Saturn R.I.P.

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

The day the odometer on my 1998 Saturn SL2 rolled past 196,000 miles, General Motors announced it was shooting the brand in the head.  That doesn’t affect my loyalty to the family ride, but it says something sad about the conflict between commerce and excellence.  And about how the Not Invented Here syndrome wins out in the end.

I first heard of the Saturn project in 1988, when CIO Magazine (CIO standing for Chief Information Officer, the corporate officer responsible for information technology, not the labor organization) sent me to report on General Motors’ intention to build a “a  different kind of car company.” That was the company’s slogan, and indeed everything about it was different — including the fact that the long knives were already out and pointed in its direction at GM headquarters before a single car had been built.

Looking back on what I heard while I was gathering material for my article, I’m actually surprised the company has lasted this long.  A generation ago, GM’s CEO was asked why the company didn’t build a small car. “Small cars make small profits,” he replied. That attitude was evident when I was doing my interviewing for the CIO article, and it has persisted to this day.

GM has said it will stop building Saturns after 2010. Unless they’re planning to give away the 2010 cars, they may as well stop building them now. I can’t imagine who would buy a car that has no future. GM is also trying to get rid of its Saab division. I haven’t heard any death threats concerning the Hummer.

Partly for business reasons when I was expensing my car on my tax returns, and partly because I just love gathering and analyzing data, I’ve always recorded every cent I spend on whatever I’m driving – service and repairs, gas, insurance, car wash, and all.  I mean everything, except depreciation, because you can’t depreciate an 11-year-old car. It’s how I’ll know when it’s time to trade in the Saturn, when she’s not worth fixing anymore.

So I can tell you that in 2008 it cost us 25.5 cents per mile to drive the Saturn, up from 23 cents in 2007, but nowhere near the 58.5 cents per mile the IRS allowed for business expenses in the second half of 2008, nor the 55 cents for 2009. I can tell you that we paid an average of $3.19 for a gallon of gas in 2008 $2.76 in 2007.

And I can tell you that last year we got 33 miles per gallon out of our 11-year-old Saturn. If you pay attention to new car advertisements, you know that Detroit brags about new cars that don’t do nearly that well. That’s how we knew it was worthwhile to replace the catalytic converter last year, and the brake system the year before.

I’m driving what I consider a luxury car that gets 33 mpg and costs 25 and a half cents a mile to operate. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Saturn was originally a separate entity from GM — so separate, in fact, that the GM credit card that gave you a percentage of everything you charged on the card toward the purchase of a General Motors car did not include the Saturn as an option.  A state-of-the-art factory was built in Spring Hill, Tenn. Workers there were organized into teams, along the lines of the Japanese team-based work model. Inventory control was inspired by the Japanese “just-in-time” delivery system.  Best of all, from my point of view was the fact that the car had one price. You didn’t have to put on body armor before you went to the dealership. You just said what model and extra features (if any) you wanted and there was no haggling, no wondering if the next guy to buy got a better deal than you did.

The Saturn Corporation tried to build a sense of community among owners. In the early years, Saturn drivers waved at each other when they passed on the road, the way people on motorcycles do. The company even had a party for owners at the Spring Hill plant.  People came in their cars from all over the US.

My husband Ed and I had long said that when Detroit started building cars that made sense we’d buy an American car.  The closest we could come in the mid-1980s was an Encore — a hatchback made by Renault and American Motors (headed George Romney, father of MItt Romney and Wavy Gravy) and acquired by Chrysler in 1987. When it passed 100,000 miles and Chrysler was playing games with the availability of replacement parts, we bought our first truly American car in a generation, a Saturn, in 1994.

GM included the Saturn in its employees’ and family discount program, so Ed’s son, a millwright in a GM plant, got us 18% off the price of our first Saturn — and our second, third, and fourth. Each year, when we became eligible for another discount certificate, we traded up a notch. We could do this because the car we were trading in hadn’t depreciated more than 18%, so what we spent money on was more features, until, at last, we were driving the car we still have, with sun roof, great sound system, antilock brakes and traction control (making it a super car for New England driving), and leather seats. It’s an economy subcompact, but to me it’s a luxury car. There’s none on the road I’d rather be driving.

I was driving the ’98 when I got caught in a blizzard on the way home from an editorial meeting at CIO Magazine. An 18-wheeler jackknifed on Route 2 where it turned to a two-lane highway, and traffic was backed up about 20 miles.  I called my husband to tell him where I was.  My sister in New Jersey had heard about the blizzard and called to see if we were OK.  To her, Massachusetts was somewhere near the Arctic Circle. Ed told her, “If you’ve got to be stuck in a blizzard, the Saturn is the car to get stuck in.”

When I got home, about six hours later, I called my sister to tell her I was fine. Unaware of what Ed had said, I added, “If you’ve got to be stuck in a blizzard, the Saturn is the car to get stuck in.”

“What is this, some kind of Saturn cult?” my sister asked.

If you don’t believe me about how great the Saturn is in a blizzard, ask Debby Kozikowski, Rural Votes’ co-founder.  She was my passenger in the blizzard of December ’07, when it took us five hours to go about 20 miles on I-84 in Connecticut. Cars were spinning out and running out of gas all around us. If you’ve got to get stuck in a blizzard, the Saturn is the car to get stuck in.

The brass at GM apparently couldn’t stand the way Saturn owners loved their cars. I know there were exceptions; NPR’s Morning Edition last Friday, reporting on GM’s murderous intentions, cited only one Saturn owner.  Six months after buying hers, she said, the car developed transmission trouble, so she traded it for a Toyota Corolla. Yick.

In 2000, the Saturn lost its unique status — as an all-American car that was reasonably priced, dependable, made by people who worked as a team,  and sold by dealers you knew weren’t out to manipulate you into paying more than necessary to get the car you wanted. GM started encroaching on the company’s independence, then it started outsourcing (to other countries) some of the car’s manufacturing, then it introduced bigger, non-economy models, and things kept going downhill.  The Saturn became like every other GM car, nothing special about it. So of course sales started dropping, which gives GM its excuse to kill it.

Scuttlebutt on the factory floor is that a Chinese manufacturer is going to buy Saturn and come out in a few years with a model that sells for $8,000. If that happens, remember you heard it here first.

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9 Responses to “Saturn R.I.P.”

  1. [...] Read the original here:  Saturn R.I.P. [...]

  2. Miryam is absolutely right.  That was quite a drive home.  But we had heat, a good radio and even better company.  If you’ve got to be stuck in a blizzard, the Saturn is the car to get stuck in.  And I would add, with Miryam at the wheel!

  3. I have a 97 SL2.  It has about 160k miles on it.  I moved on to a Prius a few years ago and gave it to my girl to abuse as a pizza delivery car.  The seat is falling apart but the car just seems to putt putt along.

  4. I have a ’95 SL1 with about 131k miles on it.  A couple years ago I tried an experiment and drove LA to SD and back at 55mph, trying to draft behind trucks.  Even though the journey included a 30 minute traffic jam, getting lost on the city streets in SD, and parking twice, I still averaged about 54mpg. 

    Curious though, how did you know your catalytic converter needed replacing? I’ve suspected mine’s gone bad, but the “new” techs at the Saturn dealership say “as long as it’s not making noise, it’s fine.”  I’m thinking, if it’s making noise, it’s in REALLY bad shape, like dragging on the ground… but they clearly cannot explain things properly.

    As for small cars make small profit, who cares?  If you sell 500 small $10K cars with $1000 profit, you make the same as 50 gas-guzzling $40,000 hummers, with $10K profit… and what’s more likely, especially in today’s economy?

  5. Mark, here’s how you know the cat needs replacing: The “service engine soon” light comes on. You go to a mechanic who has a good (as in $4,000 worth, not one from the car parts store) computer. He plugs the computer to the outlet under the dashboard and it tells him what’s wrong. In this case, we had to replace both O2 (oxygen) sensors. When the service engine light came on again, the computer said it was the catalytic converter.

    Whether you have to replace the converter depends on what state you live in and how you feel about global warming. If the cat is really bad you lose power and gas mileage tanks (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Ours isn’t that bad, but it’s not cleaning emissions the way it should. And in Massachusetts you can’t pass the annual emissions inspection if the cat’s efficiency is low.

  6. Every time i come here I am not dissapointed, nice post

  7. This is some good reading.I have a 96 sl1 265.000 miles on it looks rough but it just won,t die.Saturns Rock!!! just check your oil and change it when it needs it and it will last.

  8. Miryam,  you nailed it with this article.   I had a 98 Saturn SL2 that I disposed of after 145,000 miles,  and wished I had kept it.    I now am on a 2003 Saturn ION 3,  136,000 and still humming.     I was reluctant to buy it,  and wished they had more SL2s.  

    Around a year ago,  I got a call from the Saturn dealer — would you like to come in and look around?    I already had;   they didn’t have anything I was interested in.     I loved the SL2,  I like the ION a little less.   “But”,  the salesperson said,  “we’re building new cars you can GROW INTO!”     I don’t need to “grow into” anything!    I drive in Boston,  I’m an empty nester,  and most of the time there’s only one person in the car.    It’s too bad — they had what we wanted,  and they took it off the table.

  9. Great post. I’ve been looking for this exact information for a while now. I’ll bookmark it in the public bookmarking sites to get you more views.

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