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Forbes on the life of Saturn...

Backseat Driver
Killing The Dream
Jerry Flint, 09.19.05, 12:00 AM ET

The idea was to get away from the old GMway of doing things. But now Saturn has been beaten down and squeezed into the GM mold.
It's official now. Saturn is to be saved. New models are coming to the once-beloved line that jealous rivals inside General Motors have tried to kill for years. But it doesn't really make any difference, for Saturn--what it was supposed to be and what it could have been--may have all but vanished.

Let's go back to the beginning. Saturn began late in 1990 to great fanfare. GM was worried because its market share had fallen to 35%. In came Saturn, an all-new car with a plastic body that would defeat bumps and scratches; it would be made in an all-new factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., where the union rules would be more forgiving and workers and managers would pull together. It would be sold by a new generation of dealers, who would treat the customer right, offering a single, fair price and no haggling. The motto was a different kind of car, a different kind of company, and the goal was to win back the customers who had gone over to the foreign car makers.

Saturn offered us a new dream, and for a while the whole country seemed to believe in it. It really was different. What we didn't realize was that GM executives, and even the union, hated the dream and would work to destroy it.

How could that be? Saturn was the brainchild of a GM chief executive named Roger Smith, who was thoroughly disliked by his underlings. After he retired in 1990 they got even by drowning his baby. People at other GM divisions, such as Chevrolet, felt the money going to Saturn had been stolen from them and were determined to cut off the flow. No matter that the people loved it. But while they were starving Saturn, other parts of GM still withered; its market share has fallen from 35% to around 27% this year.

Last year Saturn sales were down to 212,017, a collapse from 271,157 the year before. This year they still are going down, to 128,925 in seven months, a 5% decline over the same period last year, and by year-end probably will hit a new low. Right now Saturn sells a little SUV called the Vue, which is keeping the line alive; a sort-of minivan called the Relay; and a discredited car called the Ion. The L Series car, another failure, has been killed.

The new Saturn models have a few things going for them. The Sky roadster, coming out in the spring of next year as a 2007 model, has a colorful interior and is the sister two-seater to the Pontiac Solstice, which just went into production. A sedan, called Aura, is to go into production next summer for the 2007 model year. The show car was sharp, and there's always the hope that GM won't dumb down the production car too much. The third model, coming out late next year, will be a new crossover sport utility called the Outlook. And later there will be a new Ion, which will be an engineering offspring of a German Opel.

In addition Saturn will put a starter/generator in the Vue and probably in other models. This system saves gasoline in stop-go city driving by shutting the engine at short stops. It's a good idea, though not enough to make Saturn a fuel-efficiency idol.

But these details hardly matter now. The old Saturn had its own management, its own engineers, its own plant. The idea was to get away from the old GMway of doing things. But now Saturn has been beaten down and squeezed into the GM mold. The new cars won't have that plastic body--too much trouble. That special union contract is gone. The leaders of the United Auto Workers in Detroit couldn't stand the idea of cooperation in place of confrontation. And Spring Hill isn't Never Land, anymore; it's just another GM factory, and it isn't even clear that future Saturns will be built there.

My old friend Lindsay Chappell, the Southern correspondent for Automotive News, wrote it best a couple weeks ago. He remembered the Saturn magic that made tens of thousands of owners drive across the country to Spring Hill for a Saturn homecoming. Then he said it doesn't even matter if the new cars are spectacular because GM "will have utterly and finally destroyed Saturn's magic. And Saturn will be one more struggling brand, positioned somewhere below Buick and above Suzuki. Blah."

Lindsay wrote that GM "was incapable of understanding the fairy it had captured in a jar." Now, "Tinkerbell is dead. The magic inspired by the little country town factory is floating away just because GM didn't know how to believe." His words actually made me cry, and that's not easy.

Robert Lutz, GM vice chairman and one of the best in Detroit, is working hard to make the coming Saturns winners. He thinks my tale of the magic and Tinkerbell is stupid. I hope he's right.
Link:
http://www.forbes.com/opinions/free_forbes/2005/0919/151.html
 

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Certainly if Saturn stood alone in the world at one time it does not anymore. Shared platforms from shared engineering leads to shared bodies and badge engineering. What I really wonder is if there was a WalMart in Spring Hill, TN back in 1990 or if there is any correlation in the downturn to the ubiquity of the big W.
 

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OHH, Bob. I agree. I love my Saturn but I'd love a Sky more.... sorry. But not more than number 733.
 

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achieftain said:
What I really wonder is if there was a WalMart in Spring Hill, TN back in 1990 or if there is any correlation in the downturn to the ubiquity of the big W.
Are you making a joke? It's hard to tell because so many people really hate Walmart. :confused:

The simple fact is Walmart has been the SINGLE biggest force in the world improving US productivity during the last 10 years (yes, even more than MicroSoft - another company people like to hate).

Furthermore, what Walmart has done to merchandizing is only different to what the Japanese auto industry did 20 years ago in one respect - its an American company. Even Walmart's biggest competitors admit that it has moved the whole industry in the right direction.

Personnaly, I hate going to Walmart, but it allows me to buy products (whether there or at the competition) at much lower prices. I recently bought a 20" TV/VDV/VCR combo at Home Depot for less than $200. That would have never happened in the days before Walmart :yesnod:
 

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MAKsys said:
Are you making a joke? It's hard to tell because so many people really hate Walmart. :confused:
Not making a joke. Just trying to see if their is any correlation between change of independence of Saturn to just another arm of GM that was alluded to in article and the explosions of WalMarts around the country. There is even a WalMart in ohio that bills itself as the Amish Walmart as it stocks goods purchased solely by that community.

Or is it a rust-belt kind of thing where half the community loses their high paying GM jobs to the workers at "upstart" Toyota who can pay much less and so they need cheaper priced goods just to survive and boom, WalMart does what KMart and GC Murphy and Sears would not do for us before, bring in goods from around the world at half the price.
 

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achieftain said:
Or is it a rust-belt kind of thing where half the community loses their high paying GM jobs to the workers at "upstart" Toyota who can pay much less and so they need cheaper priced goods just to survive and boom, WalMart does what KMart and GC Murphy and Sears would not do for us before, bring in goods from around the world at half the price.
Are you sure the new domestics pay less? It may be different in the US and I have no supporting evidence, but there is a Honda plant near me which I know a few people at and they pay very similar to GM with the same types of benefits. What they don't have is fat cat guarantees. If there is a discrepency in pay and benefits it wouldn't be hard to get a union in, but there is no point if you aren't going to gain anything except union dues.
 

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Saturn: a changed brand, a philosophy abandoned

This discussion is spot on. They're keeping the name plate, but they're not keeping the philosophy--they've even changed the slogan.

Saturn used to be "A different kind of car, a different kind of car company."

Now, we have "Saturn: People First"

My biggest complaint is that while short and "cute", the new catch phrase does not really convey any actionable governing value. I'll grant you that in an odd sort of way, at the fringes of possible interpretations, you can read "people first" as applying to the "whole Saturn experience," but it's not specific, and doesn't inspire the direction of the company. The "people first" description could just as easily be applied to most car companies. For that matter, it could be applied to almost any company in any field--most companies do try to put their customers interests and needs very high (if not first) on their list of goals.

While it is pointless to lament the loss of the original intent and vision of Saturn, I cannot help but be personally disappointed.

For myself and my wife, we bought our first Saturn in 1995, and couldn't believe the styling--it was great! She would see the car drive into the parking lot when I'd come to pick her up after work, and say to her self, "oh, that's not our car--it's a sports car," and go back to reading her magazine.

While it's difficult to know the precise intentions of a company, my guess is that after 1995, they restyled the exterior of the S series to be less sporty and more rounded and "stylized". I believe they were trying to take the car up market. They started pricing it higher as well. They made substantial changes to the spring and damping rates to make the ride more like that of their target, the Camry.

For 1999, they went back to the drawing board, and re-engineered the internals of the engine to make it quieter and smoother (a noble effort that did in fact succeed), but they further "plushed" [poetic license] out the suspension and the overall balance and handling characteristics became more and more Camry like with each passing year. They raised the roof line, to make getting into the car easier, but that started a trend toward the all together too tall Ion.

By 2001, the ride and handling had become so soft and mushy that my wife actually hates the way it handles. (This has it's advantages ;) It started when I put some sticky MXV4's on her old 95 and got her used to the idea that a car could have a bit more than average performance and handling. But that's another story.)

With the L series, Saturn used the Vectra platform (also used for other GM vehicles) to reach the ride characteristics and market segment that they were shooting for, the Camry. Did it help? I'm not sure, but by that point, the light quick Sport compact that was the S series was too watered down to recover.

Has Saturn lost its way? I'd say yes. They've kept the no haggle part of the equation, and an above average dealership experience, but their core philosophy has changed--Saturn is no longer a different kind of car and certainly no longer a different kind of car company. Jerry Flint is spot on with that one.

Does Bob Lutz get what Saturn was about? I really don't think so--it was about more than great design and styling, it was a deeper philosophy.

Is it because of Bob's influence and direction that Saturn has lost its way? No, Saturn started down that path a very long time ago--arguably in the mid to late 90's. One could say that the RedLine series was an attempt to bring back their Sport Compact roots. So, the Sky is a good fit.

Am I disappointed that they didn't build the Curve? You bet! I saw that machine, read that it would be around $20,000 and said, "Where do I sign? Is $7000 enough of a deposit?":


Cadillac went with an angular chiseled look, and it's done very well for them. Annie Asensio tried to get Saturn to go with beautiful sweeping curves, but other forces at GM prevailed, and the Sky looks like a refuge from a pumpkin carving contest by comparison to the Curve.
 

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Darkhamr said:
Are you sure the new domestics pay less? It may be different in the US and I have no supporting evidence, but there is a Honda plant near me which I know a few people at and they pay very similar to GM with the same types of benefits. What they don't have is fat cat guarantees. If there is a discrepency in pay and benefits it wouldn't be hard to get a union in, but there is no point if you aren't going to gain anything except union dues.
Guarantees could make a big difference and had been pointed to as one of the problems why Am mfgs have/had bigger backlogs of cars. It had been known that certain GM workers are guaranteed 95% of pay when in layoff. GM probably thinks it is cheaper to keep them working building cars than to lay them off, thus contributing to oversupply (except for Solstice)
 

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GM "was incapable of understanding the fairy it had captured in a jar." Now, "Tinkerbell is dead. The magic inspired by the little country town factory is floating away just because GM didn't know how to believe."

God I love that quote...Bought a '93 SW1, loved it. Lost two trannys in the first 3,000 miles and Saturn replaced it with a '94 free. Did it so fast I had no time to complain. Treated me so well I am directly responsible for the sale of 4 more that I am aware of. Told this story countless times to any one who would listen...what a great company...not any more.

The Saturn salesman showing the Sky at this springs autoshow was a first class a**! Went to my old Saturn dealer to discuss the Sky and found the original 'happy to be here' attitude was gone. The dream was gone too. Not saying they were evil, just that they were the same as the Toyota dealer down the street.

By the way, the '94 was a mechanical creampuff, no problems. And my new Pontiac dealer seems to have picked up the old Saturn way of doing business, actualy a fun place to go look at cars, just like it should be!
 

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Pterosaur said:
GM "was incapable of understanding the fairy it had captured in a jar." Now, "Tinkerbell is dead. The magic inspired by the little country town factory is floating away just because GM didn't know how to believe."

God I love that quote...Bought a '93 SW1, loved it. Lost two trannys in the first 3,000 miles and Saturn replaced it with a '94 free. Did it so fast I had no time to complain. Treated me so well I am directly responsible for the sale of 4 more that I am aware of. Told this story countless times to any one who would listen...what a great company...not any more.

The Saturn salesman showing the Sky at this springs autoshow was a first class a**! Went to my old Saturn dealer to discuss the Sky and found the original 'happy to be here' attitude was gone. The dream was gone too. Not saying they were evil, just that they were the same as the Toyota dealer down the street.

By the way, the '94 was a mechanical creampuff, no problems. And my new Pontiac dealer seems to have picked up the old Saturn way of doing business, actualy a fun place to go look at cars, just like it should be!

You know I didn't realize it until you said it, " actually a fun place to go look at cars " That is exactly how things have been at my dealer also, and yes I have had to wait, but honestly from the sales people to the G.M. it has been all smiles and very pleasant every time I stop by there. :agree:
 

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It wold be nice if GM dealers salvaged the sales part of Saturn. I think they would find many people receptive to the idea.
 
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