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Time to Reverse Gears and Rev Up Engine of Change

March 18, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

I think I just bought a car.

I say think because I haven't taken possession of it yet. For that matter, at this writing, I haven't even seen the thing. But I suppose it's a very nice car.

I'm getting a Saturn. These automobiles are so popular, evidently, that no fewer than five that I was thinking of buying got sold out from under me in the last four days. Either that, or Saturn just drives its stock from dealer to dealer every couple of days to give the illusion that they're selling. That would account for all the ones you see on the road. It also would account for the knowing smiles on the drivers' faces.

But I am hoping that it's the smile that comes with Pride of Ownership. Saturn, after all, is the organization for which, in a recent J. D. Power and Associates report, customers gave salesmen a whopping 59% approval rating for "the way they appeared and dressed." Further, 63% of Saturn buyers, the study actually says, "thought the way they were greeted was excellent." The other 37% musta got butch rubs and Indian burns.

Actually, the salesmen have been very civil, though I am a mite leery of being given the "Saturn cheer": After you have concluded your purchase and are ready to drive off in your new car, the salesmen all gather 'round and, as a send-off, make what sounds like some primitive hunters' exultant cry over fallen prey.

It's one of those "new ideas" Saturn has. But above and beyond that, the chief idea they seem to have is that it would be smart to try making products someone would actually want to own. Somehow, in all the management-heavy musings of corporate America, that idea had gone by the wayside in recent years. Saturn seems to be trying, and that's one reason I'm buying one.

Saturn also appears to be doing business a bit differently, from advertising in alternative mags like the Utne Reader to allowing their employees' input on how best to do things, to having a solid employee profit-sharing plan that is more representative of the kind of America I want to live in. Those are more reasons I'm buying one.

They also look bitchen .

To me, the Saturn is sort of the Bill Clinton of the automobile world. I know the company is a division of General Motors, the most gummed-up, useless, lumbering corporation in the world, just as I know that Clinton represents the Democratic Party (draw whatever parallels you care to). Yet there is a big part of me that wants to believe both the car and the man are offering something different, something new. And one comes with an air bag.

And just as I somehow don't yet feel disgusted and deceived that my promised tax cut is now a tax hike, I'm still kinda cheerful about spending $4,000 more than I meant to on a car, even though it's buying options I don't even want, like a rear spoiler. I've always felt that the function a spoiler serves could be accomplished just as well by a bumper sticker reading "Chump on board."

The reason I'm getting the spoiler, fog lamps, etc., is the same reason I haven't even seen this dream car I'm buying: Saturns are so popular that dealers have trouble tracking down a model for you, let alone one that meets your specifications. Mine is being shipped from Monrovia, where I think they located it by using a high-resolution spy satellite.

Speaking of high-tech, this is not a car I'm going to be working on much. On my Mitsubishi, it took me a month to find the oil filter. On the Saturn, I think you have to drill through a side panel to get to it. There's a daunting bunch of confusing parts under the hood, looking like nothing so much as two Terminators locked in an ugly embrace and crammed down there. The dip sticks, thankfully, are topped by color-coded rings (of Saturn?), though I fear if I pull on one I'll only hear a Chatty Cathy Terminator voice saying "Hasta la vista, baby."

Though I can't even identify for sure which part the engine is, from my test drive I already know how to work the sun roof. I find it's very easy to opt for such frills when you look at them in the context of the unfathomable amount you're paying for the whole car.

After the fact, you get some perspective, realizing that for what you just paid to buy a window for the top of your head, you could have had a week's vacation in New Orleans. But then, for the price of the whole car, you could pretty much buy a house in New Orleans these days, and never need to drive anywhere again, though a car is a tempting prospect in a city with drive-through daiquiri stands.

As much as I like buying American and all that, I can't help but think automobiles have outlived their place in our history. They've made life in Southern California anxious, lonely and polluted, while keeping us from investing in the sort of mass transit that can give people a shared sense of commitment to their community and culture, though maybe they should give a car to Bernard Goetz.

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