You know me. Modest. Unassuming. Certainly not one to toot my own horn.
Until now, that is. Here's the deal: I've just spent four days driving what I am told is the first and only Saturn automobile in Utah. For an auto editor and all around "car guy," it doesn't get any better than that.About that "first and only" claim: If there is some reader out there who went out of state, bought a Saturn, and is now rushing to the phone to tell me this car was not the first in Utah, I apologize. (Tell you what, let me have my dreams; don't call.)
But as far as I know, the 1991 ruby red Saturn Sports Touring Sedan made available last weekend by Saturn dealer Rick Warner is the first in the state. I certainly haven't seen another.
Saturn is the new independent subsidiary of General Motors (not a GM division as are Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Cadillac) based in Spring Hill, Tenn., that has been charged with building a small, inexpensive car that would provide serious U.S. competition to the entry-level offerings of Honda, Toyota, Nissan and other imports.
Let's get one thing clear right now: They've done it.
In Utah, Rick Warner is the only Saturn dealer. He broke ground last Friday for his first Saturn dealership (two or three more are planned) at 800 South and West Temple, a franchise that will complete his ambitious Auto Plaza.
The Saturn facility won't be completed until August, but Warner wanted a car on hand for the festivities so he arranged to buy one from an out-of-state dealer and brought it to Salt Lake City.
Some background: The Saturn project has been a mammoth undertaking for GM. Its roots go back to 1982 when then Chairman Roger Smith decided the only way to go head-to-head with the soaring growth of the imports was to start with a clean sheet of paper. Nine years and $3 billion in development dollars later, Saturn is the result.
The verdict? Well, the road to success in such massive undertakings is seldom free of potholes, and the largest one so far is that production has fallen well short of the factory's initial commitments. According to reports, some Saturn dealers have had nothing in their new showrooms to sell.
At an interview following the ground breaking for Warner's dealership, Richard Thompson, Saturn field executive for the western United States admitted the problem but said it was due to the company's desire to make sure the cars were up to Saturn's stringent standards before being sold.
"We want to be known for quality, not quantity," said Thompson. Getting a facility of the size and complexity of Saturn's Spring Hill plant up to full production turning out glitch-free cars "has been tougher than we thought it would be," he said.
Unlike past domestic auto practices in which the assembly line would roll on no matter what and problems with cars would be seen to later on (maybe), Leszek Waliszewski, module advisor for interior systems, also with the Saturn team that visited Salt Lake City, said any Saturn employee can stop the line for quality problems.
Saturn went on sale Oct. 25 and as of Feb. 28 a total of 5,400 cars had been sold by 62 dealerships now in operation. Paul Johnson, area manager in the West, said Saturn anticipates a strong demand for the cars following the war in the Persian Gulf and the surge of patriotic "Buy American" it has generated.
"We'll sell every one we can build, be sure of that," said Johnson. He declined to forecast future sales.
As for the cars themselves, they are going into the teeth of formidable competition that has had decades to establish itself in the minds of the buying public. Nevertheless, there is clearly strong value here for the money, and Saturn will definitely be a competitor.
The car I drove had a base price of $10,990. The upgrade package, which included air conditioning, and delivery charges pushed it to $12,040. While competitive in the entry level segment, this car is a cut above that. In most regards, it feels and drives more like a midsize sedan.
The quality is definitely there. Fit and finish were impeccable and the deep lustrous paint job seemed as good as that on any BMW I've seen - my personal standard of paint quality.
The 1.9 liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine makes this a very quick, albeit somewhat noisy, car for its class, and the automatic transmission - which can be set for "normal" or "performance" driving - is a gem. At 23 city and 32 highway, gas mileage is very respectable as well.
Interior room is good and the trunk is large for a car of this class. The sound system is also much better than I expected in a $12,000 car. Suspension is firm; some will think it too firm for a family sedan. The seats are also very firm. This car is not cushy in the American tradition, but those familiar with the tautness of European sedans will feel at home.
The Saturn didn't draw a lot of attention during my four days of evaluation, even if it is the only one in Utah. The roads are full of compact sedans these days and it's getting hard to tell them apart. The Saturn sedan looks somewhat like a small Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Photos of the coupe, now going into production, indicate it resembles the Chevrolet Geo Storm.
One man who did notice the embossed Saturn logo on the back bumper, cried, "Hey, that's one of those cars of the future! How do you like it?"
The answer is, I like it a lot. Score one for the home team.