Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Car Talk

Sorry I don't have anything more interesting on my mind, but I'm sitting at the Saturn dealership waiting on an oil change and this is what comes out.

I remember the breath of fresh air that Saturn represented to the American car industry when they first came on the scene. Though a division of GM, they were given a greater degree of autonomy, and the division was structured unlike anything else at GM. In fact, I think the general public was unaware of any connection between Saturn and GM, and Saturn was happy to keep it that way (as was GM, it seemed, evidently skittish about the experiment). There were a very limited number of models, none of which were shared with other divisions in this cross-pollination that one sees at all larger car companies (Susan sneers at me when I attempt to explain this concept, that the Saturn Vue is actually the same as a Chevy Equinox is actually the same as the Pontiac Torrent. "Then why would they even make those other cars?" she asks, thinking she has me trapped in a lie. Ah, good question, grasshopper). Saturns were "one price" dealerships, meaning that the bizarre but industry-standard process of determining the value of the car by wrangling was consigned to the scrap heap. The company appealed to greens, with everything being fuel efficient and eco-friendly--well, to the extent that an automobile, especially one springing from the loins of the largest corporation on Earth, could be. And there was even some genuine innovation: polymer body panels to resist denting and scratches, extensive use of recycled plastics, designs predominantly practical but impishly stylish. And there was the dealership experience. Sales people were not on commission, and this, along with the one price philosophy, removed about 80% of the misery from the car buying process.

As something of a car guy, I was not especially thrilled by any of their original offerings, though I appreciated the niche they were trying to satisfy (after all, I am something of the Imelda Marcos of Birkenstocks, with something like eight pairs). But eventually when it came time for Susan and me to car shop we stopped in for a look. And we were hooked. Everyone was so friendly, there was so little pressure or gamesmanship involved that I actually looked forward to going to the dealership. We settled on an L-200, an Accord- or Camry-sized sedan with an efficient 4-cylinder engine and their most upscale interior: leather, heated seats, sunroof. This was a great car in a decidedly non-snooty way. It was quiet and composed to drive, it had nice interior room, it was actually good-looking, and it managed over 30 mpg on the highway and low- to mid-20s overall. You wouldn't mistake it for a Mercedes by the quality of the materials, but at $21,000 it was also less than half the price of the comparably-sized Mercedes and substantially cheaper than the equivalent Honda or Toyota. The buying process, and our experiences with the service department over the next couple years, were so pleasant that we bought a Saturn for our next car as well.

But over the years Saturn has done only so-so as a division, to the extent that GM contemplated pulling the plug on the division. My understanding is that it was always viewed as a rogue portion of GM, probably not least because it was attempting to thumb its nose at everything the parent company had come to represent. Perhaps because of this, I think Saturn has never been given the support by GM that it needed. It was allowed only a very restricted number of vehicles, and many of the aspects I so appreciated--one pricing, especially, but the emphasis on greenness as well--were sternly refused emigration to GM's other divisions. And now, not surprisingly, GM has decided that it may let Saturn live but only if it gives up its wheat chaff & topsoil ways and becomes like every other GM division. Translate: we just killed off Oldsmobile, and now we're going to try to reincarnate it by cashing in on the principles at Saturn that have gathered a following, even though we have no intention of honoring those principles.

They have a larger number of new cars coming through the pipeline after a couple years of stagnation while GM waffled about what to do. All these new cars are reworked versions of other divisions' offerings. One-price shopping is going, going, gone. Dent- & scratch-resistant bodies are history.

I can only wonder how long before my oil change comes with GM's patented kick in the nuts?


Joshua said...

Oddly enough, I think you purchased the reason for the change. Saturn had, as you said, onyl af ew offerings, and once you hit up that crowd once, forget it (they aren't exactly the trade-your-car-in-every-year type) So they went after a new market: Midsters. The L series was supposed to bring what you like to another generation (and I guess, at least once, it did)

But it bombed. Sales went down down down. Why? Because, as much as we like stuff that is good for us, we LOVE stuff that's shiny! And most car buyers in that range are looking for status as much as features, and saturn was decidely lacking in both. No one WANTS to drive a hummer, but they have all those buttons!

At any rate, the last ditch is the sky, which, I have to say, I like. It is going to appeal to the new breed of hipsters: these one's need to look like they care about the environment (see the hybrid episode of South Park) while looking cool at the same time. And they only make 32,000 a year.

But, I think, you are right. The glory days of Saturn being something new and needed are fast becoming back-porch ramblings back in my day, boy, we had a car company that actually cared about its customers, the environment, and even its employees

Oh grandpa, what a silly old bastard you are.

Lizzie said...

I have to confess, I'm totally with Susan on that one. ;-)

wunelle said...

I actually spent some time sitting in a Sky today, and they're cute as hell and nicely made, but as impractical as a motorcycle (and without the soul)--a motorcycle for people without the courage to ride one! (kidding)

I suppose you're right, the L was kind of the departure point from the initial Saturn, which was a small recycled 2-liter bottle with wheels; but I think they always intended to branch out into... something. Anyway, now they have a new replacement for the L coming, and it looks quite nice. So I bitch and say I'm going back to Toyota and never returning (I've had such good luck with the 6 or 8 Toyotas I've had), but I'm always willing to reconsider...

Lizzie--I agree with her too, but I'm just the messenger! (A messenger, she reminds me, with some boring-as-shit messages.)


Jeffy said...

I'd be sad to see the Saturn we knew converted into just another standard-issue GM division. I liked the ways in which Saturn was different, and had great hopes that those differences would find their way into other lines. We don't need yet another nameplate selling restyled versions of the same old GM cars.

One other aspect of Saturns that you didn't mention and which probably helped seal their fate was the fact that they were relatively easy for owners to service. What dealer wants to sell a car that won't be coming back for routine maintenance?

wunelle said...

Yeah, somehow I know it's ALL marketing, it's all about serving a market for purposes of profit. But good ideas aren't less good because people will buy them; I really wanted to believe this was an experiment that might make all of GM better. Alas, that seems not to be. Worse, they're giving up the good ideas. But without these, why not just close the division? Can't Buick and Pontiac cover the decent-car-but-not-quite-luxury segment? Or even Chevrolet? Why add ANOTHER division to do what is already being done a couple times over elsewhere? It makes a mockery of everything that's not marketing, and makes fools of all of us who decided to go along for the ride.

"Fool me twice... uh... Don't get fooled again!"

Joshua said...

speaking of cars: So, you both know about the carlight thing. The guy at Chevy (mind you, this si some sort of lead mechanic) told me it was a "money light" completely worthless, he didn;t even know why they still put them in cars. But I have had it reset twice, and it has come back on twice. I am starting to think it might actually be trying to tell me soemthing (I know, I know, that;s what they want me to think).