Forbes on the life of Saturn...
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.