by Greg Wilson
Styling makeover not enough to keep mid-size Saturn competitive
A lot’s been happening at General Motors’ ‘different kind of car company’ lately. Saturn introduced its first sport utility vehicle, the Vue, last year, and the new Ion sedan and Ion Quad Coupe will replace the aging S-Series sedans and coupes for 2003. As well, the mid-sized L-Series sedans and wagons have been given a styling makeover and a few new interior features. Saturn is even considering building a two-seater sports car, the Sky, which it showed as a concept car recently.
The mid-sized Saturn L-Series sedans and wagons, first introduced in 2000, are still relatively unknown in the popular mid-size car class – despite the fact that the L-Series is one of the few mid-sized cars available as a wagon. Based on a European GM platform but built in Wilmington, Delaware, the L-Series is offered with both four and six cylinder engines. L200 (sedan) and LW200 (wagon) models are available with a standard 135 horsepower 2.2 litre ‘Ecotec’ four cylinder engine and a standard five speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. L300 and LW300 models offer a 182 horsepower 3.0 litre V6 and a standard 4-speed automatic transmission.
All L-Series models offer fully independent suspensions, room for five adults, a big trunk, and dent-resistant rustproof polymer body panels (on the vertical surfaces). L-Series models are also one of the few mid-size cars available with optional head-curtain airbags.
For the 2003 model year, L-Series models receive new exterior styling and some new interior features and options, but some features have been discontinued. For example, rear disc brakes have been replaced with drums on L200 and LW200 models, and anti-lock brakes, which were standard, are now optional on all models. As well, the least-expensive L100 model has been discontinued.
The 2002 model’s plain, generic styling is at least one reason for its relative obscurity. Styling revisions to the 2003 model give it a bolder, more distinctive look, particularly the large wraparound headlight covers and chrome trimmed grille. Still, I wouldn’t call this car handsome.
Saturn has made some new interior features available for 2003. You can now order an optional ‘Comfort Package’ which includes automatic climate control and a 6-way power seat. You can also order a new ‘Convenience Package’ with driver seat lumbar adjustment, rear seat centre armrest, vanity mirror lights on both sides, and a bigger dome lamp. As well, OnStar (GM’s emergency assistance and information service), has been added to the optional ‘Premium Package’ and ‘DVD package’.
You might expect a mid-size car with a 135 horsepower four cylinder engine to be a bit underpowered, but I found it generally responsive in urban and highway use. The Saturn L-Series was the first GM car in North America to use GM’s new ‘Ecotec’ four cylinder engine which features dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and twin balance shafts to smooth out engine vibrations. Introduced in 2000, it’s still an impressive engine despite rapid advances made by its competitors since then. In the L200, acceleration is brisk from a stoplight, and even highway passing power is reasonably quick. The engine does only 2200 rpm at 100 km/h in fourth gear, a relatively low engine speed for a four-banger. I found the engine quiet around town and when cruising on the highway. It makes a ‘buzzy’ drone when accelerating, but it’s not excessive.
Fuel consumption of 10.1 litres per 100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 6.9 l/100 km (41 mpg) is excellent for a mid-sized car. The L200 uses Regular Unleaded gas, however there isn’t a locking fuel door.
My car was equipped with the optional four-speed automatic transmission which offered quick, smooth shifts, and was responsive to kick down. Unlike many mid-size cars, the L200 is available with a standard five-speed manual transmission.
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The L200’s ride is comfortable over smooth and uneven surfaces and the handling is nicely balanced – credit must be given to its fully independent suspension (front MacPherson struts/rear multi-link) and the optional 215/55R-16 inch Firestone Firehawk all-season performance tires – I would recommend upgrading to these over the standard 195/65R-15 inch tires. I found the steering accurate and easy, but steering feel was a bit vague. Overall, with its competent engine and transmission, balanced handling, good visibility, and ‘not-too-big’ exterior size, the L200 is an easy, driver-friendly car for typical daily use.
Having said that, the L200 doesn’t stand out in its class. It’s about a generation behind the new crop of mid-size cars like the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. Many of the L200’s competitors are roomier, more powerful, more comfortable and better-looking for about the same price. The Saturn L200 ain’t such a bad car, but some competitors are better.
My car had a two-tone beige dash, optional leather upholstery, classy white-faced round gauges with red pointers, a blacked-out centre control panel with metallic trim, and chrome door handles. While it was reasonably attractive, the quality of the materials and fit and finish is not quite as good as some of its import competitors. The L200’s pleated leather front seats include Hi/Lo seat heaters which I appreciated on cold mornings. I found the front seats to be soft with good back support, but the pleat line down the middle of the seat cushion proved to be uncomfortable. The power operated front seats include buttons on the side of the seats that face upwards so the driver can see them – despite this, I think traditional ‘feel and use’ power seat buttons are more intuitive. An easy-to-grip leather wrapped steering wheel includes large buttons for cruise control functions on the spokes.
The optional automatic climate control includes a single temperature adjustment, however there isn’t an on/off button for the air conditioning. The climate control system operates with the air conditioning on all the time unless you press a button that says ‘Economy’ which turns off the air conditioning. As a result, a temperature set at 70 degrees feels cooler in normal mode than in ‘Economy’ mode.
I found the optional six disc CD changer/cassette/radio easy to operate, and it includes a digital sound processor with selectable pre-set sound modes for ‘pop’, ‘rock’, ‘classic’, ‘jazz’, and ‘country’ music. Like many European cars, the L200 has the power window buttons between the front seats next to the floor-mounted shift lever. However, the power mirror buttons are on the doors.
The L200’s rear seat has an adequate amount of legroom and headroom for adults, and there are three rear 3-point seatbelts, but I noticed that the rear head restraints are not height adjustable. The standing folding 60/40 split rear seatbacks are easy to lower, but they aren’t lockable. The L200’s carpeted trunk is extremely roomy and can be opened remotely with a button on the key fob.
L-Series manufacturer’s suggested retail prices are as follows: L200 $23,480; LW200 $25,355; L300 $26,890; LW300 $29,710.
My L200 test car was equipped with the optional Premium Package ($4,120) which includes leather seats, automatic climate control, 6-disc CD changer and cassette player, 6-way power driver’s seat, driver’s lumbar adjustment, 16 inch chrome wheels, and front foglamps. It also had the optional power moonroof ($945), and optional ABS/Traction Control ($775). Add in $900 Freight and $100 a/c tax, and the as-tested price of my car came to $31,405.
A comfortable, five passenger mid-sized sedan with good fuel economy and a big trunk, but despite recent upgrades, it doesn’t stand out in its class.
Technical Data: 2003 Saturn L200
|A/C Excise Tax||$100|
|Options||$5,840 (Premium Package, moonroof, ABS/traction control)|
|Price as tested||$31,405|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.2 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves ‘Ecotec’|
|Horsepower||135 @ 5200 rpm|
|Torque||142 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic (5 speed manual std.)|
|Curb weight||1365 kg (3009 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2705 mm (106.5 in.)|
|Length||4836 mm (190.4 in.)|
|Width||2002 mm (78.8 in.)|
|Height||1432 mm (56.4 in.)|
|Trunk space||495 litres (17.5 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.1 l/100 km (28 mpg)|
|Hwy: 6.9 l/100 km (41 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Moneyback guarantee||30 day/2500 km|