Curbside Classic: 2002 Saturn L300 – Falling Back To Earth

(First posted 10/3/2017)       Even by today’s standards, the original concept for Saturn was highly innovative and revolutionary. Despite it being a new brand from a large automaker known for its high degree of product and part sharing among brands, Saturn was different in being its own corporation (though still a GM-owned subsidiary), sharing virtually nothing with other GM brands with regards to product, production, sales and service.

Starting at the core, with the product itself, Saturn was treated to an exclusive line of compact cars, based on an all new platform not used by any other GM division. Utilizing spaceframe design, side body panels did not carry load and were largely plastic versus steel, making them mostly dent-resistant and inexpensive to produce and repair.

Saturn also gained new 1.9L inline-4, along with two 4-speed automatics and 5-speed manuals each. Available in single overhead cam and double overhead cam (with cars featuring the latter displaying prominent “Twin Cam” exterior badging), this engine featured aluminum block and cylinder heads that were formed by a “lost foam” technique, in one of its first such large scale production applications.

Saturn produced its full-line of vehicles (ultimately designated the “S-Series”), engines, and transmissions separate from other GMs, in its very own factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Employees of this plant even had their own contract with the United Autoworkers Union, and Saturns were sold through their own dealer network, separate of other GM brands.

Given the massive undertaking of launching Saturn and the billions of dollars sunken in (much to the dismay of other GM brands) to fund GM’s ambitious goals for Saturn, it’s nothing short of impressive that the automaker saw the Saturn venture through and made it a reality, with sales beginning at the very end of the 1990 calendar year, nearly six years after the corporation’s official founding in January 1985.

Saturn’s early years were indeed met with success, strong sales, high level of customer satisfaction and retention, high ratings in initial quality and reliability, and acclaim for many of its innovative production and sales practices that began trickling down to other brands. That being said, Saturn never achieved the profitability and ROI that GM had hoped for.

Despite consistent cosmetic updates to its S-Series line of compact sedans, coupes, and wagons, by the late 1990s, amidst falling sales, it was clear that Saturn couldn’t go on much further with just one line of vehicles with aging underpinnings that was becoming rapidly stale in the eyes of consumers. Enter the L-Series.

Conceived as a logical vehicle for current S-Series owners to move up into, as well as draw new buyers for whom the S-Series was too small for, the L-Series at last provided Saturn with an ever-important midsize car to sell alongside the S-Series.

By the time the L-Series came along, however, the tables had turned for both Saturn and GM. As the 1990s progressed, GM faced continuous decline in market share, falling profits and even massive losses, with some of its brands, such as Oldsmobile, vastly struggling in particular. Saturn, amidst its relative “success” wasn’t paying the bills nor continuing its growth.

Unlike the S-Series, which in every way was about as “un-GM” as a GM product could be, the L-Series was based on a global GM platform originally developed for Opel, but also used by Saab, Vauxhall, Holden, and the Latin American Chevrolet Vectra. Furthermore, the L-Series used common GM engines, transmissions, switchgear, and was assembled in a “regular” GM factory with employees having a more traditional contract.

The L-Series did get distinctive styling inside and out, and featured Saturn’s signature plastic polymer body panels, but in terms of what the Saturn Corporation stood for, it was a huge concession and step backwards to the old ways of GM. It’s no surprise that in lacking the S-Series’ “isolated” production process, the L-Series was plagued with far more quality and reliability issues.

On paper, it may have looked like a fairly competitive midsize sedan (and wagon), but in reality, the Saturn L-Series was cursed with all of the negative qualities often associated with American cars of the early-2000s. As most can recall, this was an era when American automakers were increasingly focused on higher-profit SUVs. This resulted in less investment in their passenger cars, which ultimately translated to less competitive, poorer quality offerings in any given segment.

Its iffier build quality, cheaper looking and feeling interiors, and overall lack of refinement when compared to foreign competitors such as the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat were somewhat expected; more alarmingly, the L-Series was commonly inflicted with transmission failures, engine failures of the 2.2L inline-4 due to defective timing chains, and severe NVH caused by a design flaw in the suspension, the latter which resulted in a retrofit kit being made available.

Sales of the L-Series were no saving grace either, with 2000 and 2001, its best two years, 94,000 and 98,000 units, respectively, or about half the volume of the S-Series those same two years. While these numbers sound reasonable, like most other value-oriented GM brands, a significant amount of them came from fleet sales.

L-Series sales dipped by about 20% in 2002, and again in 2003, upon which the manufacturer increased already substantial rebates to as much as $3,000 ($4,053, adjusted as of 9/2017 USD) on the L-Series and even threw in a free Dell personal computer worth $800 on the purchase or lease of any new Saturn.

None of this helped, with sales nosediving to less than 20,000 units in 2004, a result of the model’s publicized quality issues, competitors stepping up their game, and a general lack of faith in the brand’s future. The L-Series’ extremely ugly facelift for the 2003 model year likely didn’t help. After a limited run of 2005 models, the L-Series production was quietly halted in June 2004, with no immediate successor.

While the original concept of Saturn was equally unprecedented, ingenious, refreshing, and promising, by the late-1990s it was becoming clear that there was a serious question of “where do we go from here?”. Rapidly becoming yesterday’s news, without a clear outlook on the future or “VUE” for growth, Saturn sales began trailing off. The ho-hum, run-of-the-mill L-Series signaled an end to this “Different kind of car company”, and was the vehicle for Saturn to become just another brand in the convoluted, overcrowded GM hierarchy.

Photographed: BMW West Coast Performance Center – Thermal, California – February 2017

Related Reading:

2004 Saturn L300

1992 Saturn SL2

Automotive History: Saturn’s Early Years