Saturn advertises itself as "a different kind of car company" although it is actually a division of General Motors.
Saturn prides itself on dealerships that feature the "Saturn Difference," which means, among other things, no-haggle pricing.
The basic Saturn sedan is like a domestic version of the Toyota Corolla, or the Honda Civic. Saturn's best-known vehicle feature is the "dent and corrosion-resistant (plastic) bodyside panels."
In the early 80s General Motors decided to look at all of the successful auto divisions and try to create something new. Could the traditional two solitudes of management and union work together in the U.S. to create a "different kind of company"?
What resulted after several years of study was a shared vision of a world class compact car. This new entry in the small car market would compete with the imports that were making inroads into GM's business. A sport coupe and small sedan with a station wagon variant were proposed (today's Saturn SL and SC series cars).
A single plant¹ in Spring Hill, Tennessee was commissioned and constructed during the late 80s. At the same time the UAW was forming the teams that would staff the new Saturn plant.
Pre-production work continued at a number of GM design centres while the Spring Hill plant was built. Care was taken to make the Spring Hill plant a showpiece, including a Child Care center and "green park" work to make the plant as environmentally friendly as possible.
By 1989 the first complete powertrain rolled off the line. Eight months later General Motors chairman Roger B. Smith (of Roger and Me fame) and UAW president Owen Bieber drove the first Saturn, a metallic red SL series four door sedan, off the assembly line.
Saturn became profitable in 1993, the same year the 500,000th car was sold. The next year, the first "Saturn Homecoming" event occurred, where all Saturn owners were invited to return with their cars to the plant for a tour. The 1,000,000th car came off the line in 1995, the 1,500,000th in 1997, and the 2,000,000th in 1999.
In 1998, the "3-door coupe" appeared, and the new bigger "L series" was announced, and in 2000 the Saturn SUV was announced. The L series is already available, and the "Vue" SUV will appear for the 2002 model year. Both will be produced at the second Saturn plant in Wilmington, Delaware.
Much of this info was gleaned from:
Saturn's "no haggle" sales approach, friendly open showrooms, recall policies and other retail decisions shook up the industry as much, or more, than the cars themselves. A whole new market opened up when people who were intimidated, insulted or put off by the traditional car sales process began flocking to Saturn dealerships. Saturn's "brand loyalty" among customers rivals that of companies like Apple - a small but intensely loyal core of converts who will promote the company for free.
Nonetheless a search of the web will find many postings by detractors who feel that the company's reputation is hype and claim to have had bad experiences. Excessive oil use, cracked cylinder heads, and gasket leakage are commonly reported.
Personally, I have had very little trouble, and my experiences with my Saturn-Saab-Isuzu dealership have all been positive. There's a bit too much road noise in my gold 1994 Saturn SL1², and the radiator fluid idiot light is inhabited by a poltergeist, and the brake rotors 'tick' in low speed braking. But overall it runs very well, came through flawlessly in a T-bone accident, and when I need service it has always been fast, friendly, and correct.
1. Consisting of a campus of buildings including Powertrain, Body Systems, General Assembly and Vehicle Interior buildings.
2. I was too cheap in 1994 to pop for the Twin Cam and the colo(u)r matching bumpers. Maybe next time...