By Jeremy Cato
Saturn’s L-series sedans and wagons have been given a modest styling makeover for 2003. It’s the start of bigger things at this General Motors Corp. division. Saturn is in the first stages of a complete product makeover that for 2003 also includes the introduction of the Ion compact car. Last year saw the arrival of the VUE sport utility and by mid-decade a mid-sized vehicle is expected to replace the current L-series. It will probably be some sort of crossover sport wagon.
Now one thing that’s interesting about all this Saturn product news is that it sounds familiar. Back in 1999, Saturn launched the L-series, touting this mid-size model as a match for the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Volkswagen Passat and the Ford Taurus. The 2000 L cars were to spark a renaissance at Saturn, but really didn’t. In fact, sales have been disappointing.
That said, if you’re looking for an affordable nearly-new family car, the L-series is certainly out there. Prices are affordable, the trunk is very large, the wagons are useful family vehicles and quality has been about average.
If you’re going down this road, for starters you should know that the L cars were launched as the LS (for sedan) and LW (for station wagon) but by 2001 new names arrived. The whole LS thing was replaced by L100, L200 and L300, and LW200 and LW300. The bigger the number, the better equipped the car.
In terms of overall size, the L-series is about on par with its key rivals, although the Accord and Camry of this time frame have more rear-seat leg room. What those rival cars don’t have are the L’s no-rust, dent-resistant plastic body panels at the doors, front fenders and fascias.
In terms of looks, the L cars look like…well, Saturns. That is, pleasant and clean, but hardly eye-grabbing. When this car was launched, Saturn experts said they expected as many as 40 per cent of their current small car owners to move up to the L, so it’s no surprise the designers stuck with something familiar.
For my money, I’d have liked a more elegant and distinctive design. In fact, I’d argue that the light panel stretched across the full length of the rear is out of balance with the smallish front headlamps. Just my opinion.
Inside, more upscale versions of the L came with wood-grained plastic trim that’s okay, although petrochemical bark is never particularly dressy. There’s a stacked centre console housing radio and climate controls which works well and the rest of the dashboard is nicely integrated into the overall modular design. I very much like the front seats for comfort and support, but some fabric wear issues have been noted by certain owners. Leather has been an option.
Drivers will notice that thin pillars and big side and centre mirrors make for excellent outward visibility all around. There’s a nice thick steering wheel with spokes well-placed to give the driver a good look at the instruments.
On the road? Well, the L is competent in emergency maneuvers, cornering is predictable and relatively flat and the steering reasonably quick, though somewhat numb. Braking (front disc/rear drum on base cars, disc/disc on upscale models) is also quite respectable. An anti-lock package with traction control has been optional.
As for power, The L cars have been available with two choices: 2.2-litre four-banger rated at 135-137 horsepower and a 182-hp V6. Transmission choices include a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. If you can, go for the V6 with its greater power.
Over its short life in the market, the L has enjoyed some upgrading. An optional head curtain air bag system arrived in 2001, along with the new model designations, a larger fuel tank and three-point safety belts at all passenger positions.
In 2002, new Sport, Audio and Premium packages arrived, along with standard head curtain air bags, anti-lock braking and traction control, the LATCH child safety system and a compact disc stereo. Also, a DVD system and OnStar became an offering.
The L cars, then, are extremely mainstream family cars with okay quality and reasonable pricing.
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.