COAL: 1997 Saturn SC-2 – Honest and Reliable

My previous Car of a Lifetime entry was a bit of a novella, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and wrenching and planning on that truck; this one is going to be somewhat short, because it’s a car I inherited when I got married, but still worth writing about.

Much has been written about the Saturn Corporation, here at CC and elsewhere, detailing its birth within GM, rapturous reception, and rapid decline as internal forces tore it apart. I was only dimly aware of Saturns when they were first released, as they generally didn’t show up in the repo lot that much.

When I met my future wife in 2000, she had a car she’d bought herself, something she was very proud of: a 1998 Saturn SC-2, in dark blue. This was a car she bought to replace a balky Chevy Sprint, a miserable lump of an econobox that she was glad to be rid of. I’ve seen a lot of bile on the Internet about Saturns and I always stick up for them (at least, the model and year we owned) because ours was a good, honest, well-made car and always came through for us.


This SC-2 was a manual, something she specifically looked for. She didn’t know how to drive a stick before she bought the car, and learned how to do it in a parking lot with her then-boyfriend the day she bought it. When she told me that, I was impressed, because I’d never have the guts to make that kind of financial commitment to something I’d not mastered first.

When I met her it was in great shape. This was the second generation of Saturn coupe, which shared the same platform and wheelbase of the sedan. That made the ride comfortable but also explained why the turning radius was that of an ocean liner: something that made parking in the city, where I lived at that time, difficult. The exterior of the car was curvy and sleek, and the panels were all tight and well-fitting. Strangely, it had a wing on the trunk, which was de rigeur for sporty-looking cars of that time, even when their top output was 124hp. The engine was not built for speed. This car got about 28 MPG on average for us, and was optimized for highway cruising, so it had nothing to back up its sporty looks.

image: What you see is what we got. Nothing fancy, but functional.

Inside, the car was full of hard plastic and designed in the bulbous style of GM in that era. I guess even though Saturn was a New Kind of Car, there was a lot of design bleed-over from the GM corporate office. It was all designed pretty well and, as with the outside, put together better than its GM contemporaries. I remember feeling similarities in getting in and out of this car to my CR-X: the driver’s position was low to the ground. Driving it was a pleasure. It was a comfortable cabin to spend time in, and the steering was tighter and more responsive than my Taurus or Jeep. The clutch was a lot less precise than the Japanese cars I’d grown up with, which took some getting used to. My only gripe with driving it was the tendency of the windows to fog up on rainy days and the inability of the climate control system to clear them.

Image: This would have made life so much easier…

This was also two model years before Saturn offered a third door behind the driver’s door, which would have made getting in and out of the back seat much easier, and dealing with a child seat an actual possibility.

Headliner out, repairs underway.

We drove it for ten years, putting required maintenance into it in return for many trouble-free, economical miles. In 2010 I opened the sunroof on the way to work and, when I got there, it refused to close. Luckily this was May, and there are many junkyards to choose from nearby. I found a couple of coupes in the closest yard, and within a half an hour had removed a motor from a red donor, having used a utility knife to cut a square out of the headliner.

At home it was much more difficult to get our headliner out in one piece, but after some Internet sleuthing and careful extraction I got it out, the old motor disconnected and the junkyard replacement back in. I hooked the battery back up and tested it out a bunch of times before replacing everything, and it worked fine from then on.

The mighty Saturn I-4. This one is kind of dirty. Ours was much cleaner. 

In 2012 the miles were adding up, and it began to nickel and dime us. It began to have overheating issues, which our mechanic warned us about. He also pulled the #4 plug and found it completely fouled with crap, which was another bad sign–I’d replaced the plugs and wires the previous fall. The tires were bald. We made some basic repairs and it kept soldiering on, but it was getting to the point where we needed four doors and more reliability. Used Saturns at that point were pretty much worthless, so I made arrangements to donate it for a tax write-off, and it was towed away to my wife’s despair.