Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Oddfellows

Non-trendy cars more notable

By Marc K. Stengel

MAY 22, 2000:  Sometimes the surest path to notability is a detour around prevailing trends. It takes a certain boldness to follow this route, and those who do so usually win a grudging admiration wreathed with muttered disdain. When iconoclasts do actually succeed in achieving a mass following, there's always plenty of late praise for their years of perseverance and courage. Until then, their careers of nonconformity tend to raise sardonic smiles at best, real spite at worst. This is precisely the spectrum of reactions to which both Saturn and Hyundai have had to accustom themselves since their respective debuts in North America. Their two closely matched economy coupes provide ample evidence why.

2001 Saturn SC1

Whatever their private anxieties, General Motors' iconoclasts at Saturn Division betray not the least public irritation with the offbeat, cultish persona their cars have acquired. They remain--despite struggling sales, slow-to-update designs, and potshots from the critics--cheerily optimistic to a degree that might have made even Frank Capra blush. There is a perfectly good explanation for this behavior, however. The folks at Saturn--those corporate utopians who call themselves "colleagues" and "associates" instead of "executives" and "laborers"--make quite good cars. But in an age of unrelenting hype, being good can be a liability. The high-school flirt, after all, usually looks right past the fresh-faced honor student who wants to carry her books; she's more curious about that leather jacket and ducktail over there doing loud stunts on his motorcycle.

In the rough-and-tumble economy subcompact category, Saturn's SC1 is a legitimate goody two-shoes. Its base price of just $12,535 is powerfully competitive versus rivals both domestic and imported. Even with a $1,965 package of power options and air-conditioning, $695 more for ABS brakes and traction control, plus 15-inch wheels ($450) and CD/cassette stereo ($220), the SC1's as-tested sticker totals just $16,305, including destination charges. For a car this roomy, with this jaunty a profile, and handling (if not acceleration) that's plenty sporty as well, the SC1 is quite a bit of car for the money.

It is, moreover, significantly "freshened" for 2001, albeit in evolutionary rather than revolutionary ways. The exterior body panels are all changed "below the beltline," but they merely streamline what the general consensus has long recognized as the "Saturn wedge." More conspicuously new are interior changes to dash and cockpit. A one-piece sweep of structural surface material over the instrument panel looks smart and is less prone to squeaky flexing than the composite design it replaces. Along with more sound insulation around the engine bay, this change results in a noticeably quieter cockpit--finally. How ironic (or just plain mindless), then, that SC1's windshield wiper motors are amazingly, thunderously noisy.

The array of cubbies, storage pockets, and cupholders is updated as well. But the Saturn coupe's one clear claim to distinctiveness remains thankfully unaltered: Introduced in late 1998, the back-hinging rear passenger portal on the driver's side continues to set this car apart from the crowd. Indeed, Saturn attributes a 17-percent sales gain for its coupes last year to this third-door feature--a remarkable achievement in the context of the 10-percent decline in overall sales of the company's bread-and-butter S-series of coupes, sedans, and wagons.

Having tasted such sweet success as the result of just one episode of thinking "outside the box," might Saturn continue to innovate itself out of cult status and into mainstream popularity? One can only hope. But first it will have to forgo the incremental change philosophy that mires it in the slow lane behind Japanese arch-rivals, with their chameleon-like ability to adapt swiftly to fickle tastes. By every logical argument, Saturn and the buying public both know that their fundamentally sound cars are plenty good enough: good construction, good fuel economy, good safety, even good resale value. But when there are bad boys across the hall with cocky walks and racy innuendos to moon over, "good enough" simply isn't.

2000 Hyundai Tiburon

The parallel universe in which the Hyundai Tiburon makes its home is best exemplified by an episode that was repeated at least half a dozen times during the week I evaluated the car. From out of nowhere, on a busy stretch of multi-lane highway, some big domestic clunker would barrel into rear view at inappropriate speed. At the last minute, it would veer to my side to pass, only then to match my speed while gum-snapping teeny chicks ogled in tittering glee. Not at me--at the car.

It was go-to-hell yellow, curved and carved into a voluptuous shape, bug cute, and tiny. On every other occasion, I could swear that any car guys who actually bothered to look were laughing at me. Behind the wheel of the thing, I was fundamentally perplexed over who would buy this car and why. But out on the highway, the newly licensed high-school babes driving their daddies' leftovers simply loved it. Hyundai has this questionable niche cornered all to itself.

At virtually the same as-tested price as Saturn's SC1, the $16,647 Tiburon ought to be a dreaded arch-rival. Certainly, its 40 extra horsepower translate into nearly 20-percent faster acceleration from zero to 60. But the car is rattly and cramped, its handling indifferent and vague; it is eminently not one of those fun, tossable sporty compacts that its vampy looks impersonate.

Hyundai has managed to bootstrap itself into the American auto market with affordable, sensible-shoes-type commuter cars like the Elantra and Sonata, which contributed most to the company's nearly 82-percent leap in overall U.S. sales last year. Tiburon sales were up as well (by 16 percent), but the car gives the nagging impression of being overfrocked and underwhelming. It may have a lot of sexy curves in all the right places, but then a padded bra does too, I guess.

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