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A Note to the Folks at Saturn: Wake Up and Smell the Espresso


PHOENIX — A lot of people just don't get Saturn--and haven't since these little cars ambled and heehawed into our lives from the sour-mash country of Tennessee more than a decade ago.

Oh, I know. Saturn safety has earned more five-star ratings than lunch at Le Cirque. Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, Family Circle, the federal New Car Assessment Program, the Highway Loss Data Institute and Martha Stewart have blessed these polymer-paneled coupes, sedans and wagons--and despite a Fordian production philosophy rooted in one style, one size fits all. And could 2 million Americans be wrong in buying the Saturns SC-SL-SW rather than spend $14,000 on a Dodge Neon, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla or some other comparable and cuddly subcompact?

Yet how many of those dedicated, sometimes evangelical Saturnistas are ready to move up to a mid-size Saturn and be willing to forgive a parent that throws a great picnic but seems content to burden them with a one-note design guaranteed not to change shapes much in 10 years? And how many of those 2 million disciples--with thousands despairing of ever having a Saturn larger and more fashionable to ascend to--have already switched their mid-size needs and loyalties to Honda's Accord, Toyota's Camry and Ford's Taurus?

Such fair questions loomed large here this month as Saturn brought in its heavy hitters from Spring Hill, Tenn., and Troy, Mich., including its new chairman and personable president, Cynthia Trudell, to introduce the company's belated but scariest move to date: a mid-size, V-6-powered 2000 Saturn LS sedan and LW wagon.


And many among the automotive media say they still don't get it.

"It's a very plain, ordinary little car," said Greg White of the Wall Street Journal. Yet, he added, an ordinary car of extraordinary appeal that has seen Saturn owners by the thousands making pilgrimages to Spring Hill for homecoming events with their pet automobiles. "You don't get 60,000 people driving across the country for a Honda barbecue."

One key to this appeal, White suggests, may be a warm-blanket marketing program in which dealers are called retailers and no haggling is a Saturn law. At the same time, with Toyota and Honda sales off the page, he says, a mild arrogance and indifference have crawled into the Asian dealer experience.

"Saturn owners are people who buy Honda and Toyota. But who wants to work with dinosaur dealers like Toyota and Honda? Faced with that, they then go to Saturn, where a salesman says: 'Come inside; want some coffee?' "

Ted Biederman, automotive writer for the Daily News, continues with the coffee analogy in search of Saturn.

"Most Americans take their coffee with a touch of cream, a little sugar, and that's Saturn," he says. Ergo, the safe, popular choice. "Then there are those who prefer Starbucks."

No Saturn official at the Phoenix introduction shied from the significance of the LS and LW cars, which go on sale in July. Trudell called the roomier, longer, wider sedan and wagon "a very critical and important next step, allowing us to compete in a much larger market and make a greater offering to our Saturn customers."


One look and one drive in the new vehicles, however, suggests there will be little depth to the new offerings. Particularly for those who take their coffee strong and black.

In a market segment in which success goes to those who are better than, not simply as good as, the competition, the new Saturns' lines are very ordinary. Nothing will create curbside finger pointing. From standard roof line to generic front and rear ends with somebody else's light clusters left over from last year, everything restates Saturn's penchant for being up the mainstream without a paddle. Or that these cars were built in Pleasantville.

Mechanically, the four-cylinder version of the LS and LW offers 137 horsepower, while the V-6 (derived from major bits and pieces of the Opel Omega that Saturn's parent, General Motors, sells in Europe) produces 182 horsepower. That's a fairly close match for the four-cylinder Accord and Camry but falls far short of their V-6 models. Ford's Taurus also flexes superior engine muscles.

We hear much these days about designs that started with a blank sheet of paper, and presumably that was the case with Saturn's interior. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to draw very much on the paper. From a flat, rectangular control panel to its basic instrument cluster, these are predictable, tract-home appointments.

On a more positive note, the LS1 and LS2 (the alphanumerics indicating engine size) are quieter, their engines less harsh, than their compact brethren. Steering wheel loads are a little heavy, but front wheels stay firmly where planted, and this is definitely a better-handling generation of Saturn. The car cruises smoothly and has enough brakes to meet whatever crisis the mild horsepower can get one into.

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