- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

Ask an automobile expert to recommend a car for an inexperienced first-time buyer of modest means, and the answer likely will be a Saturn.

The reason is not the car itself, which is middling in almost every respect, but the fact that the new owner has a better chance of a good experience with Saturn than almost any other make save a pricey luxury car.

Because Saturn dealers sell at list price, with no haggling, the buyer doesn't have to endure what often can be a demeaning experience trying to match wits with a wheeler-dealer salesman.

After the purchase, the positive vibes usually continue. Saturn rides high in most satisfaction surveys and has a good reputation for reliability and durability.

Of course, there are people who don't like Saturns or like something else better or relish the combat over prices with aggressive salespeople.

An offshoot of General Motors Co. that calls itself "a different kind of company, a different kind of car," Saturn has managed to stick to its slogan more in the former than the latter. Its only real difference as a car is its plastic side body panels, which resist dings and dents.

But even good will wears thin. In less than a decade on the market, Saturn has had only one basic model: a compact car in coupe, sedan and station-wagon versions, with two levels of trim.

The company missed a tremendous opportunity to spin off a small-car-based sport utility model like the Honda CR-V a mistake it is moving to rectify.

In the interim, to give its loyal customers something to move up to, Saturn has adopted and adapted a General Motors car from Germany, the midsize Opel Vectra.

Unlike some other adaptations of European cars by General Motors and other manufacturers, the new L-Series Saturn sedans and station wagons have been thoroughly Americanized to the point where anyone would be hard pressed to guess their origin.

There are three sedan levels: the base LS and the LS1, both with four-cylinder engines and manual or automatic transmissions, and the LS2, which comes with a V-6 engine and a four-speed automatic.

The test car was the LS2, which is well equipped at $20,575. The base price includes a security and theft-deterrent system with remote locking, a filtered climate-control system, performance tires on alloy wheels, power windows, motorized and heated outside mirrors, an eight-speaker stereo with CD player, cruise control and interior wood-grain trim made of plastic.

However, there are no side air bags, and anti-lock brakes standard on the humble Chevy Cavalier are a $695 option on the Saturn.

The test car topped out at $23,690, with most of the additional cost from the anti-lock brakes, the $1,095 leather upholstery and $325 power driver's seat with a lumbar adjustment.

All in all, it's a nice package that is competitive with the nation's two top-selling midsize cars: the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.

The LS2 doesn't feel quite as refined as those two. There's some wind noise at highway speeds, and the V-6 engine gets growly under hard acceleration a distinctly European trait.

But the V-6 delivers 182 horsepower through a slick-shifting four-speed automatic transmission, with enough verve to propel the LS2 to 60 miles an hour in a hiccup over eight seconds.

Ride and handling are middling but capable enough for the vast majority of owners.

Where the Saturn shines is in interior comfort. The front bucket seats are supportive enough to make long trips seem shorter, and there's decent room and comfort in back for two full-size adults.

There also is a cavernous trunk of more than 17 cubic feet more than enough space for luggage of four persons on a long trip.

In the only real hint of its European origins, the Saturn LS2 has some controls that are out of sync with what U.S. buyers expect. The power-window switches, for example, are practically on the floor, around the transmission shift lever. It's a long reach, and the shift lever hides the switch for the right front window.

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