- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Hoping to follow in the successful footsteps of Cadillac, General Motors’ Saturn division is in the midst of a complete product revitalization to rejuvenate what had become an increasingly moribund brand.

By the end of December, the company will have introduced four new vehicles this year and plans to have at least another three on the road by the end of next year.

The strategy, according to Jill Lajdziak, Saturn general manager, is not all that complicated. “What we’re doing,” she explained, “is taking the rich brand equity [and] marrying it up with a new products portfolio.”

In 1985, when it was introduced with great fanfare as an independent GM subsidiary, Saturn vowed to produce “a different kind of car” from “a different kind of car company.” The goal was to stem the rising tide of imports from Japan.

When the first Saturn sedan rolled off the assembly line in 1990, Saturn had lived up to that promise — but not exactly in the way it intended.

The different kind of car company caught on quickly with a segment of the buying public that enjoyed the relaxed and friendly showroom experience, the haggle-free pricing policy, the opportunity to return the car for another Saturn model within 30 days or 1,500 miles, and the post-sales meetings to teach new owners about their vehicles.

But, the different kind of car turned out to be something of a dud. Saturns, although reliable, were pretty much low-tech automobiles that seemed crude in comparison with the Toyotas and Hondas they were hoping to defeat in the marketplace.

Composite body panels, optional antilock brakes and two less-than-inspiring four-cylinder engines were hardly the ingredients to provide a viable alternative to the innovative new technologies being introduced by the competition.

As the years passed, Saturn offered few new models and none came close to setting any benchmarks in automotive development. Clearly, there was no strong focus on what a competitive Saturn should be.

The Saturn loyalty rate dropped from a high of nearly 50 percent during the early 1990s to the 20 percent-30 percent range. Recently, however, it has rebounded to the mid-40s.

“Our products didn’t evolve,” Miss Lajdziak acknowledged. “We didn’t grow the portfolio.”

Still, the company acquired about 3 million customers along the way, a large percentage of whom were buyers who moved to Saturn from brands other than GM products.

The once-independent subsidiary has been merged into the GM family and the goal is to meet the original product promise and retain what Miss Lajdziak calls “the pillars of the brand … great guest treatment [and] no haggle, no hassle.”

“We want to bring our 3 million customers along on the journey,” she said.

One feature that won’t be coming along is the composite body panels that resisted scratches, dents and corrosion, but required wide gaps because they expanded in hot weather.

Kyle Johnson, Saturn communications director, said that was a manufacturing decision because it is not possible to process steel and composite doors on the same assembly line.

To meet that product promise, Saturn is now closely aligned with Opel, GM’s German division, and introducing vehicles that are near twins to those being sold in Europe by Opel.

Mr. Johnson explained that, “As much as possible, we’ll be sharing design work and — going forward — engineering resources with Opel.”

But, Miss Lajdziak emphasized that the synergy between the two divisions will extend only as far as their ability to make a strong business case for the joint development of a vehicle.

The first of the new Saturns off the assembly line this year was the Sky, a flashy two-seat roadster that is a close relative of the Pontiac Solstice and a bellwether of Saturn’s new design direction.

Saturn’s close relationship with its European affiliate is apparent in the Opel GT, which is being manufactured in Wilmington, Del., alongside the Sky.

“The Sky is meant to turn heads, to say something is changing at Saturn,” the general manager said. So far, the strategy appears to be working. By mid-October, the car had been sold out into 2007 and the hot rod version, the turbocharged, 260-horsepower Sky Red Line, was just starting to go on sale.

Far more important to the bottom line than that initial halo car is the Saturn Aura, a midsize family sedan that Saturn believes will finally fulfill the promise made at the company’s beginning — to match the competition from the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Nearly identical in design to the current Opel Vectra, the handsomely designed and careful executed Aura may have a much different future than the poorly received L-Series of sedans and wagons that were based on an earlier generation of the Vectra. The car has been in dealerships for only a short time, but early reports from analysts and automotive journalists almost universally have been positive.

The third vehicle is the Saturn Vue Green Line, a mild hybrid version of the division’s aging crossover vehicle. Its gas-electric powerplant improves fuel mileage without a huge price premium, but the vehicle cannot operate on electric power alone.

Miss Lajdziak said the Green Line is the first vehicle in what she expects will become Saturn’s leading role in hybrid technology, a role which will include other hybrid systems that GM is developing.

Scheduled to roll out in December is the Outlook, Saturn’s version of a new GM crossover vehicle that will be marketed in slightly different form as the upcoming Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia. It will hold up to eight passengers. The Outlook will not become part of the Opel portfolio because it is too big for European roads.

Next year will be equally busy for the Saturn team, although the company so far has officially confirmed only one new entry. It is the Aura hybrid, which will employ the same gas-electric powertrain as the Vue.

However, Saturn officials have confirmed that production of its compact Ion will cease in March. The expected replacement will be an Americanized version of the Opel Astra, which in Europe competes against the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.

The company also is expected to cease production of the Vue and replace it with a crossover vehicle with similarities to the PreVue, a sporty, three-door, four-wheel-drive concept vehicle introduced at the New York International Automobile Show.

The product blitz will not stop there. Mr. Johnson wouldn’t say exactly what, but assured that “There will be more things coming after 2007.”

To get a feeling of where Saturn is heading, I recently spent some time with the three vehicles already on the road — Sky, Aura and Vue Green Line. Here is what I learned.

Saturn Sky

Anyone who has ever had a hankering to experience open-air motoring in a genuine two-seat sports car will find the Sky to be an appealing package.

Based on the Vauxhall VX Lightning Concept created in Birmingham, England, in 2003, the Sky offers more dramatic styling than the Solstice or its chief foreign competitor, the Mazda MX-5.

The standard Sky features a 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower four-cylinder engine with double overhead camshafts and variable-valve timing. Mated to a five-speed manual transmission, it will vault from a stop to 60 mph in about seven seconds. A five-speed automatic transmission is optional.

I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time behind the wheel, but I was able to determine that it is a lot of fun and, thanks to its precise rack-and-pinion steering and all-wheel independent suspension, it’s quite competent on the back roads and comfortable on the interstates.

It took me right back to the days when I was the owner and pilot of crude-by-comparison British roadsters, a Triumph TR-3 and an MGB.

The Sky has come in for some mild criticism on two fronts, neither of which would faze a Triumph or MG owner.

It’s true that it takes a little practice to easily lower and raise the manual top, but the job is a breeze (pun intended) compared with those old Triumphs.

It’s also true that the trunk space, enough for a long weekend for two with soft luggage, virtually disappears when the top is folded away. The simple solution: Travel with the top up in quiet, climate-controlled climate comfort. Enjoy the wind in your hair after you get to your destination.

Base price of the standard Sky is $25,195. That’s $3,200 more than the starting tab for a Pontiac Solstice, but the Sky comes with a higher level of standard equipment.

The hot-rod Sky Red Line gets its 260 horsepower from a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with GM’s first direct fuel-injection system. Saturn officials say it can make the run to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. It, too, comes well equipped and will have a base price of $28,895.

Saturn Aura

What separates the Aura from all Saturns that have preceded it is its technologically modern engineering, attention to detail and surprising level of refinement.

A close relative of the Opel Vectra, the Aura has the up-to-date hardware and on-road competence that make it a strong alternative to the well-established competition. In addition, it is competitively priced, solidly built and good looking in a way that separates it from the Japanese models.

The Aura is being marketed in two trim levels. The base XE, with a base price of $20,595, has the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission that can be found in the other GM vehicles. It has variable-valve timing and generates 224 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque.

The upscale XR, which I spent time in, features General Motors’ more modern 3.6-liter, 24-valve, aluminum-block V-6 with variable-valve timing and overhead camshaft. It produces 252 horsepower and 251 foot-pounds of torque. Power is put to the road through a six-speed shifting. Base price is $23,945.

Several things stand out after even a short time behind the wheel. The XR is quick, comfortable, handles well, shifts smoothly and is exceptionally quiet inside the cabin.

Still, you won’t mistake the Aura for a sports sedan, either. Hit the accelerator hard and you’ll feel a tug on the steering wheel, compliments of that front-wheel-drive bugaboo, torque steer.

Power it into a tight turn and you’ll definitely notice its front-end weight bias.

But none of that should be objectionable to a person looking for a well-appointed midsize family sedan capable of carrying four adults

Inside, the Aura succeeds where so many General Motors cars have failed. It offers a comfortable, refined atmosphere for up to four adults.

The dashboard, door panels and optional leather upholstery have a quality feel. Controls, from the power window switches to the radio dials, are conveniently placed.

Outside, obvious attention has been paid to fit and finish, and the bright, multispoke, 18-inch aluminum wheels add an air of sportiness to the sedan’s distinctive design.

Sure there were a couple of glitches in the test car, one of the very first off the assembly line. A tug on the driver’s-side door handle revealed flimsiness not in character with the rest of the car.

The headliner was not properly attached at the point where it meets the rear window. And, strangely, there was no red-line indicator on the tachometer.

But Saturn has promised to make running refinements and pay close attention to customer complaints so these early missteps should prove to be a minor concern.

They better be if Saturn wants to prove it can build a car that will go nose to tailpipe with the best of them.

Saturn Vue Green Line

Of the new models introduced by Saturn during 2006, the Vue Green Line is the only one that retains the look and feel of the company before it began its effort to upgrade vehicles and turn the brand around.

What a buyer will get, essentially, is a front-wheel-drive Vue featuring General Motors’ mild hybrid powertrain instead of its standard four-cylinder gasoline engine. The crossover vehicle is reasonably comfortable for up to five adults. It will hold 30.8 cubic feet of cargo with the split rear seatback in place, 63.8 cubic feet with the seatback folded forward.

The reason for this blend of old and new is to offer buyers hybrid power in a sport-utility vehicle at an affordable price.

Starting at $23,370, the Vue Green Line commands only about a $2,000 premium over a comparable Vue with a conventionally powered four-cylinder engine. Yet, it delivers better fuel mileage and more power.

To keep costs down, the company decided on a simplified version of hybrid power that combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor to provide some, but not all of the features of the full hybrids offered by Ford and Toyota.

It also decided to retain the standard four-speed automatic shifter instead of using a more fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission.

The Green Line’s 2.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine, with an assist from a relatively small motor/generator rated at 19 horsepower, develops a total of 170 horsepower, 27 more than the standard engine alone.

However, its EPA rating of 27 miles per gallon the city and 32 mpg on the open road beats the gasoline-only Vue by 5 mpg. My calculations put fuel mileage at 23 mpg city/28 mpg highway, and I suspect there are similar differences between the EPA figures and real-world driving with the conventionally powered Vue.

The electric motor gives the gasoline engine a boost during acceleration and restarts it after engine shut-off at traffic stops.

Gasoline is saved through the engine shut-down and fuel cut-off during deceleration.

Also during deceleration, the electric motor reverses itself and become a generator, helping to slow the vehicle down and replenish the vehicle’s 14.5-volt nickel metal-hydride battery pack.

Unlike the full hybrids, the Vue Green Line cannot operate on electric power alone and the gasoline engine will not shut down at traffic stops if the air conditioner or windshield defogger is on.

I spent a week with a Vue Green Line and found the experience to be something of a mixed bag. The powerplant did its job but its inherent efficiencies were offset by some of the Vue’s inherent deficiencies, many of which should disappear when the Vue is replaced by a more modern vehicle, probably next year.

One surprising deficiency was paucity of any instrumentation related to the hybrid’s operation. The only thing that tells a motorist when he is driving efficiently is a small green “eco” sign that lights up on the lower left side of the dashboard. Its placement requires drivers to take their eyes off the road. Clearly, that needs to be addressed.

My biggest complaint, however, was with the four-speed automatic transmission. The gear ratios were not well matched to the power output.

Acceleration from a stop was minimally satisfactory and highway cruising speeds were maintained without a problem. But there were times, on hills or in passing situations, when the accelerator foot asked for a quick surge of power and it just wasn’t there. Something needs to be changed, be it better ratios, more gears or a continuously variable transmission.

Assuming that a new vehicle will address the problems inside the Vue’s cabin, I can only hope the mechanical parts will be better integrated to showcase the hybrid powerplant. For now, the Vue hybrid has to be considered a work in progress.

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