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Saturn Redefined

Although it is a comparatively young division, GM’s Saturn has undergone several changes since the first cars went on sale in 1990, and it may now be going through its biggest change ever.

Once, Saturn was all about polymer panels and customer service. It was about innovative manufacturing processes—lost-foam casting, body-cage structure—and a whole new facility outside of Detroit, in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where things were done differently. Over the years, Saturn has had its ups and many downs, as the people in Detroit just didn’t seem to be able to figure out what to do with a company that produced cars that were far from being best-in-class but which engendered an almost cult-like following among its customer base. Saturn started building cars in 1990. It was to be an import-fighter for General Motors, to be the brand that those who would never imagine buying a GM vehicle would seriously consider. The SL models. The L models (based on the Opel Vectra, a prelude of things to come). Past. The VUE, a compact SUV emerged as an ’02 model, a vehicle that put GM in a growing market and provided the corporation with a platform (Theta) from which it could derive the Chevy Equinox and Pontiac Torrent. Then the Ion, released as an ’03 model, perennially panned and rarely praised, but a car wherein a technology like electric steering could be learned about by engineers so that they could begin to deploy it elsewhere. Because Saturn had given up on the wagon and had nothing bigger than the VUE, because the minivan and large(r) SUV buyer was leaving the brand behind, the company got its piece of the Doraville, GA, minivan production, which is the Saturn Relay, introduced as an ’05, a vehicle not particularly differentiated from its badged brethren, the Chevy Uplander, Pontiac SV6, and Buick Terraza (designated as “crossover sport vans” not to take advantage of the “crossover” moniker as much as to avoid the word “minivan”).

For years there had been questions about the viability of Saturn in the corporation that has, by many accounts, too many brands. Oldsmobile was supposed to be heavily influenced by the Saturn way of doing business, but that proved to be insufficient, as it disappeared from the scene after products for the ’04 model year. Perhaps that was the opportunity that allowed Saturn to continue to exist. Today, points out Dave Smidebush, Saturn marketing director, Saturn remains one of the four channels through which GM is going to market in North America, which makes it one of two that is essentially a stand-alone: the four are Chevrolet, Saturn, Cadillac-Saab-HUMMER, and Buick-Pontiac-GMC. Despite that, it is becoming, in some ways, more GM mainstream, with products that are being manufactured not at a unique facility, but along with other GM models. The promise of polymer panels is giving way to the steel that is used by all but a few—make that two, Corvette and XLR—GM products. “A Different Kind of Car. A Different Kind of Company.” That tagline seems to be mainly a memory, like the “Homecoming” events where tens of thousands of the Saturn elect assembled in the fields around Spring Hill Assembly.

SAME AS IT NEVER WAS. Different times call for different products, so Saturn is morphing into something else. Although the rhetoric from the RenCen, from which GM executives can survey the U.S. to the north and Canada to the south, has been all about the corporation being a “global” company, excepting for the import of cars built in Korea (Chevy Aveo) and engines from China (for the Equinox and Torrent), as well as cars from the most efficient manufacturing facility in its North American system, the Oshawa [Ontario] Assembly Plant, the international flavor seems rather thin. There’s Saab, but it seems to be a division that is on thin ice. But now GM is putting some substance to its sayings about the international flavor of the corporation, and it is doing it with Saturn. The first example is with the Saturn Sky. While many people will look at the size and architecture of the roadster and think “Pontiac Solstice,” that’s not precisely right. Yes, these are both Kappa-based vehicles, and yes, both are being built on the same line in the Willington, DE, Assembly Plant. Rather, the Sky is closer in design to the Vauxhall VX Lightning concept that was designed by Simon Cox and introduced in London in May, 2003, at which time the firm’s chairman and managing director, Kevin Wale, described it as “a classic roadster [that] represents the best of our past, and our future.” Which presciently sounds like the new Saturn tagline, “Like Always. Like Never Before.” Vauxhall?, you wonder. It has been a part of GM since 1925. One more European connection: the Saturn Sky would be known to people in Europe as the Opel GT. 

What’s interesting about this is that while that sort of European connection might be kept quiet, that’s far from how it is with Saturn. Vicki Vlachakis, design manager, at GM’s advanced design studio in North Hollywood, who worked on the interiors of both the Sky and the Solstice, openly acknowledges the Vauxhall VX connection and talks about a European-influenced design language for Saturn going forward. Next up will be the Aura sedan, which is evidently inspired by the designers at Russelsheim. Beyond that will be a larger SUV—make that CUV, as it is, indeed, a crossover utility vehicle—the Outlook, which isn’t as Euro-inspired as the Sky and the Aura (let’s face it: European vehicle designs tend to be smaller and more compact than traditionally American large) but still has some of the styling cues.

Back in 1990, when the “import fighter” was first introduced, the “imports” in question were mainly from the Japan-based companies. When asked about the competitors today, Smidebush answers, “Honda and Volkswagen.” The global landscape is changing for Saturn.