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Second-Hand: Saturn

You can guess that Saturns aren't unique in withstanding 500,000 km without falling apart, but it's great to see the manufacturer taking an interest in the long-term ownership experience.

If you visited the Saturn display in the SkyDome at this year’s auto show, you may have noticed a burgundy 1992 sedan parked on a raised platform. This is Calvin Egg’s old car — the one with almost 472,000 km on the odometer — being shown with stone chips and upholstery stains intact. Neat.

You can guess that Saturns aren’t unique in withstanding 500,000 km without falling apart, but it’s great to see the manufacturer taking an interest in the long-term ownership experience.

If you’ve somehow missed the last five years of Saturn marketing, here’s the scoop on these front-wheel drive compacts: Saturn is a division of General Motors, created in 1985 to develop a North American equivalent to the Toyota Corolla (i.e. well built, reliable and efficient). Saturn’s ensuing success story has added reasonable prices and good customer service to the equation.

Saturns have been sold in Canada since 1992, through a combined Saturn-Saab-Isuzu franchise.

True to the promise, used Saturns are turning out to be fine cars. They’re not particularly stylish, but they do have a good durability record, and the plastic body side panels really do hold their new-car shine. Unfortunately, used Saturns are darned expensive.

Body styles

Four-door sedan (SL series)

Four-door wagon (SW series, since 1993)

Two-door coupe (SC series)

Powertrains

All Saturns have an overheadcam 1.9 L inline four-cylinder. The SL2, SC2, and SW2 models get a more powerful 16-valve double overheadcam version. The base engine received more power in 1995 thanks to multi-port fuel injection. The 1992 Coupes were available only with the DOHC engine.

Road behavior

Saturns come in two flavors: vanilla and, shall we say, rocky road.

SL and SL1 sedans, SC1 coupe and SW1 wagon offer adequate engine power, but no more. Handling is reasonably crisp and the ride only gets uncomfortable on really bad roadways. The suspension seems softer on 1996 and 1997 models. The cheap-o SL model does not have standard power steering.

SL2, SC2 and SW2 cars’ 25 per cent extra horsepower makes them feel much livelier. The engine’s coarse sound is magnified by having to rev it high to tap its power.

The automatic transaxle blunts performance noticeably. Response from the variable-ratio power steering is quick and sharp. The ride is harsh.

All models are quite noisy inside at highway speeds.

Accommodations

The dashboard was redesigned for 1996. Although both units are clear and easy to use, the older, squarer design looks and feels like it’s made from higher-quality materials.

While the front seats will fit the average adult well, there is a shortage of legroom for taller folk. The driver’s seat has longer travel for 1997, which should help matters. A driver’s air bag has been standard since 1993; a passenger side air bag was added in 1995.

The SL/SW rear seat will hold two normal-sized adults, but pre-’97 coupes have very little rear seat room (the redesigned ’97 SC now shares the sedan’s longer wheelbase).

The trunk is large and nicely finished. Wagons have plenty of cargo room.

What owners say

Are the ads flouting happy owners for real? Indeedy. Here’s a sampling:

Email correspondent Robert Detta Colli’s wife owns a 1992 SL1 bought new. “With over 100k on this first year Saturn, it is as solid as the day we bought it. And thanks to the famous polymer panels, it still looks great . . . I find the comments regarding excessive cabin noise totally unfounded. We’ve found it to be a

quiet, comfortable tourer,” he writes.

Kelvin Colbourne of Bracebridge bought a new ’93 SL that has traveled over 180,000 km. His comments: “Pluses: bulletproof reliability, 40+ m.p.g. at 125 km/h, torquey engine makes it easy to drive, rust-proof plastic body panels. Minuses: rough engine particularly at idle, lots of rattles in the plastic body and interior panels during cold winter mornings until the interior warms up. Summary: maybe not one of the world’s great road cars but as a transportation appliance it’s tough to beat.”

Raymond Mercieca of Scarborough bought a new 1992 SL1 that now shows 77,000 km on the clock. “As a mechanical engineer, I have evaluated my Saturn beyond the ‘secret handshake’ sales pitch. I believe that for a commuter with no frills, it is the best value for the buck.”

Ralph Ritcey of Ottawa bought his first car in 1946 and writes: “I have had an SC2 since May ’92 . . . the longest I’ve ever had a car.” He lauds his coupe’s reliability, gas mileage

and value. His only complaint is with chronically malfunctioning power door locks.

What to look for:

There are no consistent weaknesses to report.

Replacement parts

The six commonly replaced parts listed below are for a 1993 SL1 with an automatic transaxle and air conditioning. Retail prices (rounded off to the nearest dollar) were supplied by Saturn-Saab-Isuzu, Downtown in Toronto. Front brake rotors: $82 each; radiator $542; exhaust system (aft of converter): $267;

water pump: $67; fuel pump: $285; engine control module: $679

Resale value

The values quoted below are average retail prices from the Canadian Red Book, which is used by Ministry of Transportation to set sales taxes due.

These prices are for an SL1 with automatic transaxle 1996: $13,225; 1995: $11,700; 1994: $10,050; 1993: $8,100; 1992: $6,925.

We need your feedback on these models for future reports: Nissan Altima by Feb. 27, and Hyundai Accent by March 13. Send them to: John Terauds, c/o Wheels, The Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax: 416 8653996. Email: jterauds @ istar.ca

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