Hooniverse Parting Shot: The Saturn Division; GM's Hope for the Future.

What started out as a division with a cult-like following ended up another irrelevant brand within the GM hierarchy. This is the story of how GM fumbled a golden opportunity to reinvent itself over the last 20+ years.

The First Saturn, with Ed Stemple, and Roger Smith. (Who can ID the other two?)

Almost twenty years ago, a new division was launched within the behemoth General Motors empire, and its purpose was to bring back disenfranchised buyers who refused to shop at Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Buick dealerships. The division was named Saturn, and it was going to be run differently than any other GM division. The premise of the Saturn brand was very simple, they did not share anything with GM; the cars were exclusively Saturn, the power train was exclusively Saturn, the manufacturing plant was exclusively Saturn, and the dealerships were stand alone Saturn stores. You could not find one GM logo connected to the entire brand when it was launched, right down to the keys. But one thing that stood out in the consumers mind was how they were treated at the dealerships with its no-haggle pricing policy and low pressure sales tactics. So how did a division with so much promise become the also ran within GM in less than 20 years?
The Original Saturn S Sedan was a direct copy of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Sedan.

Saturn cars were quite unremarkable when they debuted in the fall of 1990. They shared absolutely nothing with any other GM car at that time, with a space frame design (pioneered in the Pontiac Fiero), dent-resistant flexible plastic body panels, and using their own design for the power train. The original “S” series was introduced as a four-door sedan or a two-door coupe, available with two distinct trim levels. The SL1 features a SOHC 1.9-liter four cylinder with 85-horsepower, comparable with other small cars at that time. The SL2 featured a DOHC 1.9-liter version of the same engine, only with a power rating of 124-horsepower. The Coupe was available only with the DOHC for the first two years then a less expensive version of the coupe was introduced. Two years later, Saturn introduced a station wagon version of the SL, rounding out the model lineup that was basically the same for the next 11 years. However unremarkable the designs were, they started attracting buyers.

The automotive press wasn’t all that impressed by the product, stating that it was just an ordinary car with average handling, average fuel mileage, and with a rather noisy, unrefined engine, especially in the DOHC version. While the basic reviews of the Saturn were lukewarm at best, it was the buying experience that brought most of the success of the brand, with a whole new approach in retailing vehicles. It started with carefully choosing the right dealers. Each Saturn store was set up as a stand-alone dealership in which the overall design of the dealership had to follow key design parameters set by the division. Each of these items included square footage, interior layout, and exterior design right down to the furnishings. These retailers also had to follow the one-price mantra in which there was a low-pressure, no-haggle pricing structure. The story behind this was said to be a study of consumer preference in which many participants would rather have a root canal done than step foot in a showroom to purchase a car. The Saturn Way actually relaxed car shoppers and they bought almost 50,000 units right off the bat and within two years more than 250,000 of what was essentially a one-car brand.
Some of the people who went to the Spring Hill Homecoming events.

So successful was the Saturn branding effort that people developed a cult-like following to the brand. In June of 1994, Saturn held the first Spring Hill homecoming, as a tribute to the first five years of manufacturing Saturns. Over 38,000 Saturn owners were in attendance with one Saturn SL2 owner proclaiming, “Just like Woodstock, without the patchouli oil.” The period in Saturn history between 1992 and 1996 brought most of their accolades. They were awarded as best small car by the PBS program Motorweek for two years running, Intellichoice heaped numerous awards including Best Value (multiple times), and lowest cost of ownership.
It was also the first time in which Saturn ranked number one in new car sales per retailer, a feat that no other domestic nameplate held in over a decade. The company was also very active in community organizations and charitable work, often closely aligned with the general demographic or those who purchased Saturns. By 1995 Saturn sold over a million cars, and introduced their no-haggle approach to the used car market, cementing their relationship with car buyers who were looking for something other than a small sedan, wagon, or sports coupe.
A cutaway image of the EV-1

By 1996, it looked like Saturn could do no wrong, and one of the most innovative products made its way onto Saturn showrooms on January of 1996, the first electric car available to the public in over eight decades, the EV-1. This was the first car that was designed to be all-electric by General Motors, and what better place to showcase this breakthrough car than at a breakthrough dealership chain. The EV-1 was available as a lease-only arrangement in the communities of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, and Sacramento, with a very limited program in Atlanta Georgia. EV-1 lessees were officially participants in a “real-world engineering evaluation” and market study into the feasibility of producing and marketing a commuter electric vehicle in select U.S. markets undertaken by GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicles group, according to that vast bastion of information, Wikipedia. The vehicles were to be serviced at select Saturn retailers, and the cars were not available for purchase after the lease expired.
A New Saturn at a Mock Up of a Saturn Dealership

All of the ever-hopeful exuberance of the EV-1 was quickly buried when GM ultimately viewed the program as unprofitable and successfully fought the CARB regulations that were instrumental in bringing the mandate for zero-emission vehicles. Environmentalists, one of Saturn’s core demographic group of buyers, found this action unconscionable. GM’s mishandling of the publicity swirling around the destruction of most of the 800 EV-1s that were produced didn’t help either, and this may be seen at the turning point of the franchise, though it’s best sales years were still ahead of it.
A Display at one of Saturn's Homecoming Celebrations

Read part 2 of the Saturn Saga tomorrow, and in the meantime, follow my postings over at Automotive Traveler.

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  1. lilwillie Avatar

    Their first mistake was saying they didn't share anything with GM. Right from the start they were bullshitting the customers. So much of the Saturn was GM. They weren't, aren't, bad cars. They just did nothing awesome. Many things they didn't even do well. They just were there. I could pass by a hundred of them on the highway and never notice one.

    1. CaptainZeroCool Avatar

      I think my Astra is awesome. But I have always been an Opel fan. I am weird.

      1. lilwillie Avatar

        No, you aren't weird, just loyal. Most times a car becomes junk is because the owners stop caring about it. Once it is just another annoyance to them the maintenance is skipped, repairs aren't made and the car goes to pot.
        I've got a few Saturn's come through and they have loyal owners, nice cars. I have a lot of Saturn's that meet a untimely death because the owners didn't like them at all. It's those cars that are hated but stay alive that make for a good car.

  2. Tanshanomi Avatar

    Saturn jumped the shark way back in 2000, with the introduction of the L-series. The moment they started selling cars that came off ordinary GM assembly lines, Saturn lost it's whole reason for existing; it became just a soulless GM nameplate. The L-series proved that GM never really had much confidence into in the whole Saturn philosophy — the space frame construction, the modular assembly line, the UAW partnership — that is what should have set Saturn apart, not the no-haggle Stepford Dealers that sold them. By the time Spring Hill Assembly became wholly owned by GM in 2004, it was obvious that the bold Saturn experiment had failed. Everything after that was just watching the brand erode away.

  3. dukeisduke Avatar

    Yes, the first Saturns were great cars, and the company proved their commitment to customers with their first recall. For those who don't remember, Saturn got a shipment of bad coolant (from Texaco, IIRC), which was put into something like 1800 cars. The coolant could cause engine damage, so Saturn started a recall. So what did Saturn do? Replace the coolant? Repair the cars? Replace the engines? No. They told affected owners to pick out another new Saturn, took the cars back, and scrapped them.
    Saturn had a lot of enemies from the start, namely Chevrolet Division. Chevrolet thought that GM should give them the money they used to start Saturn, so that Chevy could launch some new small cars. But keep in mind that Chevy's reputation at the time was in the toilet, and that money would have been wasted. And they were already building small cars, the craptastic Cavalier and Citation II.

  4. dukeisduke Avatar

    Oh, and it's Bob Stemple, not Ed Stemple.

  5. engineerd Avatar

    My parents had 3 or 4 Saturns throughout the mid-90s and early '00s. It all started when the Dodge Caravan my dad was driving needed it's 3rd transmission in less than 100,000 miles. He got the trans fixed then drove it across the street to the Saturn dealer (you can do that easily in the SoCal automarts) and traded it in on an SL1. Later he upgraded to an SL2 and gave my mom the SL1. When the SL1 was near death, it was traded in on another SL2. My aunt still drives that car. The only major problem with that car was the engine got sludged up just short of 100,000 miles. Since my dad had a long commute, he always got the extended warranty and the engine was replaced without any problem. They kept going back to the dealer because of the no-haggle, low pressure sales tactic.
    Saturns problems really started with a lack of new product. Sure, new product trickled in…the Vue, Sky and L-Series, but none of it — save for the Sky — was particularly interesting, and it was just a rebadged Pontiac/Opel. The interesting thing is, that starting with the Vue, Saturn was becoming the US-arm of Opel. Had they sped up that process, and brought the Opel Insignia/Saturn Aura and Opel/Saturn Astra over sooner, they could have captured more market share. Hell, they could have been well postitioned for the burgeoning US small car market with the Opel Corsa.
    Woulda Shoulda Coulda

  6. P161911 Avatar

    It seemed that the really big Saturn fans weren't really into cars all that much. I'm talking about the ones that would go to the Homecoming and such.
    The no haggle pricing thing is good for a certain portion of the market. Carmax sort of copied that model. I briefly worked at Carmax in the late 1990s. Same no haggle pricing on used cars and some new Chrysler products. As a salesman you got the same commission if you sold a $30,000 used car or a $8,000 used car, of course you got more of a commission for selling the warranty though. You knew if you sent someone to Carmax that they might not be getting the best deal in town, but they weren't going to get ripped off either. Same deal with Saturn. Not the best deal around most of the time, but they wouldn't try to stick you with $2000 worth of dealer installed options.

  7. dmilligan Avatar

    The Saturns always seemed to be a decent cars, but they never appealed to me or my family. We're mostly light truck people and that kept us from looking at Saturn for a primary vehicle. When we buy passenger cars, we tend to go back to the dealerships that we frequent and we usually buy cars that aren't "vanilla", and Saturn embodies vanilla. It's too bad they're gone for the people who like them.

  8. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    I'm firmly of the opinion that GM screwed Saturn by not letting them expand "upward" with their models.
    Loyal customers tend to go up a size/price bracket within a brand, and Saturn's many loyal customers had nowhere to go from their original Civic competitors but to an Accord or Camry. By the time they finally rev'ed the original lineup and brought in a bigger car, they'd already missed the handoff.

  9. straighteight Avatar

    By the time GM got around to making them really competitive in terms of design and quality, they realized they had a few too many divisions. Sad.

  10. coupeZ600 Avatar

    My brother-law, who's a Techno-Geek/Car-Geek, couldn't stop raving about his Saturn when we were looking to get a "family car". I looked it over and like many here found it to be O.K., but nothing special. When we later bought a Honda SW, he was actually offended. Cultist.

  11. blueplate Avatar

    Interesting article . . . I've read that the Oldsmobile design was actually copied from the Saturn studio, and the Oldsmobile had an earlier production schedule so it appeared in showrooms first.
    TTAC had a eulogy for Saturn last year, in which an anonymous commenter claimed last year:

    "Stylists working on the W-body Olds saw the Saturn under development and cribbed the wrap-around rear window and other details for the Cutlass. Oldsmobile stole from Saturn, not the other way around. But even with the delays in the introduction of the W-body, the Cutlass Supreme debuted before Saturn"

    So, not sure. I know I saw a lot more Saturns than Oldses in the early 1990s…

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