The Lesson of Saturn: It’s the Cars, Stupid

1998 Saturn SL2-1

The Garage’s fearless leader Gary Grant broke the news earlier today that Saturn is on the fast-track to extinction after Roger Penske was unable to secure a manufacturer (most say Renault)  to provide cars for the brand once GM is done building Saturns themselves. Don’t blame Roger though. Saturn had great intentions-to build a small car that was on par or better than a Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic or VW Jetta. And people got fired up about such a car-the public was fed a mentality that us Americans were finally gonna stick it to those foreigners and build a small car that would kick their asses.

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Penske Auto Group backs out of Saturn deal, brand begins to swirl down the bowl

Saturn Logo

This just in: Car brands swirl clockwise just like any other turd.

I vaguely recall reading somewhere last Spring that Saturn turned a profit exactly once during it’s existence. It was a surprise then (to me at least) that Biz Whiz Roger Penske had offered to buy the whole kit and kaboodle. The story was that he intended to keep building Saturns until he could find a suitable European brand to slide into the dealer network.

Perhaps there was no suitable brand. Perhaps Roger and his pals just came to their senses. Perhaps we’ll never know, but the long and short of it is that PAG has walked away from the bargaining table and the Saturn brand, along with the dealer network is going down the shitter. Soon.

GM press release after the break
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Penske Auto Group to Buy Saturn

2009 Saturn Outlook XR

GM has been busy ridding itself of what many call the “Bad GM”-namely, Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn, and Saab, brands that won’t be a part of the “new” GM. Pontiac is being phased out, earlier this week Tengzhong announced plans to purchase Hummer, and today, Penske Auto Group announced that it will buy the Saturn brand and its dealer network from GM. Price was not disclosed, but the deal is expected to close in the third quarter. 

Penske gains 350 dealers and other assets attached to Saturn. GM hails the purchase a victory in that the move will preserve 13,000 jobs. When Saturn changes hands, there will still be vehicles to buy: the Aura, Outlook and Vue will be provided on a contract basis from GM. It should be noted that in Penske Auto Group’s press release that this arrangement would only be for “an interim period.”

It is too early to know for sure what cars Saturn will sell in the future, or if Penske will use the existing dealer network to expand the availability of the Smart car (In the US, Penske operates Smart USA). Penske is rumored to be in talks with several manufacturers who are interested in having their cars sold in North America.

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Is There Hope for the Sky & Solstice?

2009 Saturn Sky Red Line

Saturn will be either sold, or shut down. Pontiac has one more production year left, and the story ends there. It’s a pity when perfectly good cars like the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky are destined to vanish from the automotive landscape. For fans of GM’s two seater sports cars, there is a glimmer of hope. GM CEO Fritz Henderson told Autoweek that the company is open for offers to buy the rights to the cars, and the Wilmington, Delaware factory they are built in. The foreign market Opel GT is also built alongside the Sky and Solstice.

The offer appears similar to Chrysler’s plans for the Dodge Viper. The Viper and the factory it is built in have been up for sale since August, 2008. Rumors have swirled about possible buyers (Saleen, Hennessey?) but no announcement has been made.

These cars are the best small sports cars GM has ever built. They can compete with the Mazda Miata, something the Pontiac Fiero could not do against its rival Toyota MR-2. But who would want them? As halo cars for their respective brands, fat profit margins are unlikely. Obviously, with Saturn dealers anxious to stay alive selling a new line of cars here (Chinese, Indian?) the inclusion of the Sky would be a natural. With GM selling Opel, it is possible the buyer would want to keep the GT as well. 

As GM is rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, the pressure is more intense than ever to shed unprofitable lines, and to show the US Government and its taxpayers they are serious about turning the company around. The Saturn Sky, Pontiac Solstice and Opel GT can either become extinct, or stay around, with GM getting at least some money out of selling the design and the plant to an eager buyer.

GM: Viability Update

2009 Saturn Vue XR

Without a doubt the biggest news from GM today was that Pontiac would be phased out, but there are other points worth mentioning here. GM confirmed that the “resolution” of Saab, Saturn and Hummer will be decided by the end of 2009 at the latest. To recap, Saab has filed with the Swedish government to reorganize itself while it seeks investors. Saab’s intent is to function as an independent company. With Saturn, the brand and its dealer network is essentially for sale. It’s speculated an Indian or Chinese manufacturer could buy in to take advantage of a ready to go dealer network. If a buyer doesn’t materialize Saturn’s current cars will run out their life cycle. Hummer is still on the market, but again, if no buyer is found, we’re looking at another shutdown.

A constant criticism of GM, in addition to having too many brands, has been having too many dealers. In 2008, GM had a total of 6,246 active dealers. GM now proposes that they will have 3,605 dealers by the end of 2010-that’s 500 fewer dealers and a full four years sooner than initially planned. In speaking with The Garage founder Gary Grant on the subject, his position is that dealers who have invested in their brand with up to date showrooms and facilities stand a good chance of staying. I agree-GM will be looking very carefully on a town to town basis, and the dealer who looks like he’s a living relic from Kurt Russell’s “Used Cars” won’t be long for this world. Expect to see the biggest cuts in heavily populated metropolitan areas.

No Saturn Astra for 2009

Here’s an odd one. According to Autoblog, there will be no 2009 Saturn Astra for sale. The reason? Too many 2008 Astras are still sitting on dealer lots. Talk about an inventory problem. I am disappointed that the Astra is not selling well in North America. I think the Astra is the best small car Saturn has ever sold. Having driven the old Saturn SL2 sedan and SC1 coupe, they were not bad looking cars, but the overriding impression was that these were very crude automobiles.

True, the Astra is nothing more than a rebadged Opel, but it is more than competent for what it was meant to do. Sadly, Saturn or GM has done little to promote or market the car. Autoblog confirms this is not the end of the Astra, for now at least. New Astras will arrive in the Spring, to be sold as 2010 models.

Taking it to the streets in the 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line

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With our last hybrid experience here in The Garage, we were a bit underwhelmed by the on road experience, so what was life with the 08 Saturn Vue like? It was actually a lot more fun than we expected. Just as the new Vue looks playful and stylish, it plays that part well out in the commuter wars as well.

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The Green Line model is equipped with a 2.4L inline 4 cylinder, mated to a 4 speed automatic transmission. Working alongside the conventional stuff is an electric motor/generator that provides additional power on acceleration, and regenerates it’s power on deceleration. Along with this, the engine shuts down when the vehicle is stopped and early fuel cut off on decel further aids fuel economy. All this adds up to give the front wheel drive Vue Green Line decent acceleration for a 4 cylinder cuv of this size.
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Road Test: 2008 Saturn Vue Green Line

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When Saturn came on the scene, back in 1990 everything they were different from just about everything else on the road. They wore plastic body panels that didn’t dent and they looked quite unlike anything consumers had seen before. The 2008 Saturn Vue is different too. Gone are the plastic panels, but it looks unlike any Hybrid consumers have seen before. Shapely and stylish, the all new 2008 Saturn Vue makes the concept of green just a little bit sexier. In fact, following the annual AJAC test fest, the 2008 Vue was crowned best new SUV/CUV from $35,000 to $60,000.

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Don’t let those numbers fool you, as the Vue is a much better value than those numbers might suggest. The base model begins at $26,990 while a fully loaded Red Line rings in at $38,605. Our very well equipped tester retailed for $32,345 which seems like a pretty good deal for a hybrid cuv with real world room for a family of 5.
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Automotive Sunset in the land of the Rising Sun?

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While the Detroit 3 might be headed into the vortex of a rust bowl one might be envious of the success of our Japanese friends on American shores. But that envy might change into sympathy if you look at what’s happening in the land of the rising sun.

Auto sales in Japan, having declined for 18 straight months. Analysts attribute the slide to an aging populace, zero population growth and a weak economy. The country’s population peaked in 2004 at 127.8 million and has declined by about 17,000 since then. Government demographers forecast that the population will decline to 95.1 million by 2050 a significant downward bump.
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Track test: Saturn Sky Redline

I’ve always been a firm believer that first impressions are an important indication of what’s to come. The first impression the 2008 Saturn Sky Turbo was a bright and bubbly one that promised lots of fun. From a branding standpoint, there didn’t appear to be any logos indicating that this was the Redline model, other than the turbo badge on the aft flank. Sliding behind the wheel, I found the cockpit more suited to a round guy than the standard of the class, Mazda’s MX-5. The interior is actually as hip looking as the outside and was comfy to boot.
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