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Saturn Gets Going--Sort of : Automobiles: GM's high-risk answer to popular Japanese imports finally debuts in a series of coming-out parties, but there aren't enough to go around.


SANTA ANA — General Motors Corp.'s answer to the Japanese finally went on sale Thursday. But despite all the hoopla and hyperbole, the Saturn automobile will be hard to come by for a while.

In a series of coming-out parties, the new small cars--aimed at import-car buyers--were offered for sale at 29 dealerships in 10 states. The cars, which took seven years and $3.5 billion to develop, drew plenty of interested tire-kickers.

At Saturn of Santa Ana, a new dealership owned by Campbell Automotive Group, Vickie Marx picked out the color for a Saturn she decided to buy last week. She settled on the Saturn after test-driving 30 models of new cars.

"I felt that GM does not want this car to have problems and they will back it up," said Marx, a professional dog trainer who admitted to some lingering doubts about American quality standards. "This is a last chance effort to compete with the Japanese."

Marx, who is trading in a Toyota Supra, is just the kind of buyer that GM is trying to lure with the Saturn. The nation's top car manufacturer has pinned its future on producing a car that competes in quality with the best of the Japanese makes. In the process, it is trying to remake the way American cars are manufactured and sold, putting a new emphasis on quality and service.

Despite the first-day giddiness, the grand openings also highlighted some of Saturn's teething pains. The most evident was a lack of new cars for sale on the expanse of fresh asphalt in the sales lot.

One Saturn executive in Santa Ana said that dealerships were starting with between seven and 15 new cars but that more were on the way. "We have a lot of cars in the float, in the pipeline," said Donald W. Hudler, Saturn's corporate vice president for sales and marketing. "It's a big job to bring up a plant as complex as ours."

John Campbell, who has the only Saturn dealership in Orange County, had seven new Saturns on display Thursday. All but one of those were expected to be driven off by new owners by day's end.

Serious car buyers and the just plain curious said they are intrigued by some of the features of the new Saturns, such as the plastic fenders and doors that are unblemished after being pounded with a hammer.

Some shoppers said they were disappointed that the styling was not more daring. But most said the price seems right. The basic sedan lists for $7,995 and runs to about $13,000 with all the options and extras. The sporty coupe lists for $11,775.

Tony and Lydia Mindo of Irvine put down a payment after a test drive at Saturn of Santa Ana. "It looks like a pretty good car for the money, and for a change there is a car that will compete with the Japanese."

The first car driven off the Santa Ana lot went to two newsmen from Detroit. The Detroit Free Press, which covers the auto industry carefully, bought for $13,725 a fully loaded sedan so that Nunzio M. Lupo, assistant business editor, could drive and evaluate it for the next few months.

His initial reaction was upbeat. "It's very tight," he said. "It is not dramatically different than the best of the Japanese cars I have driven."

As the Saturn executives watched with a smile, Lupo and Free Press photographer Craig Porter donned black Saturn baseball caps, popped in a tape of Motown tunes and motored off.

The first Saturn sold in the nation was sold to Andrew and Patricia Gibson of Saugus by Saturn of the Valley in Sepulveda, which delivered a four-door Saturn at 9 p.m. PDT Wednesday. The dealership reasoned that, back East, Wednesday was turning into Thursday, the official launch date for the new line of GM cars.

"We figured at midnight our time, it would be 3 a.m. East Coast time," dealer Brad Boeckmann explained. "So we delivered ours at 9 o'clock" during a big party for employees, Saturn officials, bankers and potential customers.

Interest was high elsewhere in California. Saturn of El Cajon had taken deposits on a pair of new cars by noon. "One is a retired lady who isn't trading anything in, the other is a middle-aged couple who had a Toyota that was in an accident," said Bob Chappelle, director of sales and training.

Shortly after 2 p.m., Willie and Helen Anderson grabbed the El Cajon dealership's third car. Anderson, who has been buying American since acquiring a used Chevrolet in 1936, hopes that Saturn "will get quality back to where it was in the '40s. I think (this country) is finally moving back in the right direction."

But Saturn of El Cajon, San Diego County's only Saturn outlet, opened for business with just 10 cars on its lot. The Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., has promised to deliver 66 more cars by Nov. 12, according to Chappelle. He'll sell four of the cars, but will keep six on the lot until replacements arrive because "you need to have something to show people."

Santa Ana's Campbell acknowledged that the lack of inventory was frustrating but added that he would rather be short than have a load of cars that are badly flawed. Even without many cars, he said sales and interest have been strong. He had deposits in hand for about 30 cars by Thursday, with delivery waits of about three weeks.

"My expectations have risen in the past few days because of the tremendous interest we've had," he said.

Times staff writer Greg Johnson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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