It was 1996 and I was the not-so-proud owner of a lumbering GMC Jimmy. That will be the subject of another COAL, but suffice to say that once the new wore off on that car I had grown very tired of it’s SUV’ness, the jiggly ride, roaring 4.3L “Vortec” V6, and general lack of agility. A bad accident in the Jimmy put it out of commission, and I was hoping that the insurance company would total it. But no, it was fixable but it would be in the shop for weeks. And without rental car coverage on my policy, I needed a ride. So my plan was to scour the ads immediately for a replacement vehicle, and sell the Jimmy once it was fully repaired.
In the 1990’s, GM went through a series of chaotic reorganizations, renaming its car engineering divisions every few years. I was a young engineer at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, assigned to work on the J-body Chevy Cavalier. But the name on my business card said Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac Group, or B-O-C (ironic, that a division derisively nicknamed “Big Old Cars” would be responsible for engineering GM’s smallest cars). That name soon changed to Lansing Automotive Division, and finally GM Small Car Group when LAD swallowed up Saturn’s engineering division in its final reorganization before bankruptcy.
Regardless of name, it was tough being part of the scrappy little engineering group that struggled mightily to make the J car competitive against our benchmark vehicles – Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and yes, the BMW 3-Series. Saddled with an obsolete X-car derived platform, aging pushrod engines, and a shoestring product budget, it was a hopeless effort but as a new car-crazy college grad I still enjoyed the work, even if the cars were junk.
So when GM formed the super secret Saturn division and poured $5 billion into the new division with an all-new small car, jealousy raged at Lansing Automotive Division, like the troubled older sibling who is totally ignored when his parents give birth to a newborn and shower the baby with love and attention and gifts. To us, Saturn was the enemy, as hated as Toyota and Honda, made worse by GM deliberately partitioning off Saturn and not allowing any cooperation or sharing of resources between Saturn and its “competitor” small car division.
Nevertheless, I harbored a secret admiration for the Saturn. GM was finally fielding, on paper, a fully modern and competitive small car, boasting a fully independent suspension and a twin cam engine paired with an honest 5 speed manual transmission. I was very familiar with how Cavalier’s and their better-dressed cousins drove, and I missed having an agile, tossable, fun little runabout ever since I gave up my old Honda Civic. So when I found a lightly used Saturn wagon with the twin cam engine and 5 speed in the classifieds, I was instantly sold.
Compared to the big, ponderous Jimmy, driving my little SW2 was a revelation. It was light, quick, tossable, and fun. I enjoyed having a sporty little wagon, and the extra weight in the back due to the wagon body gave it a delightfully neutral feel in corners. But the sensory costs of driving a Saturn were considerable. The engine didn’t sing like a Honda VTEC, but growled. It rode like a skateboard, enhanced by it being so low to the ground. And not only was the engine noisy, the car boomed and rattled at all speeds and road surfaces. It was definitely an unpleasant highway cruiser and traversing Michigan potholes and frost heaves was brutal. But I loved how it could zip in and out of busy traffic with ease. I concluded that the Saturn needed more suspension travel, about 100 lbs of sound insulation, and balance shafts in the raucous 4 cyl engine. It also needed a serious interior upgrade, for the hollow plastic trim on the dash and console was cheaper than even the Cavalier. All fixable with some money, so it’s a shame that GM couldn’t find it in their $5 billion budget to address these things.
After getting the Jimmy back from the shop, I had to decide which vehicle to keep and which one to say goodbye to. My fiancé voted strongly to keep the Jimmy. She had spent many unpleasant hours in the front passenger seat of the SW2, enduring its aural punishment and getting tossed around by its go-kart like ride. It turned out that my SW2 had also been in an accident, and a poor repair job caused a cold draft to constantly blow into the front passenger footwell, making it a miserable winter vehicle for the passenger. She was not keen to embark on future road trips in this wagon, and she wanted the Jimmy’s perceived security of 4WD for winter in Michigan. So in the interest of future wedded bliss, I sold the SW2 after only about 1 year of ownership. During that time I had a brief but memorable fling with a car that I had once admired only from afar.
In retrospect, the SW2 just satisfied my curiosity about how Saturns drove, as we were not allowed near them when I worked for GM’s competing small car division. Would I have bought this car again if I got a do-over? Probably not. I really wanted a Honda Civic, but if due to your employment you were forced to choose between a Saturn and a competing J-car, I probably would have gone with the J-car. Although a J-car drives like a big clumsy car in a smaller package, in a Saturn you’re paying too big of a price for the driving fun. As you’ll see in a future COAL, I would get my wish soon.