By Craig Van Batenburg
Does Saturn do it better than most other cars?
I normally report on a model that has been around awhile and how it compares to a new release of the same car. This time we will take a look at an entire division, General Motors Corp.'s Saturn. The fact that it now has a hybrid is worthy of special attention. Does Saturn do it better than most?
GM launched its Saturn Division in January 1985 in Spring Hill, Tenn., to compete and hopefully recapture lost market share taken away mostly by Honda and Toyota. The first 1991 Saturn was shipped to a California dealership Oct. 25, 1990. It was clear that GM recognized that it needed to fight off the threat to its small-car market. At the same time, large SUVs were gaining market share. Honda had nothing to offer, and Toyota was a small player, so GM was safe there. The sales part of Saturn was done with flair and was very well received. Saturn was a hit, and all looked good for GM at the time. GM was happy that it had a new company, Saturn, to take over the small-car segment.
In 1999, Saturn added a second vehicle line: the midsize L-Series sedan and wagon, which were built in Wilmington, Del. A third vehicle, the Vue sports utility vehicle, began production in Spring Hill in 2001. Later on, GM included a high-tech V6 engine supplied by Honda in the Vue as well. The Sky is its latest offering.
Any tech who has been working on Saturns knows all about head gasket issues, blown engines and the list of problems that have surfaced over the years. But service has never been a big issue as four cylinder cars lend themselves to quick repairs at lower costs than most V6 or V8 engines. Automatic transmissions were issues as they never seem to shift as well as customers expected. Saturns became oil burners at relatively young ages.
In general, most techs I spoke to thought Saturns were some of the best GM products. Technicians and shop owners often steer customers away from problem-oriented cars; clearly Saturn is not on that list. Although it never came to pass that Saturn took back the small-car market from the two major Japanese OEMs, it still stayed in business. Was this a result of good design, nationalistic pride in buying American, or some other reason?
A 1999 Saturn SL Series 1.9L is a typical car of Saturn descent. According to Identifix, occasional problems with this vehicle are failures of the cylinder head and the intake manifold gasket (1.9L VIN 8 SOHC engine only), the crankshaft position (CKP) sensor and engine coolant temperature (ECT) sensor.
Problems with the CKP sensor can prevent the engine from starting. Another occasional problem with this vehicle is the failure of the rear disc brake caliper sliders as well as the failure of the horn and the fuse for the right headlight. The fuse will blow, allowing the headlights to stay on or the right headlight may be inoperative. The wiring near the right headlamp usually has rubbed through and either is grounding out or has broken.
Add to the list that the cylinder head will crack (only on single cam engines), allowing engine oil and coolant to intermix. After pressure testing the cooling system, inspect for cracks near the left end (driver's side) of the cylinder head near the cam journal. If a crack or leak is found, clean the cooling system, replace all of the hoses and then replace the cylinder head. With all these problems, doesn't it make it a service issue? Not unless it is difficult to repair but customer satisfaction may be stretched if it is one thing after another.
Saturn made headlines just a couple of months ago. If an automaker is not in the hybrid business, then many feel it either missed the boat or its engineers don't have the goods. GM made a half-hearted attempt with a limited production, full-size pickup micro hybrid in 2004. Saturn was given the job of taking hybrids mainstream with the Saturn Vue Green Line, the first of the automaker's new line of "affordable" hybrid systems.
The new Vue hybrid doesn't offer the extreme mileage of strong hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrid, but it does compete with other compact SUVs - like the Ford Escape hybrid (also a strong hybrid design, much like the Prius). GM says the most important thing for buyers will be affordability; the Vue Green Line starts at $22,370 and gets 27/32 mpg city/highway. Compare that to the Escape hybrid's sticker price of $25,655 and 36/31 gas mileage. I had a drive at the International Motor Press Association's Test Days and came away agreeing with GM that cost is a factor. GM/Saturn has done a good job modifying the existing SUV Vue so that GM buyers can get a feel for some of what hybrids do well. This version has a start/stop system with lower voltages than the more robust hybrids from the other OEMs. It is a start and hopefully Saturn will get its fair share of the hybrid market.
The technology used in the Vue starts with a standard gasoline-powered 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a larger and powerful alternator (SAE has asked us for 10 years to call it a generator but it is an uphill climb!). This 42/36 volt, three-phase, AC-powered alternator is referred to as belt/alternator/ starter (BAS). Combined, it produces 170 horsepower and 167 pounds-feet of torque. A 12-volt traditional starter does the initial start-up when the internal combustion engine (ICE) is cold. But after that, the Vue uses the BAS system to take over that job so at most stops the ICE never idles. The BAS system also adds a bit of torque on acceleration, but it is limited by the belt drive. Servicing this hybrid will seem easy compared to strong hybrids as more are entering our service bays every day. (See the June 2005 issue of AutoInc. for a previous article on hybrid serviceability.)
How does Saturn stack up with the techs who work on them? Most are happy that GM started a new division. No one is whining or excited either. It is just a decent brand that serves those who want reliable transportation at a reasonable cost. The Saturn Sky is a major exception in terms of service and really doesn't fit the lineup, as it is totally impractical but lots of fun.
Ups - Quality is better and there are fewer problems. Most techs don't shy away from this brand.
Downs - Owners don't take the preventive maintenance seriously and therefore customer relations can be difficult when problems arise.
Overall rating: For the money it is not a bad choice. The ease of service is great, mostly due to
simple designs, four cylinder engines, chain cam drive, and lots of room under the hood. Saturn still needs to improve quality. With the price of gas, look for more Saturns coming in for
service. Life could be a lot worse, so count your blessings.
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