COAL: 1994 Saturn SL- Drinking the Kool-Aid

Yours truly and the Saturn, 1995.


There were two formative chapters in my life that should have made me think a lot harder about the car purchase that came after the Tercel. First, having lived in Oregon during the 1980s, I vividly remember when the “Rajneeshees,” members of a secretive cult founded by an Indian mystic called “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh,” took over a tiny town in a rural part of the state. I remember the images of Bhagwan’s adoring disciples jumping in ecstasy, waving and clapping as their so-called spiritual leader was chauffeured past them in one of his many Rolls-Royces. I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with these dopes? Are people this easily fooled?” (Answer: yes, they are.) The cult’s leaders were later charged with serious crimes–poisoning a town’s water supply with salmonella, f’rinstance–and by 1986, the Rajneeshees were no more, at least in Oregon. Like politicians and fad diets, cults never deliver what they promise.

The second event ties in more directly with automotive matters. In my last post, I mentioned that my wife and I did the “unthinkable” when we replaced the Tercel: we bought American. That may sound overly dramatic, let me give you some background to that statement. When I was about six, my parents bought…well, I don’t know if I can name the car without getting apoplectic. Even after almost 50 years, it’s still a sore spot and one of the more shameful automotive chapters in our family history. Give me a moment to center myself…Okay, here goes. It was a…a…VEGA.* Yes, CC’s “GM Deadly Sin #2.” So dad, like so many weary by that time of crap-quality American cars, had an epiphany when, in 1975, he replaced the shame-mobile with a Toyota Corolla wagon: Japan made much, much better cars. That led to his decision to buy the ’81 Mazda GLC and later his ‘88 626. Growing up post-Vega, I had been imbued with the idea that if you wanted a well-made car with rock-solid reliability, look toward the Land of the Rising Sun.


When I thought of American cars, I pictured one of these. Except it should be rusty and with smoke coming from the hood.


Therefore, it may strike the reader strange that this COAL is about an American car. And not just any American car, but one from GM, the very makers of the automotive disgrace known as the Vega. As I mentioned in my Tercel installment, Ms. D and I knew that we would soon outgrow the little Toyota. It was the right car at the time we bought it, but we knew that eventually we’d have to strap an infant/child car seat in the back, and that would require considerable gymnastics in a two-door car. And even by this time, we already had a “child” of sorts: one of Ms. D’s co-workers (let’s call him “Hutch”) was also a good friend of mine, and he accompanied us on many road trips, cramming himself into the back of our Tercel. We used to joke that Hutch was our “kid,” even though he was actually five years older than I was and seven more than Ms. D. (We thought about getting him a sippy cup, just for laughs!).

We considered the default options: another Toyota, maybe a Corolla this time, or a Honda Civic. And then there was Saturn. The new company had been making quite the splash in the early ‘90s. But I was ambivalent, despite (or perhaps because of) all the hype surrounding the new company that had almost religious overtones. Saturn really hadn’t been on my radar much until one day when a friend (let’s call him “Not-Hutch”) picked me up from work in his new ride- a ’93 SL2. He raved about it. “It’s really well built, and the best part is that it’s 100% American,” Not-Hutch gushed. He was a true-believer, if there ever was one.

A Saturn SL that looks almost exactly like ours did. Styling was…um, peculiar, but bore a strong resemblance the Oldsmobile Cutlass of the same era. Note the unusually long front overhang.


The “100% American” part didn’t really sway me that much. It wasn’t the ‘mercan part that was critical to me, it was frivolities such as build quality and reliability (I know, I’m so hard to please!).  But my friend’s SL2 was, somewhat shockingly, pretty nice, at least at first blush. It got me to thinking, “Is Saturn just the latest automotive turd GM pinched off or is there something more to it?” There did seem to be quite a few happy Saturn owners, Not-Hutch included. Ms. D and I discussed our options and one big point in the Saturn’s favor was price: they were noticeably cheaper than comparable Civics and Corollas. Additionally, Saturn’s “no-haggle” policy was very attractive as I generally tend to suffer from a mild nervous breakdown when I even think about negotiating a large purchase like a car. After much deliberation, we decided to go ahead and buy a Saturn. It was a gamble. Perhaps Saturn’s clever ads and “different kind of company/car” ethos were also working some sort of dark magic on us. We were ready to drink the Kool-Aid.


Saturn print ad, 1991. You can really see that overhang here.


So off to the Saturn of Southwest Oregon showroom we went. There, we admired the sacred “cut-away car,” which showed off the “spaceframe” and those famous dent-resistant polymer panels. I’m pretty sure every Saturn dealer had one of these cars. The purchase experience was as advertised: no-haggle. Unfortunately, one thing I hadn’t counted on was that they definitely wanted to haggle over the purchase price of our Tercel trade-in. But I soldiered through that and, after several rounds of back-and-forth, got them to come up to an acceptable level for me before my impending nervous breakdown. After that, it was smooth sailing.

It’s when the purchase was complete that things got weird. Leo, our salesman, ushered me and Ms. D out to the back of the dealership to pick up the car. Every available staff person was circled around our car. Leo handed us the keys and then everyone—I’m not making this up—burst into song. Yes, at Saturn, the staff sung each buyer a “congratulations/send-off” song. I don’t remember how it went, but it was probably dreadful and humiliating for the staff who had to sing it. I remember thinking “these poor people have to perform this soul-crushing ritual every time someone buys a car!” A Buddhist friend once told me about “the unreality of phenomenal distinction.” It’s that feeling you get when you witness something you just can’t believe is actually happening, like, say, when a terrible accident unfolds right in front of your eyes. That just about nails this experience. We drove our new car off the lot excited but also a little weirded-out.

We didn’t have much contact with the Saturnites after that and we never took the pilgrimage to Springhill to attend a “homecoming.” We did, however, visit a picnic for local area Saturn owners at a Medford park a couple of years later. I remember I won a Saturn t-shirt because I could name all the models in the Saturn line-up, which wasn’t exactly something to brag about because I only had to remember about four letters and be able to count up to two.

We all know Saturn turned out, which was nicely documented here by our esteemed senior editor as “GM Deadly Sin #4.” But I won’t dwell on that for now. All I can do is share our experience of owning the car. For starters, my skinflint tendencies got the best of me and we bought the base level SL. It looked pretty much like an SL1, but had different wheel covers and a cheaper-looking interior. Of course, it was also decontented, having no power options. But, in an improvement over the Tercel, it had cloth seats, a radio, two extra doors, and an additional forward gear. We were moving forward, even if at gastropod pace. Engine was a 2.0L SOHC 8-valve 4, same as the SL1 (SL2s got the more potent, but also much noisier DOHC 16-valver). With only 85 horses, power was adequate, though 107 ft-lbs. of torque at 2400 rpm helped. The Saturn was, however, a decent enough handler and felt very Japanese in that respect. With the 5-speed, it was reasonably fun to drive and I did like that extra gear. Hutch appreciated the easy ingress/egress from the back seat.

It wasn’t easy finding a decent SL-series interior picture from this era. Our car’s interior was gray but otherwise very similar. Note the steering wheel, pregnant with airbag. (We didn’t have Cruise Control.)


It wasn’t until the “Saturn/New Car High” began to wear off that I started noting the SL’s quirks and deficiencies (You thought I was going to say “quirks and features,” didn’t you?). A few of these I already knew about but gave a pass due to the car’s low price: the squishy seats, the “mad mouse” passive restraints and the horrendously bulging steering wheel, for example. But there was one big issue that started to grate on me. Having previously owned nothing but Japanese cars, I got used to the “sculpted from a single block of material” solidity those cars possessed. Cars, of course, are actually made from thousands of little pieces and the Saturn let you know it. It was fine on smooth roads, but if we drove it on uneven surfaces or rougher pavement, we were greeted by a chorus of squeaks and rattles. Things were even worse when sitting in the back seat, which, thankfully, I didn’t have to do very often. Back there, it felt like the very car itself was coming apart as harsh vibration provided an unwelcome counterpoint to the timpani of rattles. This was no Civic or Corolla. Not even close.

That the Saturn was nowhere close to the benchmarks became glaringly apparent a few years later when yet another friend showed up to visit in his new 1998 Civic LX. (We’ll call him “David,” because, well, that was his name). We drove down to the Oregon/California border and took the exit at Hilt. There, old highway 99 winds its way back into Oregon. And when I say “old,” I’m not exaggerating. I’m pretty sure the highway hadn’t been resurfaced since I-5 was laid in the 1960s. David’s Civic handled the old road with aplomb- confidently soaking up the bumps and myriad other imperfections. Sure, the ride was still a bit rough, but the Civic held its ground and felt composed. When Ms. D and I had driven this same road in the Saturn a few months before, it was a bone-rattling experience, something akin to being in an earthquake simulator.

Google street view of the old Pacific Highway at Hilt. It looks just as rough and broken up as it did back in ’98.


Looking back with the benefit of 20+ years of hindsight, the Saturn wasn’t a terrible car, despite the demerits I listed above. It proved to be extremely reliable and we had no mechanical issues during the time we owned it. Even after 100K miles, everything in the interior worked perfectly and, cosmetically, things were still in fine shape. This, in a way, was all the more frustrating. If the car had horrible reliability, it would be easy to justify dumping it in favor of a better car. But the Saturn plugged along and met our basic transportation needs, even if it did it in its own uncouth manner. It was like an embarrassing family member that you don’t like to be seen with but is always there when you need them. As it turned out, the Kool-Aid ended up not being lethal- it just left a bad aftertaste.

My daughter at 11 months, taking some of her first steps. This is the only picture I have that shows the front of the Saturn.


Our daughter arrived in October of 1997, and by this time I was long past being a Saturn believer. Thankfully, by 2000, our automotive fortunes were to change. The car gods would be smiling on us in a big way. You’ll read all about that in my next COAL.

*There was also a shameful chapter in Ms. D’s family automotive history. Her dad bought a 1980 Oldsmobile Diesel, another infamous GM megablunder. This also helps explain why buying a Saturn constituted such a cataclysmic shift in our thinking.