RIP Saturn

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own a Saturn, a silver 2004 ION 2, to be precise. Why would I buy a vehicle that Consumer Reports called “disappointing”? My trusty Nissan Sentra had thrown a bearing in the manual transmission, and given its age, I decided not to fix it. I had intended on a used car, but with my dad’s GM Employee discount, generous rebates, and 0% interest, it was hard to pass up a new car at a used-car price.

Now that Saturn is officially dead, though not quite buried yet, it’s a little sad to reflect on the short and doomed life of America’s hope for fighting Japanese imports.

Originally, Saturn was to be a “new kind of car company.” Located in Tennessee, its non-unionized workers had more say in the means of production and a stake in the company’s success. Quality control processes were supposed to be vastly improved over the rest of GM, and the plastic-bodied cars would be the first American vehicles to truly compete with Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. Unlike other product lines, Saturn was to share no platforms or engines with any other cars.

The first Saturns rolled off the assembly line in 1990 and initially sold well. The Japanese were at first a little nervous that the upstart S-series might indeed take some of their market share. Until they bought a Saturn and disassembled it. Reportedly, when they saw the hodgepodge of crappy parts cobbled into the Saturn, the Japanese engineers responded with, “You have got to be kidding.”

But for the first few years, Saturns did score above average in reliability in the Consumer Reports ratings. The second-generation S-series debuted in 1996 with an all-new exterior but largely the same mechanical underpinnings. But it’s not a winning sales strategy to sell essentially the same car for twelve years, but that’s what Saturn did.

Then, rather than improving their existing model, Saturn made the disastrous decision to build the L-series, which was basically an Opel Vectra built on a regular GM assembly line in Wilmington, Delaware (though it did have Saturn’s signature plastic body panels). Not only was the American carbuyer uninterested in an entry-level Opel, but those who bought the L-series were treated to some of the worst repair records in the automotive industry. Of course, imagine how Cadillac Catera owners felt, given that they had also bought a rebadged Opel, with all of its reliability problems, but at a premium price.

The Saturn VUE appeared in 2002, another Opel-based offering, this time an SUV. With the advent of the ION in 2003, Saturn gave up the pretense of being a “different kind of car company” building the car on the same GM Delta platform as the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac G5, and Opel Astra and Zafira. And, some would say, Saturn completely threw in the towel by releasing the Relay minivan, which was simply a rebadged version of the already nine-year-old Chevrolet Venture. That’s when you know a car builder has lost the will to survive.

The last few years of its life seemed to hold some promise, with decent products in the Aura sedan and Sky convertible, but once again these were merely rebadged versions of other GM vehicles. The ION was killed off and replaced by the Astra, which was a Belgian-made Opel based on the same Delta platform. But I guess they thought it looked different enough to sell. It didn’t. They sold so poorly, in fact, that Saturn didn’t make a 2009 model because they were still trying to clear the 2008s off the lots.

But back to my ION. The day I bought it was one of those rare chilly days in January in Houston, so I turned on the heater, which promptly stayed on at full blast. A trip to the dealer remedied the situation, though I was without a car for most of a day. A month later, I went to pick up some pizzas, and when I got back in the car, it wouldn’t start. In fact, it wouldn’t do anything. It was as if someone had flipped a switch and turned off the entire electrical system. The Saturn dealer graciously towed the car but couldn’t find anything wrong with it. So, with a shrug and a new starter motor, they gave it back to me. Luckily enough, there had been a recall on defective turn indicator/running lights, so they replaced those while they were at it.

One thing I noticed was that the light gray seats, made of a woven polyester that screamed “leisure suit,” showed every tiny drop of moisture. You could spend hours thoroughly cleaning the car, and within a couple of days, the seats would look as spotted and stained as the sheets in a Super 8 motel.

Two months later the stereo CD player stopped working. I was secretly glad to see it go because the clock lost about 3 minutes a month. Unsurprisingly, the new CD player had the same problem. I just got in the habit of resetting the clock once a week or so. Then everything went reasonably well for about a year. Then in short order the auxiliary radiator fan quit, which is not a good thing in the summer in Houston. And the CD player died again. The new one was just as chronologically challenged as the old one.

About that time I noticed a clunking noise in the front suspension that made it sound as if the front end were going to fall apart when we hit the slightest bump. One new suspension bushing later (still under warranty), the noise stopped.

Then we moved back to Utah. My wife and I drove the car out over three days in the summer of 2007. We stopped for the night in Edmond, Oklahoma, and in the morning, the car wouldn’t start. Wouldn’t turn over. Nothing. I went back into the hotel to make a phone call, and then when I got back in, it started right up. Outside of Denver the cruise control made a rather loud cracking noise and quit, and then when I stopped for gas in Grand Junction, the car once again refused to start. We waited it out for several minutes, and it finally started.

When we got to Utah, my sister’s mechanic took a look at it and said he was 90% sure we had a bad ignition switch, but he didn’t want to replace it if he wasn’t certain. So, we took it to the Saturn dealer, and to no one’s surprise, they mentioned that IONs were well known to have a short in the ignition key lock mechanism. Of course, by this time, the warranty was long expired, and the repair wasn’t cheap. As I got into the car to drive it home, I noticed another ION parked next to mine. Sure enough, although its seats were beige, they had the same tell-tale spots that mine did.

On the way to get the car’s safety and emissions inspection, the Check Engine light lit up. The catalytic converter had died, so I replaced that. The next month, I started the car on a winter’s morning and was greeted by a horrific low spluttering and a wheezing, vibrating engine. After a new ignition control module and a tune-up, it was good as ever (which isn’t saying much, of course).

Last summer the passenger side power window switch stopped working. By this time, I didn’t care enough to get it fixed. Then the latch on the glove compartment broke, which I also didn’t bother fixing. The clunking on the left front end started again last winter, and then the windshield wipers stopped working in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. So, back to the mechanic for another bushing and a new windshield wiper motor assembly.

What galls me more than the constant repairs is the price of Saturn parts. The clutch is nearly at the end of its life, so I looked into replacing it. For comparison, a clutch kit for a Nissan Sentra runs about $115. But you can’t buy a clutch kit for a Saturn ION. Nope, you have to buy three separate parts at a cost of around $600, and then you have to have someone put it in. Even something as simple as replacing a battery is a pain when you drive an ION. Not only is the battery in the trunk under a panel next to the spare tire, but it is a nonstandard battery with front-facing terminals, and it costs a staggering $89. For a compact-car battery. The local Autozone told me they didn’t carry that battery and would have to make a special order.

It’s these kinds of things that make me think that GM either had a death-wish for Saturn or has nothing but contempt for its customers. Honestly, who thought it was a good idea to build a mediocre car (hell, my 1994 Sentra drove better and got better gas mileage) of dubious quality (you could shove an iPod through the gaps between the exterior panels) with expensive replacement parts?

I know. I’m an idiot for buying the car in the first place. And I’m an even bigger idiot for holding onto it as long as I have. Google “Saturn ION problem,” and you’re likely to come across multitudes of angry posts from unhappy Saturn buyers, most of whom have had the same kinds of problems I have.

I’m sorry for the Saturn workers who have lost and will lose their jobs, but I’m not going to mourn the demise of Saturn. It did turn out to be a different kind of car company: worse than the others (well, with the possible exception of the Yugo or the VW Fox). My daughter asked me if Saturns would now become collectors’ items.

“Only if someone collects crappy cars,” I said.

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5 Responses to RIP Saturn

  1. Saganist says:

    Yikes, wow. I’ve had my 1997 SL1 for 10 years without any major problems at all, and 150,000 miles later it’s still running great. We also had a 2001 LS1 that ran fine until we sold it a few years ago. Maybe we just got lucky. I’ve liked Saturn since middle school, and I will be sad to see them go.

  2. noelbell says:

    My Sat just kicked the bucket – she was an SL2, 1997 – a moment of silence for a once great car.

  3. Sure glad we bought a Ford Taurus 11 years ago. Ugly as sin, but so dependable!

  4. I owned a couple of Saturns in the early to mid 1990s. My then-wife was the one who was caught up in the Saturn hype. I didn’t love or hate the cars, can’t really remember how reliable and repair-free they were. I seem to remember visiting the Saturn dealership fairly often.

    I like Hondas and Toyotas. Now I drive a 2002 Honda Civic that I’ve owned since 2006, and I’ve been pretty happy with it.

  5. Kameron says:

    A few days ago, I read an interesting article about “cultural narcissism” at General Motors. The article’s from 1990, and doesn’t specifically address the Saturn brand. But it’s still a discerning look inside the culture of GM.

    The article reminded me of this entry. You wrote how GM seemed like a contempt for customers. The author’s opinion is that GM displayed such ingrained traits as “commitment to bad decisions” and “isolation of management.”

    Not sure if I’m buying all of what the author’s selling, but I thought you might enjoy the article all the same:

    http://www.sba.oakland.edu/faculty/schwartz/GMDecay.htm

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