This is another one of those “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d see this here” sort of deals. Italian exotics, US muscle cars and British roadsters are a yen a dozen in Tokyo. The real strange encounter is that of the most mundane, yet relatively obscure. The question then becomes: Is there anything more mundane and obscure as a late ‘90s Saturn wagon?
I’m pretty sure I have never seen an S-series Saturn in Europe, nor in any Asian country before this very odd encounter. It’s funny how coy GM were about Saturn on foreign markets. Chrysler had a bright idea with selling Neons everywhere, Ford foisted the Fusion upon the wider world, but GM did not broadcast their new small American car to other continents – or so I thought.
After all, GM in the ‘90s had Chevrolet, Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, Isuzu and Daewoo to wow and woo the world with. That was plenty to go on, surely. Saturn was supposed to be strictly a domestic affair, even though the new marque was remarkable international-sounding. Planetary, even. Turns out that GM did try to sell the Saturn in Japan in the late ‘90s, but chose the wrong moment, the wrong car and the wrong country.
Japan is a notoriously difficult market for American manufacturers to crack, though there always a few folks who will want something a bit different. But eccentricity is more often the purview of the wealthy. GM could compete in certain niches, such as big luxury wagons (Buick “Regal” Estate), deluxe vans (Chevrolet Astro), performance (Corvette) or full-fat luxobarge (Cadillac). One just cannot expect the Japanese public to pay extra for something they could get from Nissan or Mazda, i.e. a strangely styled small wagon with RHD and a 4-cyl. engine. That’s what they export to the US and the world!
The only way to get a foothold in the Japanese market with a smallish 4-cyl. model is to either go for exclusivity, like Alfa Romeo or BMW, or to have a reputation for solidity like VW or Peugeot. With Saturn, GM were not entirely clear on what they were doing. They stuffed as many extras in them as they could, including the DOHC engine and ABS, so it looked like they were going for exclusivity. Problem was, nobody knew Saturn, so having one was nothing to brag about. A bit too exclusive, in other words.
This drove the price up a bit, though it was still in the right bracket. At ¥1.77m in 1997, the SW2 wagon was sandwiched between, say, the Toyota Corona and the Mitsubishi Libero, though the buyers for those cars would never have cross-shopped anything like a Saturn. GM felt the need to put the steering wheel on the right, as the received wisdom in Detroit at the time was that “We’re not selling any cars in Japan because our models are all LHD.” They failed to realize that nearly all the Mercedes-Benzes, Lancias or Jaguars sold in Japan have the steering wheel on the wrong side (and still do, to a large extent, to this day) because it’s dead chic to have a fancy imported car with LHD. Right-hand drive equals domestic car, LHD equals desirable exotic. American car with RHD equals mixed message.
Couple that with the range’s Japanese launch in the spring of 1997, just as the Asian financial markets were in meltdown, and you get a recipe for disaster. Period tests damned the Saturn with faint praise and claimed that its dynamics would have been ok ten years before. Not for the last time, GM found that the competition were running rings around Saturn: only about 3000 sedans, wagons and coupés were sold until the year 2000, when GM put a stop to this painful experiment. Succeeding in Japan, for a foreign maker, is a very high bar to clear. Still, this might serve as a funny footnote to the Deadly Sin that was Saturn in general.
Automotive History: Saturn’s Early Years – Corporate Camelot, by Jeff Nelson
Automotive History: The Sad Final Years Of Saturn, by Jeff Nelson
Something About Those Saturns, by Mark Borcherding