Hooniverse Parting Shot: The Saturn Division; How GM Lost the Recipe for Success.

With the loss of the EV-1 Electric Car, and with an aging platform in the form of the “S” Sedan, Coupe and Wagon, GM started tinkering with the Saturn Division by offering additional models, without really understanding the Saturn Customer.

The Saturn "L" Series Sedan
Introduction of new products to the Saturn Brand have been met with mixed results. The ill-fated Saturn L-Series (for Large Car) really wasn’t designed as a Saturn from the onset, but was itself a redesigned Opel Vectra, available in Europe for a number of years, only redesigned for US consumption. One of the first things GM did in the redesign was to add the famous dent-resistant plastic panels onto an existing body, and this was met with mixed results. The second miscalculation was the fact that the L-series was manufactured in another GM plant other than the Saturn Spring Hill, Tennessee plant. Within a year, the LS designation was changed to L100, L200, or L300 depending upon trim level. This was done because of a conflict between Ford (who produced the Lincoln LS at the time), and Toyota (which produced the Lexus LS). The “L” series was a moderate sales success, with production totaling over 400,000 cars during the six-year production cycle.
The First Generation VUE
While the LS is viewed as a mixed bag, the Saturn VUE was an actual hit. This was one of the first compact crossover utility vehicles (CUV) designed by GM, and was exclusively a Saturn, at least for the short-term. The vehicle was designed to use the famous dent-resistant panels but utilized a number of GM (and non-GM) engines over the course of the first generation’s six-year run. This was Saturn’s best-selling vehicle, with sales of over 80,000 units annually virtually from its introduction. The excellent Ecotech I4 has been used as the base engine, but starting in 2004, an optional V-6 used was supplied by Honda and included their automatic transmission. To help heal over the public relations disaster of the handling of the EV-1, Saturn introduced their Green-Line VUE in 2007. This is a mild hybrid version of the best selling Vue using an assist hybrid drive that is less complicated than the systems used by Toyota and Ford. Fuel mileage increased by 20% over the base VUE. Things looked good for the Saturn brand, but that was before all of the infighting between divisions.
The Chevrolet Equinox, a Stretched Vue Platform!
Since its inception, stories have circulated concerning Saturn usurping resources from GM’s traditional divisions, especially Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Oldsmobile’s fortunes had been declining long before the introduction of Saturn (the Olds Cutlass once was the nation’s best-sell car line) and Oldsmobile tried to use Saturn’s “no haggle” pricing policy. In reality, Oldsmobile was saddled with many older, free-standing dealerships along with a product and marketing strategy that lacked a clear message. “This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign broke the golden rule in advertising by using a negative connotation as a signature line for a product while not defining the current product thus trashing equity in the brand’s historic significance. No, the infighting clearly is defined by the wholesale capture of the GM Theta Platform, first by Chevrolet, and then shamelessly marketing a virtual carbon copy through Pontiac. Remember at this time the Chevrolet Cavalier has been virtually unchanged since its introduction in 1982 with just three updates during its lifespan; many within Chevrolet felt that valuable resources given to Saturn would have been better spent on the blue Bowtie division. Chevrolet demanded and received a copy of the Vue in the form of the Chevrolet Equinox in 2004 to replace the slow selling Tracker, and Pontiac received their version shortly after the Aztek was discontinued.
The not well received Ion
Although this was a blow to Saturn, it was still a best-selling brand with their retailers selling more cars per location than virtually any other brand, including some of the vaunted imports (GM purposely restricted the number of franchises awarded, following the successful import business model). Even the ill-advised “S” series replacement, the Saturn Ion, didn’t dampen sales, though it did nothing for the core Saturn customer. It was introduced in the fall of 2002, and was the first vehicle to use the Delta platform, that went on to underpin the new Chevrolet Cobalt and the Opel Astra as well as the Chevy HHR. The set of access doors for the Coupe version was a good idea, but the coupe version of the Ion was never as sleek as its predecessor. All in all, it was a rather average re-design that didn’t actually improve on the original S-series.
The Saturn Relay, the turning point for Saturn.
There was a marked shift for the Saturn brand during the Autumn of 2004 with the introduction of its first and only minivan, the Saturn Relay. This was the first Saturn vehicle that did away with the dent-resistant polymer side panels and was the first Saturn that was a virtual badge-engineered copy of an existing Chevrolet or Pontiac. The Relay was a thinly disguised version of the 1997 through 2004 GM Minivans with updates to improve the previous van’s disastrous crash ratings by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This van was also introduced at Buick showrooms–with a similar sales outcome–as each version looked exactly the same between divisions, right down to the headlight buckets with little to distinguish each from the other variants. However, the beginning of the end can be traced to one very important sales event held during the summer of 2005. It was the “GM Employee Pricing for Everyone” sales event. This virtually destroyed the successful no-haggle pricing policy–so heavily guarded at the Saturn division–and overnight Saturn’s most identifiable marketing element was wiped out. While clearing the lots at all GM dealers that summer and setting sales records for many products, it did nothing for the dealers as it eroded their profit margins–including the Chevrolet Corvette and all Cadillac models–catching GM flatfooted when their two domestic rivals matched the sales scheme a month later and proceeded to beat GM at its own game when the corporate giant started to run out of inventory.
The Well Received Saturn Aura
It was in this aftermath that Saturn introduced one of its most promising products, the much acclaimed Aura Sedan, in the summer of 2006 as a 2007 model. The Epsilon platform was shared between sister divisions and underpinned the Pontiac G6, the Chevrolet Malibu, the Saab 9-3, and the Opel Vectra. The styling wasn’t exactly cutting-edge but was clean and unoffensive. The one major blunder was the fact that this new sedan wasn’t available with a four-cylinder engine until the next model year, which did nothing for the “aura” of economy made famous at Saturn. Although named North American Car of the Year in 2007, its launch was hampered by an insufficient marketing budget, confused positioning, and finally by the introduction the following year of the Chevy Malibu.
The Second Generation VUE
That has been somewhat rectified with the introduction of the Aura Green Line, which is shared with the Vue Green Line. For 2008, Saturn introduced a redesigned VUE, which is just a re-badged version of the Opel Antera designed by the GM Daewoo South Korean facility and produced in Mexico, thereby bypassing the entire Saturn process. The Saturn Outlook was introduced for the 2007 model year and is basically a re-badged version of the highly acclaimed Buick Enclave, the GMC Acadia, and the Chevrolet Traverse this year. Only the Traverse is manufactured at the former Saturn facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee, while the rest are made at a plant in Lansing, Michigan.
The Saturn Sky. It's too bad this was discontinued.
The last two Saturns include the Sky, which is an everything-but-in-name-only Pontiac Solstice, and the Saturn Astra, which is nothing more than an imported Opel Astra with a badge change. The last two products were desperate attempts to spice up Saturn’s lackluster image, but GM lost the recipe to success a long time ago. In the case of the Sky, in retrospect wouldn’t have it been best for both Pontiac to sell the roadster version and Saturn the coupe? Was this just another misstep and a lost opportunity? These last two moves virtually turned Saturn into another clone of a GM division with lookalike cars offered by other GM dealers. At the same time, under increasing stress in the marketplace, the vaunted Saturn retail experience suffered as well. There became nothing special about Saturn any more and a “New kind of Car Company” had been homogenized into “Like Everything Before” Under bankruptcy, the GM reorganization forced GM to shed itself of redundant, unprofitable brands–Pontiac, Hummer, Saab, and Saturn–allowing it to concentrate its resources on its remaining brands, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC. While it can be argued that of all of GM’s brands entering bankruptcy, GMC was the most redundant, a case could be made for the decision to slim down to the final four brands with Buick and GMC combined together, giving those dealerships that survived the painful closing process a nearly full range of mid-sized cars, crossovers, SUVs, and trucks to form a viable channel of distribution. But expect that overlap, where it exists with the Enclave and Acadian, to be eliminated as even this channel will ultimately go on a diet as well.
One of the first Saturn Sedans
In the aftermath of the collapse of the GM-Penske deal, there actually may be a sigh of relief at General Motors headquarters at the Ren Center in downtown Detroit. Think about it: in three years after GM stops supplying cars to Saturn, did GM really want to be competing against a tightly-focused Saturn dealer network housed in mostly newer facilities–none are more than 25 years old–fortified with a line-up of world class small cars? And the same question begs to be asked at Renault-Nissan; did they want to be supplying cars to an independent network competing at the entry-level with its existing Nissan network here in the US? The question that might be asked is if Saturn was cut loose and independent of GM, why wouldn’t GM continue to supply vehicles to Saturn after the initial agreement was met? Was this a stipulation of their bailout and subsequent bankruptcy? But with that said, the decision to wind down Saturn, once a bold experiment, is now seen as a lost opportunity for GM to have reinvented itself 20 years ago. It is a sad fate for those dealers and owners that invested so much into the success of the brand. Read more of my Recently Deceased and Retrospective Posts at Automotive Traveler.

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