1999 Saturn SL1. Click image to enlarge
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photos courtesy GM
Saturn S-series, 1996-2002
In the past, when domestic automakers set their sights on stealing sales from import brands, they sold re-badged versions of cars built by those very import companies. For example, Dodge, Plymouth and Eagle sold several models built by Mitsubishi before that company set up shop in Canada for itself in 2003.
Saturn, however, was GM’s made-and-designed-in-America import fighter, at least in the early days. The compact Saturn S-series models were the company’s first attempt at competing with popular imports like the Honda Civic. While they were nifty cars, over the long term, they weren’t terribly successful. Part of the problem, I think, was that the “second generation” S-series models – introduced in 1996, and the subject of this column – weren’t significantly better (or even that different) than the original S-Series.
2000 Saturn SC1 (top); 1999 Saturn SW1. Click image to enlarge
This was probably Saturn’s first misstep, given that the imports whose sales they wanted to usurp, were significantly updated every four or five years.
The second-generation S-series was offered in sedan, station wagon and coupe body styles (the second-gen coupe arrived a year later than its sedan and wagon siblings). In 1999, Saturn added a third door to the driver’s side of the coupe to allow easier access to the rear seat. In 2000, the station wagon model line was cut to a single model – the top-end SW2 – and the wagon was discontinued altogether after 2001.
Like the first-generation cars, all three versions of this redesigned model shared the same 1.9-litre engine. A single overhead cam version making 100 horsepower was used in base models, while top-line models used a twin-cam version of the 1.9-litre engine that made 124 horsepower. Transmission choices were simple: a five-speed manual was standard, and a four-speed automatic the extra-cost option.
Fuel consumption was on the high side, particularly compared with next-generation import models that came to market around the same time. The single-cam engine was rated at 8.4/5.4 L/100 km (city/highway), while the twin cam earned 9.1/5.9 L/100 km (city/highway) ratings. The then just-redesigned 1997 Honda Civic LX sedan was rated 7.5/5.7, while the new 1998 Toyota Corolla came with 7.7/5.8 L/100 km ratings (all ratings are for cars with manual transmissions).
While the S-series’ reliability was never stellar, it was actually slightly better overall than that of the Ion, which eventually replaced the S-series as Saturn’s entry-level model, according to Consumer Reports. That publication cites the S-series’ mechanicals – engines and transmissions – as the main sources of trouble in these cars.
1999 Saturn SL1. Click image to enlarge
Higher-mileage S-series engines tend to use oil, and most will eventually start to do so visibly (blue smoke from the exhaust). Engine coolant leaks aren’t uncommon, either.
In winter driving, excessive wheelspin can cause damage to the differential. More specifically, it isn’t the wheelspin itself that causes the damage, but an abrupt transition from a slippery surface to a grippy one. See these threads at SaturnFans.com – two and three, and here’s a YouTube video posted by a member of the forum of what it sounds like when it happens. There is some debate as to whether the problem is more common in cars with the optional traction control system.,
More than one manual-transmission S-series owner has had the clutch pedal push rod pop out its hole in the firewall. This is apparently more nervewracking (if it happens while the car is being driven) than anything.
1999 Saturn SC2. Click image to enlarge
Rough shifting in cars with the automatic transmission could be a problem with the transmission’s hydraulic valve body, or the transmission’s fluid pressure control solenoids.
The second-generation SL sedan earned an “acceptable” rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) frontal offset crash test. The same car got four stars for both driver and front passenger protection in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) frontal impact test. Neither organization conducted side impact testing.
Used values range from $2,375 (1996 SL) to $4,900 (2002 SC2), according to Canadian Red Book. Those familiar with my geeky tendencies won’t be surprised to learn that the station wagon is my favourite of the three S-series models. A 1999 or 2000 model, which was sold only in top-level SW2 trim, will be a nicely-equipped little car, and should be easy to find for $4,000 or less.
2002 Saturn SL2. Click image to enlarge
The S-series was a relative rarity in being a small car offered in a wagon body style (the Ford Escort/Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Daewoo Nubira, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki Esteem and Mazda Protege5 were all close competitors, and the Chrysler PT Cruiser too, in a stretch) and so has certain cachet about it for those in search of a little wagon.
But I might suggest that a couple of those competitors – notably, a 2001-or-older Impreza with the bulletproof 2.2-litre engine, or a Ford Escort or Focus wagon (stick to 2002- and newer Focus models, as the early ones were problematic) – as alternatives to the S-series.
Otherwise, if you’re willing to spend a little more for a basic car, regardless of body type, one of the imports that Saturn was so eager to target (Civic, Corolla, Protege or Sentra) would be a solid buy.
Red Book Pricing (avg. retail) December 2008:
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Crash test results
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.
For more Used Vehicle Reviews by Chris Chase,.