Curbside Recycling: 1992 Saturn SL1 – Typical GM, Crapped Out After Only 556,016 Miles

Before anyone gets their knickers in a bunch, that’s obviously sarcasm, an achievement such as this is to be celebrated, not mocked, no matter who the manufacturer is.  As an early Saturn, being a new car with a new engine in a new plant it’s even more impressive.  I see a surprising number of cars with well under 100,000 miles in the junkyard, numbers starting with 1 and 2 are the norm, 3 as the lead is not really uncommon, a 4 though is rare unless a heavy truck, but anything over 500,000 especially in a car is extremely rare, in fact this is the first I’ve come across that I can recall.  I even wiped the sweat out of my eyes as I thought it was a five digit odometer at first and had to look twice to be sure. 

556,016 miles is the distance to the moon and back with another 88,000 miles on top of that.  I won’t make you wait for the money shot, here it is!  The gauge cluster isn’t bad overall either, no blank spots on this model (or any model for that matter) which was certainly an improvement.

This car stems from Saturn’s second model year, but it’s a fairly early one and is the SL1 trim level.  There was an SL(no number) base model below it but the only differences were in the seat cloth and the fact that it did not have power steering.  The brochure was inconclusive as to which seat cloth was which compared to what’s in this one but the power steering reservoir is visible in my pictures below so an SL1 it is.  The SL2 had a DOHC engine and body colored bumpers along with lots of other differences.

Amazingly this car looks in very good condition.  While the majority of the body panels are plastic, the paint in general has held up quite well over the years and distance. Those black things under the headlights are remnants of deer whistle devices, to whose efficacy I cannot speak.  The white nose cone on this one has been repainted (poorly) at least once, though.

556,016 miles is more than 22 times around the world.  But the badge still looks good!  This logo I found to be one of the more inspired ones of the 90’s and would still look good today if there was a car it could adorn.  The materials used to create it seemed better too than the usual plastichrome garbage across the rest of the GM divisions.

There was no badging on the rear of the first versions of Saturns, just the embossed name in the plastic bumper.  But that was okay, with the huge ad blitz that GM put on, everyone seemed to know what a Saturn was.  Just nobody knew what it would (or better, should) become, least of all GM.

556,016 miles is 185 times the distance across the United States.  Saturn was of course GM’s attempt to out-import the imports by thinking differently and beating them at their own game somehow.  Of course why that couldn’t just have happened at any (or better yet, all) of the existing divisions is a question for the ages.  Let’s just keep building crap as usual but this one special new division we’ll throw money at and have them do what we should have been doing all along.  So off to Spring Hill, Tennessee it was and a new factory was built to shovel out a new range of cars.

These cars were then sold at Saturn dealerships which introduced no-haggle pricing to the American consumer with a promise to not use the typical dealer sales tactics.  And it was sort of a success (at first, kind of, besides the unfortunate fact that many buyers were already GM buyers and not turning in their Hondas and Toyotas).  Saturn people seemed to be just as evangelical about their cars as Prius people were a decade later and Tesla people seem to be now.  The difference is that Saturn kind of dead-ended and wasn’t really any different in the end since the same people were still in charge whereas the Prius has turned hybrids into accepted normality all over the world and Tesla has been spearheading a whole new paradigm and more or less turning the traditional auto industry on its head.  As we all know, lots of owners even trekked down to Spring Hill for huge Saturn get-togethers at the plant.  Some of them weren’t aware they owned a GM car.

556,016 miles is 14,632 gallons of gasoline at the Saturn SL1’s highway fuel economy rating of 38mpg.  The SL and SL1 used a SOHC cam 1.9-liter engine producing a not very impressive for the size 85hp at 5000rpm at the time along with 107lb-ft of torque at 2400rpm.  The SL was paired exclusively with a 5-speed manual, but the SL1 could also be had with an automatic (4-speed).

The power steering reservoir is there at the back left defining this as an SL1.  That’s quite the lump there to be able to make it this far.  Kudos.  While apparently durable, these were still quite a bit rougher in operation than what most of the Japanese imports were installing in their engine bays.

556,016 miles is actually an average of about 20,000 miles per year since this car was built which is not significantly above the average driver’s annual mileage, especially in Wyoming.  There is a note underhood about an oil change at 510,000 miles in 2013, which at that point would have equated to 24,285 miles per year.  The round trip distance between Cheyenne and Laramie is exactly 100 miles, so that could be a commute for every working day in the year minus a couple of weeks of staycation.  Perhaps the owner retired around the time of this oil change and that explains the lower mileage accumulation since.

Of course that particular commute means a change in elevation from 6063 feet to 7165 feet while crossing an 8200 or so  foot pass and can be very treacherous in the winter.  Perhaps there was a set of Nokian snow tires on the factory steelies and that’s why it came into this yard on space savers.

556,016 miles is 8554 hours (356 nonstop days) of driving at the 65mph speed limit in force in most states in 1992.  Still, there’s barely any rust on this thing, none on the top side (it’s not ALL plastic panels, just the sides and ends), and minimal on the underside.

556,016 miles brings the cost per mile for the car purchase down to 1.6 cents per mile which is exceptional, plus operating expenses of course.  And the first year and a half was with a full warranty (3year, 36,000 mile bumper to bumper).  This car listed at $8,995, but air conditioning (which this car has) was an optional extra.  Curiously so was any radio with a cassette but this buyer decided to stick with radio only, which would be harsh for that much driving out in the Wyoming area. As would driving around without any way to adjust where the air is directed since that knob is missing, presumably after the bumper to bumper warranty expired.  But otherwise the HVAC controls are clear and easy to figure out.

The knob for the standard 5-speed certainly seems to show the correct amount of wear.  I’d probably take up smoking too if I drove this car for this long, anything to take my mind off things besides a staticky radio.

556,016 miles is more than I’d want to drive this car for but I’d say that of any car.  I have to assume that there were floormats in this car during its lifetime, that carpet is way too clean and undamaged for there not to have been.  The pedal covers are obviously worn and the clutch one is missing; worn to dust, or it just fell off.  I don’t know if I’d choose this over a Mitsubishi or a Nissan of the era, but almost certainly over a Cavalier.

The driver’s seat bottom still looks great but the seatback has been replaced with one from an SL2 model, I’m assuming based on the plusher fabric.  And the passenger’s has a cover on it.

All manual here, baby!  Locks, windows, even the mirror.  At one point someone re-padded the armrest and look at the pullgrip, that is showing a bit of wear.  However the door panel is still on the car, not too shabby.

I think these earlier interiors were better and more attractive than the later ones, they seem more competitive at least, later they just started to look even more plasticky and sort of malformed, as if the funding started to dry up or something…oh, wait!  And it’s a glorious shade of blue as well.

The cushion looks sort of low and the back support seems minimal but I’ve never been in the back of one of these that I can recall.  At least it has sort of headrests.

At some point in ownership I guess you just break out the Sharpie to note when the last oil change was done.  With this many miles on it, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it right either.

My decoder website tells me that even though this is stickered as an October car, it rolled off the line on November 4th of 1991.  Which, lo and behold, was a Monday!  Maybe they didn’t get hangovers at the Spring Hill plant.

I’m impressed with this car, and its owner.  This is in far better shape than many I see with half or even a quarter of the miles; I suppose if you take care of your car, it will take care of you.