(first posted 3/11/2015) Saturn was created as “a different kind of car company”. Now whether or not you take that to heart, I think we can all agree that Saturn’s early line of S-Series cars were in fact, quite different from other GM products. They rode on an exclusive platform and just about all of their parts, including engines, transmissions, sheet metal (or sheet plastic, to be exact) and interior components, were unique to Saturn. Additionally, Saturn had their own manufacturing plant, separate dealer network, distinctive sales techniques, and was headquartered far from Detroit, in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
With its cars and unique approach to customer service, Saturn’s early years were relatively successful. But as its first decade wore on, sales hit a standstill. Lacking other products beyond its compact S-Series, loyal buyers were beginning to look elsewhere as their wants and needs in a car began to change. Many S-Series were purchased by young professionals as their first new car. As these people were getting older, becoming more successful, and starting families, larger, better-equipped cars were on their radar. Expanding its portfolio, with products for these buyers to trade up to was the logical solution for Saturn.
The first product of this such move was the Saturn L-Series, which entered production in mid-1999 as a 2000 model. Offering more space and features, and wrapped in familiar-looking polymer body panels, at first glance, the L-Series would have appeared to be everything the S-Series was, grown-up a bit.
Unfortunately, the Saturn L-Series was not everything the S-Series was. Rather than starting from the ground up, like it did with the S-Series, GM turned to its European subsidiary, Opel. The practice of using Opel as a starting point (among other brands) was not new, and in many cases a “global car” can be highly successful, while yielding substantial cost-saving benefits. Saab had based the 1994 900 on the Opel Vectra and Holden had used Opels as the basis for several of their vehicles. But for Saturn, a brand that prided itself in being “different” and virtually independent from GM, this move seemed to contradict Saturn’s core values.
Riding on a stretched Opel Vectra chassis, the L-Series also shared its basic architecture with the Vectra, ditching the S-Series space frame construction. While most of its body panels were unique, resemblance to the Vectra was visible, particularly in its greenhouse. Saturn also dipped into the GM parts bin for engines, transmissions, suspension components, and many interior pieces. An existing GM factory in Wilmington, Delaware was retooled for L-Series production, a move which further separated the L-Series from Saturn’s control and unique labor agreements with the United Auto Workers union.
For more worse than better, the interior of the L-Series was largely Saturn, bearing a strong resemblance to the S-Series. Early-’00s GM interiors were hardly the pinnacle of quality and design, and the Saturn L-Series was no exception. Lots of hard plastics, sterile color palates, and a bland design that already looked about five years old when it came out.
While this article might be sounding a bit over critical of the L-Series, in truth, the 2000 Saturn L-Series wasn’t a horrible car, at least on paper. It offered class-competitive space, engines, and features. It was also competitively priced, with sedan and wagon body styles, three trim levels, 2.2L I4 and 3.0L V6 (a detuned version of the Cadillac Catera and Saab 9-5’s) engines, and 4-speed automatic and Getrag 5-speed manual (also from the 9-5) transmissions.
So it may come as a surprise, but initial reception was actually quite positive, with the L-Series regarded as a solid prospect in the mid-size car segment. Reviews praised its handling, ride quality, acceleration from the V6, as well as the availability of a wagon, GM’s only mid-size wagon in North America. It looked like the L-Series was poised for success in the mid-size car segment.
Despite positive press, the L-Series failed to make a significant splash in an already crowded and competitive market. Early production issues delayed supply at the time of the car’s introduction, and once production ramped up, dealers had a difficult time moving L-Series, forcing them to offer large incentives on the L-Series and to cut production at the Wilmington plant.
The L-Series’ reputation was further hurt by a number of quality issues and recalls related to taillight, brake, timing chain, and engine failures. Saturn had projected L-Series sales of 192,000 units during its first year, and 300,000 during its second year, but sales of the L-Series in 2000 and 2001 were only 94,000 and 98,000, respectively. Sales nosedived after that, falling below 20,000 by 2004.
To make matters worse, by 2003, the class-leading Camry and Accord had both received complete redesigns, and Nissan finally released a competitive mid-sized Altima making the L-Series an even less attractive option. Saturn would give the L-Series a new nose for ’03, albeit a rather berserk one that looked better suited for a Pontiac Grand Am, but meaningful updates were not to be found, and the car was only de-contented as production waned. After a dismal five-years, the Saturn L-Series was discontinued following a brief run of sedan-only 2005 models.
At the end of the day, did the Saturn faithful really care (or even know) that the L-Series wasn’t a purebred Saturn? Probably not. However, in doing this, Saturn opened the floodgates for decreased independence and increased product relation to other GM cars. As time went on, Saturn became just like any other brand in the GM pool.
By no means was the L-Series solely responsible for Saturn’s especially rocky years in the early-’00s. Neglecting their core product, the S-Series, and ultimately replacing it with the lackluster Ion played a huge part in muddling Saturn’s purpose.
The irony in all this is that by around 2007, Saturn was actually starting to turn out some half-competitive cars again, and nearly all of them were rebadged Opels. Unfortunately, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time, as the 2008 recession hit and Saturn’s low sales volume, short history, and ever-changing identity made it a prime candidate to be dumped by GM. Any negotiations with possible buyers failed, and Saturn ultimately shut its doors for good in October 2010.
Low resale values have made the L-Series a prime candidate for a cheap beater, and as a result, there aren’t many Saturn L-Series to be found on the roads anymore. Saturn may have started out having a cult-like following, but as it became less of “a different kind of car company”, its original customer base went elsewhere. Today, few people miss Saturn, and even fewer miss the L-Series.