NOTE: I have no picture of my Saturn Wagon, but this is close enough.
Like a lot of new parents shopping for a vehicle, a minivan is often the safe and wise choice. The room, utility, comfort and safety make a lot of sense when you need room for one or more strollers, pack and play’s and all of those things. We were adjusting well to being parents and raising our baby son Adam and he was a very agreeable little guy. The 1998 Bravada was soon to go back on lease. The suggestion of friends and family was for us to get a minivan, and soon.
Being a GM loyalist, the choice was the Chevy Venture, Pontiac Montana or the Oldsmobile Silhouette, all virtually identical. But it was pretty clear to me that those three vehicles were the bottom of the barrel in every way compared to everything else out there. Some men and women are vehemently anti-minivan due to some perceived stigma. We weren’t that way at all. No matter anyway. Instead, I wanted something I couldn’t have as a boy, but certainly always coveted: a station wagon.
Back in 2001, wagons were waning in popularity as crossovers and SUV’s were already here to stay. The body style was still well represented by the Europeans and Subaru. The Taurus wagon could still be had but was on life support. The Camry and Accord wagons were dropped. Being a GM guy, I liked the looks and size of the new Saturn L Series wagon. With their desire to be a player in the mid-size market, they introduced the L series a year earlier and a wagon variant soon followed. This would be the new first car I ever actually ordered and had to wait for (about six weeks). This beauty was emerald-green, with a tan leather interior and the fuel-efficient Ecotec 2.2 liter DOHC 4 cylinder. We decided to lease again, and it came in somewhere around $375 a month, zero down.
Six weeks later, we got the call that it was ready. Back then, Saturn dealers had the little ceremony at new car delivery time, replete with balloons, applause and seemingly sincere smiles by whatever dealer staff could be cobbled together for the handover of the keys to new owners. I thought the whole thing was really quite silly.
The wagons of my childhood – only they weren’t in our driveway
In the mid 1970’s when I was elementary school age, wagons represented to me something I always wanted but could never have. Our family friends the Prus’s, with 4 kids, had a mid-70’s Ford LTD Country Squire, fake wood grain on the sides, and it was amazing with its massive hood. The Hardy’s, our neighbors up the street, had something even better, a Chevy Kingswood Estate. And my childhood best friends family, the Herc’s, had a pristine and beautifully maintained 64 Buick wagon until late 1976. Uncle Frank preferred wagons as well and had an early 60’s Dodge Coronet and later a Chevelle wagon for many years.
Why was it that our family, with 4 kids, were denied such a right of American passage? I desperately wanted to be that kid sitting way in back, with the rear facing seat, happily waving at other motorists. Dad would surely have loved a wagon. He was a tinkerer and a do-it-yourselfer and would have made good use of the utility to haul mulch, lumber, and everything and anything else from Wickes Lumber and Forest City. And there was endless other possibilities with the roof rack. A brother was at Michigan State University, and a wagon would have been the thing to have to get him and his stuff there and back every fall and spring. But it was never, ever to be. Could it have been cost? Did Mom hate wagons? I’m afraid I’ll never know. But I had to set that right for my own young family and I finally did in the fall of 2001.
The Opel Vectra B Estate- The LW200’s Distant European Cousin
Articles said that the Saturn L series borrowed from the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra over in Europe as well as the Saab 9-5. Both were nicer looking cars. In reality though, it was mainly the global GM2900 architecture and drive line it shared. Beyond that, the commonality was limited to about 130 fasteners from the GM global supply chain. Why it didn’t make better financial sense to just manufacture the Opel Vectra here rebadged as a Saturn is beyond me. And it’s a shame because the 2002 Vectra is a smarter looking package. GM spent a whopping $1.2 billion to retool its now-closed plant in Wilmington, Delaware just to make the L series. GM hedged their bets, thinking the L-Series could double the brands sales volume in one fell swoop. The run lasted only 5 years, until 2005. A quick aside, but did anything sound any less appealing than the name LW200?
The S Series- The Only Saturn from 1990-2002
At the time, a review from Car and Driver in May of 2000 praised the L series as a very solid effort. It was on balance a well executed car built on a stout platform. Testers praised the smoothness of the 4 cylinder and even said it was the better choice than the available V-6. Not surprisingly, critics all panned the rather bland styling. It was no head turner when compared to the very handsome Nissan Altima of the same period.
Then again, if you were going for style points, you wouldn’t be looking at a Saturn anyway. It was to be the model prototypical Saturn buyers would upgrade to when they were done with their Saturn S Series. Up until that point, Saturn unbelievably soldiered on with a single model, the compact S Series, with only minor changes, from 1990 until the L series came along in 2000. The VUE SUV came in 2002.
With a strong dealer network, no haggle pricing and high customer satisfaction, Saturn had a good thing going for a couple of years in the 90’s. When Saturn was started, the brand was touted as a ‘different kind of car company”, firewalled from Corporate to do thing differently, Saturn-specific. Slowly but surely, it was reeled in and became just another GM brand, starved for new product. By the time more appealing cars like the Aura, a totally new Vue (the rebadged Opel Antara), Astra and Sky came around in 2006-2008, it was too late, and the brand was shut down in 2009.
For us, our LW200 was a perfectly fine vehicle, and we had nary an issue in the three years of the lease term and didn’t go back to the dealership for a single issue. It was well put together, adequately powerful, quiet, comfortable, reasonable to insure, and fuel-efficient. It had enough room for the three of us and whatever baby gear for Adam we needed to take with us. Midsize wagons of that era however, were nothing like the mid-70’s land yachts in terms of storage and couldn’t hold a candle to a minivan in that regard. And it would be super tight space wise for what we had coming. In July of 2004 we brought home our second child from the hospital, a boy whom we call Shane. The wagon was due back on lease in October, and not a minute too soon as the storage area in back just wouldn’t do any longer. Among other things, we now had a dual stroller that would not fit in back. Time to think about what was next.
2018 Buick Regal TourX – A COAL of the Future?
So, I managed to check off a box in my automotive bucket list and was happy I was able to do so. I remain a wagon loyalist. I think the old Volvo 240’s (rear wheel drive) are brilliant and a classic. I couldn’t convince Mrs. C in 2010 to let me buy a used Dodge Magnum RT. I personally much prefer the handling of a car over a lumbering SUV or crossover, hands down. After all, any way you slice it, crossovers really are nothing more than tall station wagons as far as I’m concerned. It’s nice to see Subaru and the Europeans still keeping the wagon body style alive. And shockingly, GM debuted a slick-looking wagon last year, the Buick Regal TourX. Someday, I think I’d like another wagon. Hopefully they’ll still be around when I’m ready.