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How to express yourself like Saturn

By Marc K. Stengel

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Let's play a little game. I'll list a few facts and utterances about Saturn's new midsize L-series cars for model year 2000. You draw your own conclusions. Alrighty?

Facts: Saturn is General Motors' consecrated, American-made import fighter. The new L-series incorporates brakes and suspension from Europe's Opel Vectra; a manual transmission from Saab in Sweden; an optional V6 made in Ellesmere Port, England. Oh, and plastic body parts from Spring Hill, Tenn. Mind you, the chief "imports" meant to be fought include Toyota's Camry, now made in Kentucky, and Honda's Accord, now made in Ohio.

Utterances: Saturn is "partnering around the world" to take "advantage of the experience of a global community" so it can build a "truly global vehicle" with a "touch of European flare [sic]." The L-series cars are built by "team members," instead of auto workers, at a plant in Delaware. They are sold by "consultants," instead of car salesmen and -women, at "facilities," instead of dealerships, where "no-haggling" replaces negotiation. They are delivered to customers after "forming a relationship" instead of closing a sale.

Do you share my suspicion yet that the "Saturn experiment" is as much about an Orwellian exercise in expression management as it is about building a "different kind of car and a different kind of car company?"

I, for one, certainly wouldn't presume to tell a multinational conglomerate how to run an innovative car division that has spent the last 10 years not making back its billions of dollars of initial investment. But I can't resist floating the suggestion that shooting straight beats spinning the message any day. If you're going to make a car that caters to the tastes of middle-Americans who wash with Tide and dote on Cracker Barrel, hold your head up high and just say so. Ix-nay all the treacly talk about global brotherhood. You're here to fight those imports, defend the realm, make life safe for Wal-Mart shoppers. Now, get out there and kill, kill, kill!

For starters, Saturn might have considered giving its new L-series cars some frillier frocks to wear. Because in a self-conscious attempt to Saturnize the styling of these new cars--to the point where they're almost indistinguishable from their smaller S-series predecessors--the company is hiding its brightest lights under a bushel. The LS sedans and LW wagons turn out to be an unexpected pleasure to drive and a nearly unbeatable value to buy.

The sedans are available in three designations: LS, LS1, and LS2, at base prices of $15,010, $16,750, and $20,135, respectively. The first two models come with a peachy 2.2-liter four-cylinder motor that is brand-new and exclusive to Saturn--for now. Although a four-speed automatic is available for $860 in the LS and LS1, the manual five-speed actually helps the torquey little twin-cammer shine far beyond the expectations of its 137 horsepower in so large a car. The 3.0-liter V6, rated 182 horsepower, lends a more assertive personality to the upscale LS2, of course; but you'll have to do your sport-touring in this car with an automatic shifter only. And that makes a convincing case for the four-banger and five-speed as the L-series' secret weapon: Thus equipped, the LS and LS1 are unexpectedly perky, notably roomy, and eminently affordable.

The LW1 and LW2 wagons are skewed to a slightly different clientele. They come equipped only with auto transmissions mated to the four-cylinder and V6 motors, respectively, at base prices of $18,835 and $21,360. In what appears lately to be a mini-trend of new station wagons, particularly from European car makers, Saturn's LWs are satisfyingly on-target and on-time. They're only five-seaters, so they're not going to poach the minivan market. But with more than 70 cubic feet of total cargo space when you fold the rear seats, there's a serious aspect of utility that lurks within. Moreover, the wagons' styling is the most distinctive and--dare one admit--fetching in the entire Saturn lineup. In spite of a vague resemblance to Saab's acclaimed 9-5 Wagon, LW owners can feast on the satisfaction of having spent virtually half as much for Saturn's new midsize wagon.

I had the benefit of driving the new L-series models one after another along sweeping Middle Tennessee backroads, and in alternation with the 2000-model S-series sedans and wagons as well. The experience was inestimable for gauging the plusher, more stately ride of the L-series in comparison with the S-series compacts. You can banish any fear that Saturn's new midsize platform is but a drone conveyance for the dedicated non-enthusiast. True, compared to the tight, lithe handling of the SL compacts, the LS sedans are smoother on the straights and a bit calmer in the twisty sections. Steering feel, particularly, is muted. But it is not vague. With its MacPherson strut front suspension and a clever multi-link independent setup at rear, the LS handles its larger dimensions with mature poise, flowing with the road and treating passengers to a quiet, enjoyable ride. The automotive press has carped for years that the S-series Saturns can be noisy and harsh. The midsize L-series is Saturn's response. It's a grown-up car for those customers who've grown out--and possibly tired--of their SC coupes, SL sedans, and SW wagons.

Coming precisely 10 years after the first Saturns strode cockily onto the scene as world-beaters presumptive, this second launch of larger, midsize cars should provide a needed sales and morale boost to re-establish Saturn's proper orbit. Saturn initially set out to accommodate a niche of auto buyers who, it felt, wanted something different from a car company. After a decade of snooping fitfully after such exotic prey, perhaps the company is learning what every snipe hunter eventually discovers: When you stalk figments, you become the game. Saturn owners and prospects aren't a special breed. They just want good cars at good values like everybody else--cars like the refined and affordable new L-series, for instance. If that's what you've got to sell, people will buy it in spite--not because--of the Cult of Saturn.

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