My sad Saturn farewell

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The Cheapskate Blog’s Brad Tuttle writes that “the first new car I could truly call my own was a bare bones Saturn SL.” My first new car was a Saturn, too. Being no cheapskate, I splurged on an SL2. It was a 1992, just the second model year. I was living in Montgomery, Alabama, not all that far down the road from the Saturn factory Spring Hill, Tennessee. I even had a friend in Montgomery whose brother worked there. I test drove a Honda Civic and a Mazda Protege too, but I liked the feel of the Saturn better. Plus I bought the whole Saturn ethos—”a different kind of company, a different kind of car.”

I loved that car. The only problems I ever had with it were in the first couple weeks I owned it. I misjudged its length (my previous car was a Ford/Kia Festiva, which was seriously tiny) and scraped a couple of those plastic side panels against the corner of the brick building that housed the Montgomery bureau of The Birmingham News, where I worked. The local Saturn dealer replaced the side panels and it looked good as new. Then, a day or two after I got the car back, I found myself driving U.S. Senate candidate Chris McNair (he was challenging Dick Shelby for the Democratic nomination) north from Birmingham. One of his campaign workers was driving his car. It was the only way I could get some interview time with McNair without being stuck on the road with him for a couple of days, I think. We stopped at a McDonalds along I-65 for a bite to eat, and when we got back into the car and I turned the key, nothing happened. I called the special Saturn roadside assistance number and after 30-45 minutes the guy showed up, figured out that the battery connectors were loose (they must have been disconnected during the repairs and only halfway reconnected), and we were on our way. McNair was so good natured about the whole thing that I wrote a fawning article for the News about it all.

Years later, McNair pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, thus disabusing me of my belief that he was the most decent politician I’d ever known. My Saturn, on the other hand, never disappointed me. Which I guess is the point of this long tale. As Tuttle puts it:

What Saturn had in the early days was rare: It was an American brand that many consumers (not just me, that’s for sure) believed in. The company produced a product that, shockingly, consumers believed was worth the retail price. Plainly put, a Saturn was a good value. You knew what you were getting, you knew what you’d pay, and you were happy about both.

The usual verdict from auto industry experts like my friend Alex Taylor is that the Saturn experiment as originally conceived was doomed to fail because it involved making a staggeringly huge investment to produce a low-margin product. As a small, standalone operation, Saturn didn’t take advantage of GM’s size and know-how. Alex & Co. may be right, but to Saturn true believers like me and Tuttle, the company’s separation from its troubled parent was exactly what made it so appealing. In our view the troubles came after GM gave in to its bean counters (and the jealous heads of its other divisions) and started making Saturns that were basically just Oldsmobiles. They had created one of those rare brands that truly meant something to consumers. Then they went and devalued it.

Think that’s a crazy exaggeration? Watch this: