Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Watt's Thoughts - Saturn and the GM failure

Looking over GM's plans to survive as an automotive manufacturer, I see something that I think shows where GM has their problems. Continuously we're hearing that GM will either shut down, spin off or sell the Saturn division. I received an e-mail from Saturn last week that said they fully expect it will be either sold off or spun off, but will continue operating. I know that Saturn has never made money for GM in almost 25 years as a division.

Saturn was created in the 1980s by GM as an early way to fight the Japanese imports with domestic manufacturing. One of the major plans of Saturn was that it would be the test area to try ideas in manufacturing and then to move them to GM overall. For that reason, the plant was built away from the rest, in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and they got a separate union contract for the division. Employees were empowered to stop the manufacturing if the quality was an issue. Over time they made the Spring Hill facility just another GM plant and scattered Saturn production to other existing GM plants. Basically, GM never moved the concepts to rest of company but instead changed Saturn to just another car produced the same way as other GM lines. So much for experimentation!

In the beginning, Saturn was advertised as a different kind of car company and it established itself as that. In the early years, there employee celebrations and once a year the owners of Saturn cars were invited to a big party in Spring Hill. And the cars were different, featuring non-GM parts and design and most being more plastic and less metal.

The dealers were a different breed also. At Saturn, the rule was no-haggle deals. Also, each dealer was assigned a large geographical area. The dealerships did not get the name of owner (like "John Smith Chevrolet") but were Saturn of what ever geographic area. Interestingly enough, larger area dealerships cited as both the source and the solution to the Big Three's problems and Saturn problems.

On the one hand, critics say that the Big Three auto makers have too many dealers and need to cut back drastically. But they also say the reason Saturn has not done better is because they have a single dealer over a larger area, much like most foreign car companies in the USA.

But there's more to the Saturn story. The dealers also made ownership fun and many had annual picnics for owners. When you bought a Saturn they had the employees come out and send you off to a champion and a winner. Saturn has a strong dedicated following among its owners and Saturn clubs exist today in many cities.

I have personal experience with Saturn and my experience is excellent. I bought a Saturn SL2 in 1999 and kept it for two years. I put about 54000 miles on it and did not have any problems. In 2001 Saturn sent me an extraordinary offer. They offered me 110% of book value on my “old” Saturn and almost 0% financing. I had paid two of four years on the old car and, by doing the trade, the new loan was just four years also and a smaller payment. Basically, I was paid to drive a Saturn two years.

Both of my Saturns came from Saturn of Augusta, Georgia. The 2001 SL2 has been an excellent car. It is my everyday car still today. When I bought it I decided to keep complete records on maintenance and repairs. Since I took the job in NW Georgia two years ago, I have averaged about 45000 miles a year on the car. The car today has 288,000 miles on it.

The odometer actually reads that number -- apparently, Saturn also expected the cars to last, as the odometer is not limited to displaying 99,999 miles as most cars, or 199,000 miles as my 1986 Buick Skylark (which has 279,000 miles).

The Skylark was my primary car for 13 years and I moved it into retirement with 269000 miles on it, although I still drive it most weekends and will take out of town occasionally. Last Thursday and Friday I drove it 100 miles to Macon. The Skylark has had the engine and transmission replaced, but remember, not only does it have 279,000 miles but it is also old enough to drink and vote!

The Saturn is still on the original motor (I changed spark plugs once at 229,000 miles only time and they looked good still) and original transmission (although the filter in transmission did get clogged in Atlanta in February 2008 and had to be towed). I have changed oil about every 4,000 miles. I have managed to wear out all 4 struts on the car getting them replaced after I had 280,000 miles on the car and the handling is back firm like new. I can show you every time oil changed (date and mileage), wipers, head light, tires, brakes, etc.

The car has been excellent. It has been south to Florida, north to Maryland and west to Arizona (twice, last time a year ago with about 250,000 miles on it). I do a lot of highway driving (about 800 miles a week on it). It has been good on gas mileage -- about 36 miles per gallon on the highway and a little less in the city. My 1999 model got the same mileage.

I keep get ads from the different car companies telling me I need to trade in my car on a new higher MPG model and I look at an ad and ask "why?". They claim some of their models get over 30 MPG. Think I will stay with my 36.

GM should look again at Saturn because they failed to see where it worked. It was intended as more than another profit center; it was supposed to be a place they could try new and different concepts.

If Saturn disappears I will be one of that “different kind of car” crowd that will shed a tear for it. I hope it is around a long time to come.

- Dwight Watt
from "Watt's Thoughts," available at dwight-watt.home.att.net


  1. Thanks for sharing your Saturn experience. It is always great to hear from Saturn owners who have been so dedicated the the brand. We are working hard to see if we can find a way to keep Saturn alive well in to the future. If you have not already seen it, I encourage you to go to www.ImSaturn.com to keep up to date with the latest news on the brand.

    -Mike M.
    Saturn Communications
    Detroit, Mich.

  2. Anonymous10:30 AM

    You hit the nail on the head! I'm a Saturn devotee and I am now driving my second Sport Coupe. I, too, get 36 mpg on the highway and have had almost NO problems with my car. I attended the first Saturn Homecoming in Tennessee and when touring the factory it was clear that the people working there took pride in what they were doing. I do so wish that GM had kept their grubby mitts off the company!

  3. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Has anyone seen this site for GM car and truck parts ? Will they still be open?