2001 Saturn L300. Click image to enlarge
By Chris Chase
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For almost the first full decade of its existence, Saturn offered just three models – a compact sedan, station wagon and coupe, all based on one common platform. These cars, known as the SL, SW and SC, made quite a splash when they were launched by General Motors in 1991, and were intended to siphon sales away from small imports built by the likes of Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan and Volkswagen.
It was obvious, though, that in order to become seriously competitive, Saturn would need to offer more than just one line of cars. With that in mind, Saturn expanded its product lineup in 2000 with the midsize L-Series, available in sedan or station wagon format. Base versions (LS, LS1 and LW1) were powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine making 137 horsepower, and the uplevel LS2 and LW2 models got a 3.0-litre V6 that made 182 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission could be had in four-cylinder sedans, but V6 sedans and all station wagon models got a four-speed automatic.
The L-Series, which was loosely based on the European-market Opel Vectra, received few mechanical updates during its production run, but 2003 models were face-lifted inside and out. Prior to that, in 2002, the lineup was renamed: sedans became L100, L200 or L300, and wagons were called LW200 and LW300. In 2004, all versions were called the L300, and by sometime around mid-2005, the L-Series was no more, as GM began preparing an all-new mid-size sedan, the Opel-based Aura, which Saturn will apparently begin producing in Summer of 2006.
2002 Saturn LW300. Click image to enlarge
Reliability-wise, there are a few things to look out for with the L-Series. Suspension struts are failure prone and tend to need replacing more frequently than would be normal for most cars. Also, minor electrical gremlins are fairly common and the factory stereo head units frequently go wonky. Also, watch out for problems related to the engine cooling system, and automatic transmission troubles in early (2000 and 2001) models. While the L-Series is not perfect, lots of owners posting on automotive-based web forums report largely trouble-free motoring.
On the safety front, the L-Series scored generally well in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests, earning four and five stars, respectively, for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impacts, and three and five stars for front and rear seat occupant protection in side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the big Saturn an “acceptable” rating in its frontal offset crash test, but scored a “poor” rating in that organization’s side impact tests, despite the test cars’ side airbags, which were optional in Canadian cars starting in 2001. By 2002, they were standard equipment.
2003 Saturn L300. Click image to enlarge
Expect fuel consumption to range from the high 6 L/100 km range to low eights in highway driving, depending on the powertrain. Generally, the manual-transmission/four-cylinder powertrain is the most efficient in the L-Series’ case. In the city, consumption ranges from 10 to 12 L/100 km.
As a domestic brand, the L-Series is cursed with low resale values that are really more of a blessing for used-car shoppers. A range-topping 2000 LW2, which retailed for $27,810 when new, is worth less than $7,700 now, according to Canadian Red Book. One of the last 2005 models, offered in sedan form only, is valued at just under $20,000. A good deal might be a 2003 model. By this time, most of the bugs had been worked out, and used values range from about $12,500 to $15,500.
The L-Series doesn’t offer the engaging driving experience of a VW Passat or the tough-as-nails durability of an Accord or Camry, but at the right price, one of these big Saturns could be a terrific value, particularly in wagon form, where Saturn had the Japanese brands trumped.