Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

GM’s plans for Saturn are a sad end

I seem to be a killer of automobile brands. I owned a Plymouth Reliant, and Plymouth is now gone. I owned an Oldsmobile Alero, and Oldsmobile is now gone. I owned a Pontiac Firebird, and now Pontiac is on the chopping block. I owned a Toyota Camry Solara, and Toyota canceled its two-door version of the Camry for 2009.

And I owned a Saturn, and GM is planning to put an end to Saturn. Based on my current car ownership, maybe now’s the time to get a Ford Mustang, before Ford puts its pony car out to pasture. Of course, I doubt that would happen, but if I’m the killer of brands it may be prudent.

In 1993, I was the proud owner of a 1987 Pontiac Firebird. It had GM’s 2.8-liter V6, a four-speed automatic transmission and was a bright red, though the paint was starting to fade on the hood. Still, I liked the car and had paid it off about a year earlier. With 75,000 miles on the odometer, it was feeling its age, though. The driver’s seat was worn, the turn signal stalk’s white lettering was mostly gone and the pop-up headlight on the left side didn’t pop up without manual intervention. Oh, and the emergency brake didn’t work.

I had paid $13,300 for the car in 1987. Mechanical glitches were becoming a problem, and the water pump had been the latest expense. I was kind of in the mood for a new car and, like many others I had watched the advent of Saturn with a sort of wonder. Could GM really make cars as good as the Japanese? The Korean carmaker Hyundai had attracted a lot of attention, but (like the first cars the Japanese sold in the U.S.) had not impressed a lot of people.

One day when my cousin Angelo had picked me up at the Pontiac dealer after dropping the ‘bird off for the water pump job, I said, “Let’s check out Saturn.”

So we drove to the Saturn store in West Palm Beach, where there were only a couple of cars on the lot. There had been a long strike at a GM brake parts plant, and Saturn had stopped production. Demand was very high for Saturns and you could just walk on the lot, look around, read the brochures and displays, and no salesperson would walk over and “claim” you.

In any case, the salespeople were all too busy with customers, so me and Angelo walked around and looked at everything. We took a ride in a Saturn that day when a salesman finally got to me, and I was impressed. Still, I had reservations since the Firebird was paid off and being repaired. I could wait.

I lived near the Boynton Beach Mall in Boynton Beach, Fla., and one of the mall stores had been made into a mini-showroom. I picked up a brochure for the 1993 Saturns and decided what I wanted: a 1993 Saturn SC2 with a five-speed manual transmission and a couple of option packages. The total sticker price was $16,600. Since there was no negotiation, that plus tax, title, etc., was the price.

I thought about it, thought about it, and finally drove to Saturn of Delray Beach to see if I could find the exact car I wanted.

A very patient salesman took me on a test drive in a car with a 5-speed stick, and it was quite a ride. At the end, and despite my inept clutch and stick technique, I decided to take the plunge and buy a Saturn SC2 when it arrived.

So I signed the papers and left. That afternoon, the salesman called to say the car had arrived after I left the dealer. A couple of days later (and after a lesson from a co-worker at the post office in the art of driving a stick shift), I showed up at the dealer, finished the deal and drove off in my beautiful, blue green, 1993 Saturn SC2.

I guess I was like a lot of Saturn owners in that I really liked the car. It ran well, the stick was easy to use and it could carry me and my stuff where I needed to go. The years clicked by, I paid off the car and continued to enjoy it. Problems that came up included a battery cable that went bad and a muffler that needed to be replaced. Other than a body repair (after a guy parked a standard shift pickup truck on a gas station parking lot and it rolled off, hitting my baby!) that’s all I remember about work that needed to be done.

In 1999, I had more than 100,000 miles on my Saturn but the mileage was starting to show in the interior. The “A” pillar trim on the driver’s side was working loose (I Scotch-taped it back into place); the driver’s side sun visor was coming loose; the faux-leather trim around the shifter was loose; and the driver’s side window crank could not engage fully. My baby Saturn was getting on in years, but still I held on.

Yet I was becoming unfaithful and eyeing new models. In addition to having money saved up, I had about $3,500 in cash I could use from The GM Card (a credit card) toward a new GM car (but not a Saturn). Looking in a parking lot one day, I saw an Oldsmobile Alero and looked it up online. Now that was an interesting car.

The Alero I wanted was a sporty two-door car with some interesting option packages (but no five-speed stick). I had my heart set on a 2000 Alero but the dealers still had 1999s, so I waited and saved my money.

Finally, I visited Schumacher Oldsmobile in West Palm Beach and talked to a salesman (I remember that his last name was Schofield). He was a good guy and we made a deal on a 2000 Alero with the Sport and Performance packages, which included a 3.4-liter V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission.

It was a sad end, though, for my beloved Saturn. With 102,000 miles, I traded it in and got a pittance ($2,000), hardly a just reward for years of reliable and appreciated service.

The night before I traded the car in, in October 1999, a hurricane had swept up the middle of Florida, dumping a lot of rain on the Lake Worth area. The water had come partway up the driveway but the car hadn’t been affected. The next morning, I drove to the Olds dealer and the damage there was very minimal. The car, which they got from a dealer in North Florida, had been stored in the service department building and was prepped and ready for me to take delivery. They got the computers up and running, and I was soon out of there with my wonderful new Alero.

It was kind of sad to drive off and see my former Saturn sitting on the lot. I’m sure it’s no longer a car, and was sold for scrap long ago.

And now Saturn is going away. GM denied the make good products and people lost interest. By 2013, Saturn will be just a memory, joining Plymouth, Oldsmobile and other badges in the ranks of those that have been retired.

It’s sad, but maybe necessary. Still, I think Saturn could have survived and thrived, possibly as a brand for GM’s hybrid and electric cars. But it’s not to be.

Still, I have the old photos, the memories and the knowledge that, for 102,000 miles, there was a seat for me in a Saturn.

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February 18, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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