General Motors’ import-fighting division was an acknowledgement that GM needed to change the way it operated if it was to survive increasing competition from Asian car-makers. The company sank billions of dollars into a dedicated plant in Tennessee with a famously brief labor contract and Toyota-like assembly teams. Those workers built a technologically modern car with innovative dent-resistant plastic body panels over a steel subframe, which were then shipped to unique dealers with no-haggle pricing and low-pressure sales techniques.
The Saturn experience attracted fans instantly, but its corporate champions were gone by the time the first cars came to market, and a lack of investment and innovation meant the “different kind of car company” was left to sell badge-engineered versions of other GM cars before it fell out of orbit in 2010. Here’s a look at the ten vehicle lines sold by Saturn, and which ones were closest to the sun.
It took Saturn 13 years to bring out a replacement for its S-series coupes and sedans. Based on the reaction to the Ion, however, perhaps GM shouldn’t have bothered. The 2003 Ion had the same plastic body panels-over-steel subframe construction of its predecessor, on a platform that would eventually be shared with the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR.
It also had an odd interior layout with a centrally-mounted gauge pod and tiny steering wheel, very un-Saturn fit and finish sloppiness, and a strange personalization scheme that included changing out the plastic door frames (leopard print, anyone?). Not even a supercharged Red Line coupe could mask the car’s inherent issues. Car and Driver called it “probably the most disappointing new American car in a decade.” It lasted just four years.
One of Saturn’s failings was that it took almost a whole decade for the division to bring out a second model line. It didn’t help that the L-series sedan and wagon were so uninteresting. Based on the same platform that underpinned the contemporary Saab 900 and 9000, the L-series was aimed right at the heart of the mid-size sedan class.
And it hit it, at least on paper. However, a competent package and a great dealer experience couldn’t make up for styling that made the L-series look like the disguised cars in ads for auto insurance. Not even a chrome-y mid-cycle refresh could help, and the L-series was replaced by the Aura in 2007.
By the mid-2000s, the U.S. minivan market had coalesced around three major players: Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. GM was still in the game, though largely for fleet purposes, and Saturn was part of the company’s last attempt to make an impression among minivan buyers.
The 2005 Relay was a rebadged Chevrolet Uplander, and was designed to look more SUV-ish than its predecessor. It was a decent value, but the Relay and its corporate siblings lacked a lot of the convenience features of the top vans on the market. The Relay was discontinued after the 2007 model year.
After the L-series elicited the sound of one hand clapping across America, Saturn tried again in the mid-size class with the Aura, derived from the same platform as the Pontiac G6, the Chevrolet Malibu and the Opel Insignia. Stylistically, it more resembled the German side of the family, and aspired to environmental relevance with a “mild” hybrid option that was neither as efficient as a full-on hybrid nor as expensive.
The Aura was certainly a better car than the old L-series, but the consumer shift to SUVs and crossovers was well underway, and the Aura faded with the end of the Saturn division.
While the styling for the Aura midsize sedan suggested a German lineage, the car Saturn picked to replace the Ion in 2007 was considerably more overt. The division plucked the Astra sedan and hatch right off Opel’s assembly line in Belgium, gave them new badges, and rolled them out. This instantly gave Saturn a competitive entry in a class of vehicles that included the Honda Civic, the Ford Focus, VW’s Golf and the Toyota Corolla.
The Astra gave up a bit in power to its competitors, but was praised for its handling, upscale interior and strong equipment levels. Unfortunately, growing uncertainty about the future of GM and its divisions doomed the chic little Astra virtually from the start. It was dropped two short years later.
Saturn’s first SUV rolled out more than a decade after the division’s debut, but it was largely worth the wait. The first vehicle to use the platform eventually adopted by the Chevy Equinox, the Vue bore a strong resemblance to the S-series sedan, and was notable in that it was the first GM product to be powered by a Honda engine (the 3.5-liter V6 from the Odyssey minivan).
While the first Vue was designed by Saturn, the second-generation was essentially a rebadged Opel Antara, continuing a theme of Saturn becoming Opel’s new U.S. beachhead. When the division went away, the Vue was briefly offered to rental and other fleets as the Chevrolet Captiva Sport.
4 S-Series Sedan
Here’s the one that started it all: the first-generation sedan, sharing virtually no parts with any other GM car and designed completely in house … yet somehow still looking like the contemporary Olds Cutlass Supreme sedan. Compared to the GM compacts with which it wound up competing, the S-series sedan offered a smoother and more modern drivetrain, dent-resistant plastic panels, and a superior sales experience. No wonder the other divisions were so upset.
Sales for the first few years of production were very good … before the age of the basic platform began to catch up with it. The S-series went through three generations before being shuffled off stage to make way for the Ion, but they’re still sought out today for being durable, reliable and efficient.
3 S-Series Coupe
The S-series coupe shared the sedan’s drivetrain and interior features, wrapped in a sleek wind-cheating shape with funky hidden headlights (at least for the first generation). However, the SC’s real standout feature had to wait for the second generation, when it moved to the longer sedan wheelbase. In a forehead-smacking “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” innovation, the 1999 Saturn coupe added a third “suicide”-style door behind the driver’s door … which, like extended-cab pickups of the day, could not be opened unless the driver’s door was opened.
This immediately made the coupe more practical without sacrificing its swoopy style. Since then, cars such as the Mazda RX-8 and the current Hyundai Veloster have employed this unique door setup, but Saturn did it first.
The first generation of GM’s big crossover SUVs came in three flavors: professional (GMC Acadia), luxurious (Buick Enclave) and value (Saturn Outlook). The front/all-wheel-drive wagon could be equipped to seat up to eight people, effectively replacing the Relay in Saturn’s product lineup, and was the cheapest way to get into one of GM’s very good full-size crossovers.
The Outlook sold well for Saturn, and was helping bring people back into showrooms, but the decision to drop the division left the Outlook without a home. The Chevrolet Traverse took up the “value” position in that hierarchy, and the Outlook’s exterior panels would eventually return for a mid-cycle refresh of the GMC Acadia.
The best car Saturn ever sold was its least practical, and one of its least popular. The Sky and its Pontiac Solstice companion were borne of ex-GM product chief Bob Lutz’s attempt to bring more excitement to the company’s generally lackluster models. The Sky convertible was cobbled together with parts from the Cobalt/Ion platform, covered in a shape designed by the guy who went on to draw the Tesla Model S, X and 3.
Compared with the Solstice, the Sky featured a more elaborate exterior design, additional sound insulation, and a slightly more upscale interior. The Sky was also briefly sold overseas as the Opel GT, continuing the intellectual property agreement between GM’s U.S. and European operations. The Sky went dark in 2009 as Saturn wound down production.