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The Real Reason Saturn Flopped

by George Mensah
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Many American automakers went bankrupt in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Plymouth was the first to go in 2001, followed by Oldsmobile in 2004, Saturn and Pontiac were both axed on Halloween in 2010, and Mercury was dissolved in 2011.

Most of the aforementioned brands were just tired husks of a lineup by the time they went to the big car dealership in the sky. Few had anything exciting to offer prospective car buyers. Saturn, on the other hand, stands out from the crowd. The brand was the youngest among those axed, having been founded in an attempt to innovate and refresh General Motors. In comparison, Oldsmobile was founded in 1897, and Chrysler’s Plymouth debuted in 1928. It’s easy to see why those brands were becoming stale.

A different kind of car company

Honda and Toyota were eating American brands for breakfast in 1985, with inexpensive and efficient compacts. Around this time, vehicles such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Camry began to appear in driveways across the United States. Saturn was created to counteract this tide, with the first models hitting the market in 1990. You can see that the valiant effort was futile.

Saturn distinguished itself from other automakers in several ways. Not the least of these was Saturn’s use of plastics in automobile construction. Plastics have always been used in the automotive industry, but primarily on interior and exterior styling components. Saturn, on the other hand, used plastic to make entire body panels. After all, plastic is less difficult to maintain than metal, and it is surprisingly durable and rust-proof.

Unlike its cousin Pontiac, Saturn did not borrow the majority of its mechanical components from other GM brands at first. For the most part, the first Saturn vehicles were completely unique. The Saturn brand operated primarily as a separate entity from General Motors. Saturn even tried a “no haggle” pricing model years before brands like Tesla.

Saturn did not produce any supercars or track monsters, nor did it need to. The brand’s bread and butter were simple, low-cost vehicles such as the S-Series and L-Series. The S-Series was a compact with a choice of sedan or wagon body styles and its own in-house drivetrain. That is almost unheard of from sub-brands nowadays.

The sun sets on Saturn

Saturns sold well at first, with hundreds of thousands of vehicles leaving the factory in the brand’s first decade (per Car and Driver). While the lineup was innovative in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was showing its age and didn’t offer any real competitive models to differentiate itself from other brands. In order to diversify its lineup, the brand began borrowing platforms from GM, such as the Relay minivan. Saturn wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the writing was on the wall.

For the 2002 model year, Saturn jumped on the crossover craze and began producing the Saturn Vue. Some Vues were oddly equipped with a 3.5L Honda engine, similar to the one found in the Odyssey minivan. The Saturn Sky roadster even attempted to impress the sportscar crowd. Despite being a rebadged Pontiac Solstice, reviewers liked the Sky. It was inexpensive, fast, and enjoyable to drive.

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The Saturn lineup was nearing the end of its life. What were once distinct models were now rebadged Chevrolets and Pontiacs (via Edmunds). It went from being a distinct brand to essentially generic store brand versions of other GM models.

By the time the disastrous 2008 recession hit and the government began bailing out automakers, Saturn was one of the first GM brands to go. Saturn was closed down by GM in 2009, and by October of 2010, after a failed sale to Penske, it was gone for good.

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