The genesis of the Saturn line of automobiles emerged in June of 1982.
Alex C. Mair, then vice president of advanced engineering at General Motors developed a concept for an automobile to compete with the popularly priced Japanese and German imports selling exceptionally well at the time. This came during a period when many at General Motors were just starting to see the proverbial writing on the wall.
In 1981, General Motors had suffered its first annual loss since the 1920s. Steadily losing market share to imported cars, it was also enduring lawsuits and quality problems. The company also suffered from bad public relations, blatant badge engineering, and a failed attempt to market diesel engines. Exacerbating the problems, General Motors was saddled with a corporate culture, absolutely loath to change—even in the face of all of this adversity.
Billed as “A Different Kind of Car Company” at launch; Saturn’s primary marketing message was its cars could be had with no dealer haggling. Market research had told those in command at General Motors something every car buyer already knew. Consumers’ least favorite aspect of the car buying process was negotiating the price of the vehicle with an automotive salesperson.
And, when you think about it, it makes sense.
In 1985, when the concept of the Saturn brand was conceived, there was no Internet. The only way consumers could find out the value of a car was to typically go to the public library and consult the “Blue Book”. Even then though, the Blue Book only worked for used cars. Dealers could pretty much charge whatever they wanted to for a new car.
Or, said differently, dealers could charge whatever they could get.
The idea behind Saturn was to offer the cars at a reasonable price in the first place, then permit no further bargaining. In an effort to ensure Saturn’s operations were not tainted by the prevailing corporate culture at General Motors, Saturn operated more or less independently from the rest of the corporation (at launch). It had its own factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee, its models were unique to the brand, and it had a separate retail network. By positioning the brand in this fashion, plus sizing and pricing its models to compete directly with imports, Saturn was GM’s effort to go toe to toe with Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, and most of all—Toyota.
The Saturn prototype was unveiled in 1983, the Saturn Corporation was formed in 1985, and construction began on the Spring Hill factory that same year. The thing that made Saturn’s key positioning message possible was a negotiated deal with the United Auto Workers union. General Motors promised 80 percent of Saturn workers would enjoy lifetime employment and a number of other deal sweeteners—if the union would relax many of its cost-inducing requirements.
Chief among them was paying employees an annual salary rather than an hourly wage. With these agreements in place, Saturn enjoyed a lower cost structure, enabling it to offer its products at a more competitive price.
The first Saturn models off the assembly line at Spring Hill were the Saturn S-Series range of cars. Between 1991 and 1995, Saturn produced one million cars. Those first Saturn were indeed quite different. They used spaceframe designs so the body panels didn’t have to support the weight of the car. This enabled Saturn to use plastic body panels—ostensibly to enable rapid styling changes (though it was never taken advantage of). It also made the cars cheaper to build. Further, they were dent resistant, which meant a Saturn automobile would look new longer.
Saturn’s S-Series cars debuted with the SL (or sedan level) in 1990, for model year 1991. In 1992, the company introduced its two-door coupe—the Saturn SC. A wagon, the Saturn SW automobiles followed in 1993. The public received them warmly. The no-haggle price strategy was proving quite effective at getting customers into the showroom and turning them into buyers. There was, however, one “not-so-little” problem. A full 41 percent of those buyers were trading out of other General Motors brands into a Saturn. In other words, the brand was cannibalizing sales, rather than conquesting them.
Saturn rode the S-Series line of cars from 1991 to 2002 with very few changes. In a volatile environment like the U.S. new car market, this strategy is rather problematic. In buyer’s minds, the product goes stale after a while (unless it’s a Porsche 911). Starved of new product, by 2000, Saturn’s halo was beginning to tarnish. The cars had become dated, the model range was limited, and so buyers’ attention turned elsewhere.
One exceptionally bright spot during that period was GM’s decision to offer its GM EV1 electric car through Saturn dealers in 1996. The first automobile ever sold under the GM marque (rather than a Saturn, or a Chevrolet, or an Oldsmobile, it was a GM EV1) the EV1 was revolutionary for the company in a number of other ways.
Sadly, GM’s management team of the time botched this too.
Rather than being sold, EV1 models could only be leased. This led to problems when GM’s management team decided the EV1 program was not profitable and moved to kill it. However, the car had developed a cult-like following in the interim. Thus, GM created a great deal of ill will when it enforced the “lease only” requirement and further, crushed every EV1 when they were returned according the requirements of their leases. A number of people cried conspiracy—as well as a few other choice invectives. Either way, GM was on to something good with the EV1, very early on, but just couldn’t see it. (See Tesla Motors)
With the allure of the S-Series cars long having waned, the decision was finally made to offer a new range of Saturn models. The Saturn L-Series was introduced in 1999, as model year 2000 vehicles. And, yeah, they didn’t work. Between May of 1999 and June of 2004 only 406,000 L-Series cars were built. Remember, the S-Series had sold one million cars in less time. Further, Toyota was averaging 400,000 Camrys a year—in the U.S. alone.
Saturn finally got an SUV for the 2002 model year—even though the SUV boom had been going since roughly 1994. The L-Series was replaced by the even more lackluster Ion the following year. Things started to look “up” for Saturn in 2006 though, with the introduction of the Saturn Sky sports car as a 2007 model. Saturn’s new 2007 sedan, the Saturn Aura, also showed considerable promise. Also, the idea was hit upon to rebadge Opel models as Saturns in the U.S, which brought the rather nice Opel Astra over as the Saturn Astra.
Saturn was finally getting some decent product.
So of course, just as the Saturn showroom was starting to become an interesting place, General Motors pulled the plug on the brand.