1– I'm the kind of guy who falls more in love with objects when their service life has become unusual and they have the patina of heavy use. I get my shoes and boots resoled, for instance. This sounds like that kind of car.

  3. sc296 says:

    i am a 17 year old in high school and my saturn sc2 coupe has been a great little car. it gets good mileage, handles well and looks good.

    • LEROOOY says:

      That was my high school car as well! It's the easiest-to-maintain front-wheel-drive car I've ever been affiliated with, which is good, because the weak cooling system and oil burning required a lot of hood lifting. But it was attractive, quick enough, and pretty hoonable.

      Fun fact: The shop manual doesn't say so, but you CAN replace the clutch without taking the engine out of the car…just unbolt some stuff and sliiide that transaxle over.

  4. MVEilenstein says:

    My wife was just asking me about Saturns this morning. She's not a car person at all, but even she could recognize that they were economical, reliable, and cheap.

  5. ummagumma82 says:

    A few years back, a friend of mine had a 2001 SL2. Interestingly, it had a manual transmission but otherwise had every single option. I can't imagine they made very many like that. It even had leather, although it looked and felt more like the seats had been dunked in a vat of Plasti-Dip.

    It was dead reliable, had…acceptable performance with the 5-speed, and got 30-35 mpg *in town*. He still got rid of it after 6 months, though, because it was so damn boring and felt so cheap.

  6. Rich says:

    I had two. The 1st a '92 SL1, which I kept for about a year but liked it enough to trade up for a '95 SL2…which was a much better car. It had all the power windows/locks/sunroof…acceptable performave with the twin-cam 5 speed manual, and I must say was a good looking car with body-colored bumpers. They car was a light purpleish color and looked great. Unfortunately it was stolen and trashed…made me pretty sad when it was found in the police impound lot. I took great care of it and it never once died or gave me trouble for the 115k miles that I had it for.

  7. Maymar says:

    Between two aunts, we had something like 5 SLs of varying years in our family (plus a token Vue and LS), and they were both very happy with them,

    Plus, as I recall, these were pretty decent in One Lap of America, for econocars at least. With a stick, it'd be a fun little beater.

  8. dukeisduke says:

    I liked the first-gen SL2. And, Saturn stood behind their cars – when they had a run of cars with bad coolant (reportedly from Texaco), they took the cars back and scrapped them, replacing the defective cars with new ones.

  9. Sjalabais says:

    "This little Saturn taught me more and more about wrenching, and gave me close-up lessons on what parts make a car run."

    - My extraordinary people skills tell me you're an optimist.

  10. zsvdkhnorc says:

    Three years ago, I was newlywed, my mother-in-law had cancer, and their roof was leaking. Making matters worse, my mother-in-law was the only driver in a family of four that included three adults. My wife had freshly graduated college, and my first business prospect for which I had left college had just fallen through. We jumped in my 97 Taurus and drove out to my inlaws in CA.

    When we got there, the first thing we found was a letter from the county complaining about the length of their grass and five broken lawnmowers. That set the standard for the trip. My wife spent most of her time on the roof, and I spent most of my time split between fixing things and teaching my brother-in-law how to drive.

    He learned on my Taurus, and passed his test on the same. The differences between NJ and CA documents led to some confusion, as our registration looks like their insurance, and we put our inspection stickers in the windshield.

    The point of this is that, what stood out in that whole trip, was the 285,000 mile 1995 Saturn SL1 with a recent manual transmission rebuild. My inlaws couldn't get the thing past CA smog, so I set to fixing it. With the help of a retired, nocturnal former mobile mechanic who lived behind them, I learned quite a few things. I worked my way through the various sensors and valves in the emissions system before he showed me how to do a 'stone age' compression test with your thumb, at which he concluded that one cylinder was at spec, two were around 30 psi, and one was at maybe 2 psi. We did a 'magic ring job' using kerosene and an air compressor, and the thing came back to life.

    It actually made the advertised horsepower! (That is, I was able to get factory 0-60 times out of it.) The hydrocarbon emissions were still slightly high, so he offered to weld in a new cat if I could find one. At well over 315,000 miles, that car is still seeing intermittant use from my inlaws now.

  11. failboat says:

    my sister got a saturn for her first car in high school, probably around 2003. I believe its a 96 sl1. little old lady owned, it only had 30k miles when she got it.

    she and her husband still have that little car, I believe now with around 80-90k miles, plenty of scrapes from street parking incidents at college. they just add gas and oil and it keeps chugging along. he recently replaced all the belts, hoses, and fluids as preventive maintenance. she's driving a newer CX-9 now, but my brother in law dd's the little saturn. they love that little pos.

  12. krazykarguy says:

    Ahhh, a Saab 9-2x, you say? Good choice.

  13. I Think Not says:

    In the summer of 2002, I got sick of the impossibly dogged combination of the 1.6L/3spd auto in my 1996 Prizm. So I sold it and, with cash left over, bought a 1998 Saturn SL.

    Not an SL1, or an SL2. An SL. The only convenience feature it had was A/C, because I lived in Georgia and no car sells in the south without A/C, no matter how basic. At least by that point, Saturn had graced the 1.9L SOHC with MFI, which boosted the grunt to a time-warping 100 powers and 114 torques (instead of the 85p/105tq of the earlier TBI engine).

    My favorite thing about this car, though, was its simplicity. Manual transmission aside, it also had no power steering, windows, or locks. That manual steering rack, combined with no ABS and no rear sway bar, meant the car was a handful on the autocross track. In a good way, though. I learned a ton about car control with no nannies whatsoever. Every control at my behest was directly attached to a mechanical system with no electronic intervention in between. At the tight autocross tracks the Middle GA SCCA would set up (one of the organizers had a prepped Pinto), I was only about 1-2s off the pace of Corvettes and Porsches that would sometimes attend our little Sunday gatherings.

    The rear drum brakes were fine because it isn't as though those do much of anything on a car that, on the scale at Silver Dollar Raceway in Reynolds, GA, was just 2340lb. Yep, I drag raced it, too. Just once, because I wanted to see what it (and I) could do. I managed a 16.8@80mph best on Reynold's slightly uphill 1/4 mile. I managed to "beat" an 87 Camaro with a somewhat-built 305, but only because he redlighted — naturally he was much faster.

    It was a fun car to thrash, and I owned it from 100k-135k miles. Never used a drop of oil or had a head gasket issue, either, which is uncommon for a Saturn, but I believe it was my carefully maintained schedule of regular cheapo oil changes, daily redlining, no-lift 1-2 and 2-3 shifts, and numerous top speed runs (all the way up to the atmospheric 104mph limiter) that kept my engine in top nick where others were puking their seals all over the engine bay.

  14. CABEZAGRANDE says:

    I have so many good memories of Saturns. Many of the best memories I have of high school involved one of my best friends POS SL2 (that was almost identical to yours, although much more beat up), and anothers significantly less beat up second gen SL2. Ans like you said, I learned a hell of a lot helping them wrench on those things. They may not have been the best cars by any stretch of the imagination, but they reliably kept us mobile and able to make so many good memories, so I understand how you could love them :)

  15. salguod says:

    We had a '92 SL2 that we bought in '94 or '95. I loved that car. Good looks, decent power (124 was good for the day) and good handling. Bought it with 35K and it was already using a quart of oil every 1500 miles. It didn't get any worse through about 75K when we sold it to get rid of a car payment. (I got an old '88 Celebrity 2 door beater.) It was a buzzy little car, but good looking and fun.

    The 4 speed auto was ahead of the curve at the time, I believe, as most small cars were still using 3 speeds.

    '92 was the first full year for Saturn, they sold a few '91s to rental outfits only I believe. Ironically I now own the final year Saturn, one of a few thousand 2010 Outlooks, again originally only sold as rentals.

    I loves the Saturn concept and the amazing community they built around small cars in the days before web forums. Even the best loved small cars today can't come close to the kind of enthusiasm that would bring hundreds of owners to the factory for a 'homecoming'. Once it went from 'A Different Kind of Car Company' to just another division of GM, the magic was gone.

  16. ThirdPedalGirl says:

    It sucked a lot less in 5-speed version. I actually really liked it. In an era where domestic econboxes royally sucked, if you could even find one at all, it was a bright-light alternative to the ever-present Toyonda. And the whole cult-ish Saturn company schtick was kind of fun, if you didn't mind drinking a little Kool-Aid.

    We took our '92 SL, bought in 1996, from 95,000 miles up to 212,000 miles, replacing the O2 sensor every 18 months and adding a quart of oil every 1000 miles once we passed the 180,000 mile mark or so. But it never stranded us. Ever. Husband drove it Milwaukee to Chicago without a functioning clutch to trade it in in 2004. Parked it in the service bay at the dealership where we bought a minivan, walked away. Lot jockey probably got a good surprise when he went to start it. I ripped off the side emblem to keep before we traded it in. Still have a key, too.

    We used to load it up on Techron and pray to get it through emissions testing…

    Funny how the crappy cars are the ones that make the best memories. It's the car I rode in leaving the church on my wedding day, and we took that thing from Wisconsin to Oregon and back, zero problems.

  17. Wendell34 says:

    I bought a 95 SL brand new. It was my first new car. It cost 10,000 out the door and I got the payments down to $115 a month with a healthy down. I was in my last year of college. I'm surprised to see the comments about oil usage and head gaskets and slowness because I had absolutely zero problems with the car. Granted, I did get it new, so I got to experience it before it was worn out. I had the manual transmission and I always thought the car was incredibly zippy. There is a curvy, very little traveled road by my house and that car was actually a ton of fun to drive on that road. It was the bare-bones SL and I actually kinda loved that about it. It was kinda like driving a go cart. I kept it for 15 trouble free years. Seriously. not one major issue. Not one strandable offense. Not one expensive fix. Then, the plastic radiator cracked on a trip to the mountains. It happened while driving and I didn't notice it right away. When I did notice it, it had already gotten a little hot. I drove the rest of the way home after trying to patch it ,stopping and re-filling water every 30 minutes or so. Didn't get hot again but kept showing the coolant getting low. Got it home, got it fixed and kept driving it on short trips. Didn't blow the head gasket but I always felt like I hurt the car. Next time I went to smog it, it wouldn't pass. I started to notice the oil smelled like gas and would thin out (still didn't leak.) Felt like something major was coming and decided (also aided by the fact my wife couldn't drive a stick) that it was time for a new car. Repairs to get a 15 year old Saturn SL to pass smog weren't going to be worth it. I kept it around for a while, thinking I was still going to do something with it. The guy that cuts my lawn every two weeks for 20 bucks kept asking if he could buy it. I kept saying no. I kept getting notes on it from people that wanted to buy it. I kept ignoring them.Then city code enforcement came and said I needed to move the car or update the registration (I had let the registration lapse.) It still ran fine. So I ended up selling it to Eduardo for $300 and 20 lawn cuttings. His wife still drives it around town. I wish I would have kept it for 4 more months because I started doing 24 Hours of Lemons soon after. I think that would have been a perfect car.
    I scan craigslist for 95 SL manuals all the time. I never see them. I may have been one of the few people to buy an SL. There may not be any of them still running. But I can't help but think that Saturn may have been at their absolute peak with that car. Because I seriously loved that car.

  18. Slow_Joe_Crow says:

    The beigeness of that interior is a dead ringer for the 97 SL2 grandma gave us. After 11 years and 100,000 plus miles I can't complain. It still hauls 4 people, 6 bicycles and a week's worth of stuff over a 6,000 foot mountain with the AC blowing cold., albeit slowly. Gas mileage is meh due to the roof rack, it uses a lot of oil and still has a mild case of Saturn reverse slam despite a fluid change and a long run but I'll keep it until something major blows up because it is an automotive cockroach.

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