Curbside Classic: 1992 Saturn SL – GM’s Deadly Sin #4 – The Eulogy

(This was written in October 2009 at the time of Saturn’s death. Revised and updated in 2015 & 2016)

Friends, we are gathered together to pay our last respects to a fallen brother. Saturn was the love child of Roger Smith and Hal Riney; one was the Chairman of GM, a manufacturer of cars; the other, an ad man extraordinaire, a manufacturer of emotions and perceived needs. Let us savor their own words as we remember the brand that was Saturn, starting with these from brother Roger: (Saturn will be)“a quantum leap ahead of the Japanese, including what they have coming in the future. In Saturn we have GM’s answer – the American answer – to the Japanese challenge. It’s the clean-sheet approach to producing small cars that in time will have historic implications…(Saturn is) the key to GM’s long-term competitiveness, survival, and success.” 

Ironically prophetic words, as it turned out.


So how exactly does a “clean-sheet” car end up sharing the same styling as a mid-size Oldsmobile that came out one year before the Saturn? I know there are explanations, but they don’t work. And the fact that it came out looking like a 9/10 Cutlass already predicts why Saturn was destined to fail. It’s not that the first Saturn’s styling was such a significant factor in itself, but it was profoundly symbolic of GM’s inability to escape itself, even when trying to hide deep in the green hills of Tennessee. Escape from stagnation and decline, and attempts at re-invention from the outside-in are as old as civilization itself. I’m not a historian, but finding a successful model for Roger’s folly eludes me. Weak organizations and civilizations get overrun by dynamic ones. Or actually fix what’s wrong at the core.

Saturn 1984 demonstrationvehicle

I do fancy myself a bit of an automotive historian though, but I’d almost forgotten this important tidbit: the Saturn was originally planned to be sold by Chevrolet. The early prototypes (above) even looked like a shrunken Chevy Cavalier. The whole concept of a completely separate division and dealer network came later in the Saturn’s protracted eight-year development. Now there’s some serious food for thought: how differently might things have turned out if it had been a Chevy. Because the decision to make the Saturn “A Different Kind of Car Company” not only reflected GM’s hubris and unrealistic expectations, it also directly created the mortal bind that Saturn inevitably found itself in.

Sure, in its heyday, the unique Saturn dealer experience and no-haggle pricing was a breath of fresh air. But these were both ephemeral; the pricing policy went out the window when small car sales weakened, and smart dealers of all persuasion began to improve aspects of the dealership experience.

The fact that GM thought that a key problem with losing the small car battle to the Japanese lay in the dealership experience rather than in the actual cars proves how delusional they really were. Especially so since Toyota and Honda dealers were notoriously rapacious at the time, often charging well above MSRP and forcing options on buyers who waited weeks to get their precious Accord or Corolla.

Saturn’s early days feel-good vibes had all the fervor of a quasi-religious cult. It was one of the great triumphs of advertising and marketing; a brilliant campaign engineered by San Francisco’s Hal Riney. GM did one thing right with its choice of Saturn’s agency.

Riney’s first big claim to fame was commissioning a song by Paul Williams for a Crocker bank commercial, “You’ve Only Just Begun”. It became the monster hit “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters, perhaps the only song of its kind that started out as a commercial.

And he created the “It’s Morning Again in America” spot that helped get Ronald Reagan re-elected. Notice a recurring theme?

Yes, America loves re-inventions more than real inventions. But its attention span is short, and moves on to the next new thing pronto, especially so when the underlying product is less than memorable. Or when the next fad just around the corner is something different altogether, like trucks and SUVs. There you have it, a brief summation of Saturn’s woes. Now for the automotive details:

The Saturn wasn’t a terrible car. There, that didn’t hurt so much. Obviously, a distinctive and fresh design rather than an old Olds hand-me-down shrunken tee-shirt might have been in order. If you’re going to plow $5 billion (back when billions were still impressive amounts) into a new car, at least buy it a new suit. Was the Saturn competitive?

That’s highly debatable. It definitely wasn’t as good as its clearly stated target, the Honda Civic. It might have been close in some metrics to the gen2 Civic when the Saturn project started. But by the time Saturns finally arrived in the summer of 1990, the Civic was already nearing the end of its brilliant fourth generation, and heading for its fifth. That probably wasn’t on Roger’s mind when he spoke the words “a quantum leap ahead of the Japanese, including what they have coming in the future”. Not.

The Civic and Corolla were on a roll in the eighties and nineties, with a new generation arriving like clockwork every four years. And it showed, in their relentless refinement. The Civic engine hummed like a Stradivarius (a Japanese brand of sewing machine). The Saturn engine growled like a coffee grinder. Saturn interiors were always obviously cheap. Corolla interiors (of the nineties) weren’t. Honda and Toyota might have been worried about Saturn initially, as they were briefly about the Neon a few years later, but needn’t have. It was GM, after all.

Granted, there were many happy Saturn owners out there. It handled quite decently (no better than the Civic though), was commendably light and toss-able, and owners loved the plastic body panels, especially in the rust belt. The Saturn got good fuel economy, although nothing near the ridiculous 45 city/60 mileage EPA numbers GM promised during the long gestation (they ended up at 27/37; 21/31 adjusted in today’s EPA numbers).

Roger Smith

The really big problem with Roger’s big Saturn idea is this: where do we go from here? Was that even considered? Ok, by throwing enough billions at it, GM showed that it could make a half-way decent, reasonably-competitive small car. Does that make a viable car company/division? I don’t think so (and didn’t at the time, contrary to the popular thinking). And that’s where the whole Saturn experiment begins to take its inevitable ugly turn.

When the market soon shifted away from small cars to bigger cars and SUVs, Saturn, as a separate entity but dedicated only to building and selling one sub-compact car, suddenly looked like an answer to a question that never should have been asked. GM had failed to consider the inevitable: what to do after the S-Class loses its initial burst of luster and the market shifts? What do we do now? Honda doesn’t just sell Civics; they also sell Accords.

saturn-l-series_2000_5

So Saturn needed an Accord fighter too, and it got one, in the form of a plasticized Opel Vectra, dubbed the L Series. Well, if the S Series was several generations behind the Civic, the L Series was even further behind the class-leading Accord. Things were not going well at Saturn. The solution?

GM felt it had no choice but to develop a whole line of cars, SUVs, mini-vans, and even a sports car to try to back-stop Saturn’s decline – right during a time when development dollars at GM were getting scarce. In the meantime, the S Series soldiered along on the same platform for some ten years. It became an endless robbing Peter to pay Paul nightmare.

Saturn-Relay-3

As well as a colossal joke: why was Saturn selling that rebadged mini-van piece of crap, the Relay? Or a gigantic seven seater SUV, the Outlook? Mission statement ADD at its worst.

If GM had stuck to their original plan of selling the Saturn as an entry level Japanese-fighter at Chevy dealers, the whole disaster could have been avoided. GM would have had an import fighter where it belonged: in its biggest dealer network. Yes, we might have missed out on the Spring Hill “Homecoming”, and the rest of Hal Riney’s hokey feel-good BS. But the warm and fuzzy memories of it were worth paying for with our tax dollars, no? It’s been estimated that the whole Saturn fiasco lost as much as $12 billion. One of the biggest industrial blunders and losses ever; the Edsel of the modern era.

Saturn’s inauspicious beginning reminds me of the song that made Hal Riney famous:

We’ve only just begun to live,

White lace and promises…

We’ll find a place where there’s room to grow,

And yes, We’ve just begun.


Yes, friends, it really is Mourning again in America.