By Jeremy Cato
Remember the very early Saturn commercials way back in 1990, when the first cars from this upstart division of General Motors Corp. started to arrive as 1991 models? Boy were they effective.
I particularly liked the one showing Saturn “team members” (employees in normal terms) driving cars off the assembly line and straight home to see if any problems could be found before shipping them to customers.
Must have been quite a few cars returned to the shop after those test drives, although we never saw a Saturn commercial showing that end of the business. Because folks, the early Saturns were not exactly trouble-free. Pretty nice to drive for their day, yes. But perfectly built? Sorry.
Engine and transmission issues were not uncommon, in particular, and there were other areas of concern, too. Perhaps that’s why those initial ads spent so little time touting the Saturn cars themselves. And you never did see an ad showcasing those horrible motorized front safety belts that were required by (U.S.) law during the first years of production.
That said, the Saturn dealers, with strong factory support, handled customers beautifully. By all reports they still do. So Saturn developed a reputation for customer satisfaction despite the less than perfectly trouble-free automobiles churned out of the Tennessee plant. Look at the used valuations for these cars, which have remained relatively strong, and that point is underscored.
But okay, let’s say you find an older Saturn that looks to be in good condition. What do you need to know?
Well, the four-door sedans share the same platform or underbody architecture as the Saturn SC coupes and the SW wagons. The body panels on all these models are made of rust-proof plastic, although hoods, trunk lids and roofs are made of steel.
The major difference between the coupes and sedans, aside from another pair of doors, is in wheelbase, or the distance between the front and rear axles. The sedans ride on a 2,646 mm. (102.4 in.) wheelbase, while on the coupes it’s 2,524 (99.4 in.).
Not surprisingly, the sedans have decent cabin room for a sub-compact car. Headroom both front and rear is very good even for tall folks, but legroom can be tight for the long-limbed. The big issue up front is that the front bucket seats are very low to the floor and the seats themselves don’t glide back far enough for basketball players to really stretch out.
Entry up front is through adequately wide doors, but the rear ones are a bit undersized, making it a squeeze for larger or older folks. That issue is compounded by the fact Saturn sedans of this vintage ride quite low to the ground. A split-folding rear seatback is handy for expanding cargo versatility of the large trunk – one that has, however, a relatively small opening at the rear.
Saturn launched two versions of the sedan, the SL1 with an 85-horsepower single-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine, and the SL2 with its 124-hp. double overhead cam four-banger. By 1995, the base engine had grown in power to 100 hp.
Both engines offer adequate acceleration when paired with the manual five-speed transmission and both can get pretty loud and raspy when pushed hard even when mated to the optional four-speed auto-shifter. No surprise really, given the powertrain is aluminum and early on Saturn’s engineers had real difficulty dampening out noise and vibration. The optional four-speed automatic robs the base engine of passing power, but works okay with the twin-cam engine.
A strong suit of these sedans is in road handling — very responsive and fun to drive. Perhaps only the Honda Civic of the day was as driver-friendly. Anti-lock brakes were optional.
By ’93 Saturn had added a driver’s side airbag. That same year Saturn freshened up the styling of the front end and traction control became optional with ABS. The Saturn wagons also arrived that year.
In ’94, the power door locks were revised and there were upgrades to the transmission, along with the introduction of CFC-free air conditioning. In ’95, a second airbag arrived and the motorized belts were cancelled. Yippee!
Compared to rival models, such as the Civic and Toyota Corolla, the Saturn sedans are noisy and less refined. Ride quality is best in the SL2 which has better tires and suspension tuning. That said, the SL cars remain popular buys in the used market, so great bargains are not easy to find. If you do find one, insist on a thorough mechanical inspection.
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.