When Worlds Collide - the Death of Saturn

October 18, 2009
Based on the decision by GM to shut down Saturn after failing to obtain a buyer, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was something inherently wrong with the marque. That the competition was, you should pardon the expression, running rings around their product line or marketing strategy. You would be mistaken, however.

The irony of course, is that on the contrary, Saturn has in recent years, only gotten better. While the Tennessee family had everything but the product right in the early years, one cannot deny the quantum improvements seen in the last few years.

The Saturn Sky roadster was one of the sexiest cars out there period, small storage space and weak base engine notwithstanding. The Redline version, as it did with other Saturn offerings, cured the motivation issue to create a true thrill ride for those who want a car that does more than just look fast. And to be fair, even the base model handles well. 

The Saturn VUE had found a number of fans among SUV buyers as well, and the Ions and Ion Redlines were fun in the sporty sedan or coupe category. Not BMWs, mind you, but  good value nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the much revered Aurora was a well-executed sedan for those wanting their luxury and style at a reasonable price. And then there were the dealerships themselves. Any one who has stepped foot in one was pleasantly surprised by the step-up in customer service and refreshing lack of hard sell, cornball negotiating tactics.

So what happened? Is it just a case of a bad economy taking down a good brand? Or is there something else at work here?

Methinks it is a little of both. Once the novelty of the Saturn concept wore off, a lot of would-be Saturn buyers were lost by virtue of an uninspired product, and never poked their noses back in to witness the improvements. It is hard to go from a rental fleet provider to a purveyor of automotive fantasies. Just ask Hyundai.

It is always easier to move down-market than up.

Sadly, the backing of GM was probably more of a liability than asset, as the reliability issues of the parent company bled over to their ostensibly autonomous offspring.

So when things are tight, people play it safe and safe has meant cars with Japanese nameplates for some time now, the facts notwithstanding. American companies have improved their products in numerous ways, but have a hard fight to win back consumers with long memories of plastic parts falling off and a gazillion recalls and horrendous depreciation. Of course, now that Toyota floor mats are lethal weapons, the bloom is off the chrysanthemum, but it will take years for the big three to regain hearts and minds.

Saturn built cars to a price, with some quirkiness, and even some real innovation e.g. the ding proof plastic body molding. But few people buy a car just because it can survive a wayward shopping cart.  For every maverick out there, there are hundreds of sheep.

Ultimately, in a competitive market with many brilliant designs, good just wasn't good enough. The Saturn Sky, the future-mobile to Pontiacs retro-mobile sister, should have sold like Mustangs. Stop laughing for a second and lets look at why it didnt.

Americans like style but they love practicality. So offer no storage, make them feel cramped, and you have a problem. We love power here, too, so even your base model needs to have some real grunt.  Like, say, the base model Chevy Camaro jumping off the lots. Target markets are merciless. With numb steering, and slow turn in, the major flaws in an otherwise great handling package, again you are still not at the leading edge even with a good engine. And this was your halo car?!!

Put this all together, and what should be a major revenue enhancer becomes a modestly selling niche product. Whats that you say? All sports cars, let alone roadsters, are niche products and don't sell very well? Really? Tell that to Mazda's Miata. 

So is it worth saving the noble experiment that was Saturn? Maybe. At least a few of the vehicles are worthy, and the marketing concept has value. As for the rest park them next to the Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. But not too close to the Celicas or MR2s.  Plenty of room left in the Museum of Good Intentions. You know, the ones that pave the road to automotive oblivion.
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