CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — We're following twisty back roads somewhere between Nashville and Chattanooga, rolling over humpy convolutions of the Cumberland Plateau in the latest coupe out of a Tennessee assembly plant. It's the slick little SC2 by Saturn, upshot brand from General Motors, stocking the kind of suspension and steering and powertrain components that make driving both satisfying and fun. There's power on the pedal when you need it, the shifter feels tight and controllable, rack-and-pinion steering's quick in response to the slightest flick of driver's wrist, as various hardware of an independent suspension system evens out road bumps and checks body roll through so many corners on a curvy route into the Appalachian Mountains.
Saturn, it seems, has produced an assertive new generational edition of this subcompact coupe, and it comes with gutsy mechanical equipment to express a sporty flavor. The two trim versions — SC1 and SC2 — continue, although the duo show new exterior styling, support revised interior layouts and pack enhanced powertrains. New body parts appear on the coupes, but styling closely resembles former editions as expressed through the daring exterior shell with streamlined forms suggesting action. The nose tapers to a virtual point, and the dramatic slope of the front hood mirrors an aggressive slant of the windshield. A sharp character line on each side stretches from tip to tail. Also, roof pillars have been de-emphasized, so from certain angles the car looks like it carries the clear canopy of a supersonic jet.
Then there's the novelty of a back door. In a radical departure from the typical two-door coupe, Saturn sets the new door immediately behind driver's left front door. This third door, hinged at the rear with handle tucked flush into the leading edge of the jam, swings wide and permits easier access to the rear seats. To open the back door first requires opening the front door, and the rear panel then swings wide at nearly a right angle to create a broad and pillarless portal. Saturn's designers borrowed the idea of a third door from GM trucks, which posed the same question: How do you access the rear seat without crawling over the front seat? In effect, these coupes now function with the convenience of a sedan, yet they retain sleek and sporty styling lines of a two-door. Score the third portal as yet another clever idea by the newest brand from General Motors.
1999 Saturn SC 2dr
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The concept for a new line of innovative products from GM was born in the 1980s at a time when the Japanese had cornered the market for small yet practical automobiles packed with valuable features. The first Saturn product — a subcompact sedan — emerged at the beginning of this decade, promoting the quality and content of an import but surprisingly low price points outlined in a no-haggle philosophy by Saturn dealers. A sporty coupe design and wagon variation quickly followed, and for seven annual models Saturn produced a line that remained essentially the same as the originals. Some improvements in 1995 included a boost in power for the base coupe, revamped interior with a new instrument panel, plus safety systems added like air bags. Saturn's delay in modernizing the line failed to dampen consumer enthusiasm because the brand consistently earned high marks in surveys measuring product quality and sales satisfaction — and Saturn ranked above other brands in terms of customer loyalty and resale value.
Then, in 1996, a new generation of sedans emerged. Changes for Saturn's sedans extended beyond integral safety elements and external styling to revisions in chassis designs with new structural elements, upgraded interiors and improved powertrains with more spirited performances and improved fuel economy numbers. Design for two 1997 coupe models came from the improved 1996 sedans, as coupes used the identical wheelbase and chassis components. Now for 1999, the coupes receive a major update with particular attention paid to tame noise and harshness. As with previous Saturns, the coupes shoulder body panels constructed from molded polymer. The pliable plastic resembles sheet metal but flexes in the face of parking-lot mishaps like encounters with grocery carts. Panel snaps back to original shape following such a collision, leaving no dent or ding — and no chipped paint.
THE INSIDE STORY
On the inside, front bucket seats for driver and front rider show new fabrics, and driver's bucket gets a variable height adjustment for the cushion. Also, the seat's track extends rearward substantially to increase space for legs. A modular dash houses analog instruments and twin airbags, which now operate with reduced force. All passenger spaces earn three-point active seat belts. Trim levels of SC1 and SC2 continue, differing primarily in terms of power output from the engine and upgraded interior features. The two aluminum 1.9-liter four-cylinder aluminum engines return, although all components from block to alternator have been reworked to increase fuel efficiency and reduce noise and vibration. A single-cam edition for SC1 generates 100 horsepower, while SC2 has a twin-cam boost to 124 hp. Either the standard manual five-speed transmission or an optional automatic four-speed applies to these engines. The automatic employs fuzzy logic computer components in the powertrain control module to govern shift patterns after studying a driver's initial performance habits.
Standard features for both coupes range from a lever-activated tilting steering column to height-adjustable front shoulder belts, manual shutoff for the rear defroster and a rear deck lid release. Options include air conditioning and full disc brakes linked to anti-lock system and traction controller. Despite equipment added for 1999 issues, Saturn's coupes use a favorable price chart. The entry SC1 coupe totals to $12,385, while a more powerful SC2 with more equipment lists for $15,005.