Automotive History: The Sad Final Years Of Saturn

(first posted 10/18/2011)

Earlier in this space we traced the promising birth (and rapid maturation) of GM’s first new nameplate since the depression. The car was the Saturn and in its earliest days, it offered the hope that a new way of designing, building and marketing cars would revitalize its parent company. For a moment, at the pinnacle of success and acceptance, Saturn looked like the long sought answer to GM’s continuing failure in small cars. But as we’ll see, the descent of the division was a slow, painful experience that revealed that the old GM way was not dead, just dormant.

Milestones (and milestone cars) seemed to fly by for the half decade after launch as Saturn went from one product triumph to the next. Management knew that the safe styling of the first generation cars would age quickly and work began to keep the line up to date. A wagon was added in 1992 and by the end of the millennium, the company was celebrating job number two million. But as we have learned, there are no permanent victories in the auto business and just at the apogee of success, Saturn would begin a long, tragic fall to irrelevancy and failure. The seeds of the descent had been sowed at the founding, but it was only after the car was history that we understood that part of our narrative.


Those seeds began to sprout when Saturn was ready for a new model series. In the fall of 1999, the long awaited new Saturns began rolling off the line at Spring Hill and in Wilmington, Delaware. The car from Wilmington was the fork in the road that took GM away from the look and “feel “ of the original SL series. The all new mid size L series cars took GM back to the discredited practice of trying to pass off a model meant for another market to U.S. buyers.

The donor car was the Opel Vectra and it carried the same baggage that had sank many a GM euro spec model- it was poorly adapted to North America. The V-6 that GM had cut and pasted in to the equally ill fated Catera (CC here) , was also installed in the L series, with the same unhappy results. Fortunately,  buyers could also spec the Ecotech 2.2L four which proved to be a good engine in a bad car. The L series was a major disappointment for GM and its failure began the slide to oblivion for its maker that ended in October 2009.


Another sign that Saturn was falling victim to the internal politics of GM was the introduction of the the Vue in 2002. SUV’s were taking off explosively then and even though the traditional Saturn owner was not a trend hopper, the project went ahead. More body sharing: The Vue was a clone of the Chevy Equinox , Pontiac Torrent and Opel Antara. The image that Saturn had worked so hard to nurture was being destroyed bit by bit as the company’s cars lost the unique character that had attended its founding. Even the company’s thermoformed, dent resistant plastic bodies were sacrificed on the altar of cost reduction.  The accountants (and some militant shareholders)  were demanding that Saturn’s massive investment start showing a return and executives in the executive suite at GM (most from the finance side) readily agreed.

2003 finally saw a replacement for the seminal SL series and the new car (dubbed the Ion) was another let down for loyal Saturn customers. The styling was an incoherent mish mash of opposing themes and weird details. A five speed autobox was added to the drivetrains on offer as well as a CVT that proved somewhat troublesome. The standard engine was the 2.2 Ecotech (later shared with the Cobalt)  with a larger 2.4L version optional.


Oddball details (a center mounted instrument cluster, hard, uncomfortable seats) took lots of brickbats from owners and critics and the engine was criticized as being noisy and rough. The car shared lots of chassis hardware with the new Cobalt from Chevrolet  and the accountants made sure that the interior bits were made from the hardest, cheapest plastic that they could find. By now, Saturn’s small car was no longer among the class leaders. Only the sterling customer service of the early days remained.

Denouement– After the failure of the Ion, Saturn increasingly became a dumping ground for GM models that would further diminish the reputation of what had been a vibrant, confident company just a few years before. The new for 2005 Relay (above) was an obvious clone of the horrible Chevy Uplander/Pontiac Montana and showed that the freefall at Saturn was gaining momentum. It also signified the loss of clout at the corporate level needed to maintain Saturn’s unique character.  Then the hammer fell from the UAW: In 2004 the unions “special relationship” with the company was dissolved and for all practical purposes, the Saturn experiment had ended.

There would be a flicker of excitement when the company trotted out the Sky roadster in early 2006, but the car was another badge job (shared with Pontiac’s Solstice) that looked good and sold poorly. By this time, Saturn was on life support, with the final models little more than renamed Opel’s. As the economy crashed beginning in early 2007, parent GM began publicly questioning the need for so many brands (including Saturn) under one corporate roof.

The end came on October 1, 2009, when Saturn production ended at all facilities.

By the end, the company line was down to the Outlook crossover and a couple of Opel models (Aura and Astra) that had been drafted to run out the string. Saturn’s original mission had long since been lost. Only the autopsy remained.

What went wrong ? How could a company with a dynamite product and excellent customer service possibly fail after just a few model design cycles ? Let’s discuss.

Saturn was doomed from the beginning. GM invested too much money in the concept at the outset. It was like building a million dollar mansion…in a neighborhood where the average rent was 300 dollars a month. The enormous outlay could never be recouped. And by the mid 2000’s with GM’s market share shrinking with every ten day sales report, the Saturn experiment was a luxury that the company could no longer afford.

Also, Saturn was a “chimney” inside GM. The company assembled its own bodies and engines at Spring Hill and after its favored status began to wear off, had to compete with other divisions for attention and capital from the fourteenth floor. The first sign of trouble was in 2003, when its ad budget was cut in half . Another clue came when there was no homecoming in 2004. The company flat out lied when it explained that the trip was too far for most customers to travel. (despite good attendance at the previous two events as above) And finally the mediocre, badge engineered L series was another “top down” GM program from the bad old days. After early 2006, the parent company was in such a freefall that it couldn’t even save itself, much less an experiment that might never show a real money in / money out profit.

GM itself declared bankruptcy in June of 2009 and the fire sale of corporate assets began. Pontiac, Saturn, Saab and Hummer were cut loose as the company desperately sought to save something from the wreckage that had been the old GM. With the end of the old order, Saturn was shopped around and as is usually the case with a failing car company, wild schemes and trial balloons were floated, but every tire kicking “Lookie Lou” backed out. Thus Saturn expired and is now being airbrushed from GM’s corporate past. It is not too much to say that the operation was a success – but the patient died.

Editor’s Postscript: GM never released a definitive final accounting of its accumulated/total losses on its Saturn boondoggle, but several analysts came up with a range based on various GM filings and such. Their estimates were up to $12 billion dollars, making Saturn not only one of GM’s Deadliest Sins ever, but one of the biggest corporate blunders ever too.

My Saturn GM Deadly Sin article is here.