Saturn Adding Sky, Aura and New SUV

2005 Detroit Auto Show Index by TCC Team (1/8/2005)

Saturn is about to launch a multi-billion dollar sink-or-swim product rollout that could determine the long-term future of the struggling General Motors division – and indeed, help set the stage for a turnaround at GM itself.

Once considered the “maverick” brand among General Motors divisions, Saturn has struggled in recent years to regain its edge, largely due to internal corporate rivalry that left it starved for cash and product. But over the next three years, it will more than double the number of segments it competes in with an assortment of new cars, trucks and crossovers.

The first two of these products will make their debut in Detroit during this month’s North American International Auto Show. The Saturn Sky is a peppy little roadster designed to put a halo around the tarnished brand, while the more mainstream Aura sedan may will surprise skeptics with its sleek exterior design and refined interior.

“If the clock could be turned back to 1993, I’m sure people would like to make different decisions,” general manager, Jill Lajdzick says of Saturn’s long product drought.

It can’t, but after years of steady decline, the division now has a serious shot at revival with products that “have the potential to attract import intenders, whether Asian or German,” added GM’s “car czar, Bob Lutz.

How high the Sky?

2006 Saturn Sky The two-seat Sky is likely to catch the most immediate attention. It’s based on the same Kappa “architecture” – GM-speak for chassis – as the sporty Pontiac Solstice roadster, which goes into production later this year. While Sky will add about $5,000 to the base Solstice, it’s expected to be a significantly more refined and powerful vehicle.

The aggressive front end will be defined by the strong chrome crossbar grille with its integrated Saturn badge. With subtle tweaks, this will be the new face for all future Saturn products, according to General Motors design chief, Ed Welburn.

Sky’s stance will be long, low and wide, though the car’s actual footprint isn’t all that much bigger than the MINI Cooper. Short overhangs, with the standard 18-inch wheels pushed to the corners should further enhance Sky’s sporty appearance. The top is a quick-action manual.

2006 Saturn Sky interiorA 2.4-liter Ecotec in-line four with variable valve timing will be the standard engine, for one thing, pumping out 170 hp. It will be mated to a short-throw five-speed manual transmission. A five-speed automatic will be optional.

The roadster’s suspension should also exceed expectations, considering Sky’s price point. It’s a four-wheel independent short/long arm suspension, with coil-over Bilstein monotube shocks for improved wheel control and road isolation. The Sky will boast hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion power steering, and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

When Sky hits market, early in 2006, it will feature one of the more refined interiors to roll off a domestic assembly line, especially considering the price tag. The center console, for one thing, will trade the cheesy-looking black plastic found in most GM products for chrome and piano black.

Reading Saturn's Aura

Saturn Aura ConceptWhen Saturn was first conceived, 20 years ago, it was intended to go up against the best Japan had to offer. But the division’s new entries have more in common with GM’s European product line-up. The Aura sedan, for example, was designed at the automaker’s studios in Russelsheim, Germany . It’s a subtle but significant shift in strategy, and going forward, Saturn is expected to emphasize the European ties as a way to move brand perception up-market.

That may explain the focus on cabin quality and refinement. Interior design has become a big battleground on the other side of the Atlantic , and GM’s German-based Opel division has made significant effort to upgrade the materials it uses, tighten tolerances and improve the overall look and feel of its interiors.

Saturn Aura ConceptThe Aura’s interior is designed to make you feel like you’re sitting in a sophisticated living room, said Welburn, something you’d expect to see in Architectural Digest . The show car features an unusual, crosshatch leather that has received such wide internal praise it’s now planned for production. The same Rustica leather is used for door inserts, the steering wheel and shift knob. Indirect ambient lighting also achieves an architectural feel in the concept vehicle.

The Aura show car even features chrome sill plates, with the Saturn logo, and titanium knobs and buttons.

Under the hood, Aura is powered by a 250-hp, 3.6-liter, DOHC V-6 paired with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

Safety features include ABS, traction and stability control, multi-stage front airbags, side airbags and head curtains.

More in store

The Sky and Aura are just two of the new products on tap for Saturn. A crossover utility vehicle, is reportedly being developed with the assistance of GM’s Japanese affiliate, Subaru. Another sedan is likely to bear the telltale fingerprints of Opel.

Eventually, Saturn plans to compete in six or more product segments. That would still make it a niche nameplate, at least when compared with the likes of Chevrolet. But it’s a significant increase from its early days, when Saturn only had a subcompact to offer.

Back in the say, to use the vernacular, Saturn did a lot to enhance GM’s image. The division’s recent decline has been an unmistakable blemish. Its early success using a customer-friendly, no-haggle sales strategy is far less unique today, and less compelling in a market saturated with solid product.

General Motors has grudgingly accepted the need to turn things around and is putting in significant resources. Whether Sky and Aura – and the products to follow – will be enough to do the job is unclear. But the alternative was clearly unacceptable. Over the last decade, Saturn’s sales fell nearly 25 percent, to last year’s 212,017. Without help, Saturn seemed increasingly likely to follow GM’s recently-departed Oldsmobile brand into the dustbin of automotive history.

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