Dwight Watt - Watt Thoughts #174 3/1/2009

#174 Saturn (Watt Thoughts)

Watching the plans that are being made by GM to survive as a automotive manufacturer has included one that I think reflects where GM has their problems. Continuously we are hearing that GM will either shut don, spin off or sell the Saturn division. I received an e-mail from Saturn last week that said they fully expect it will be either sold off or spun off, but will continue operating. I know that Saturn has never made money for GM in almost 25 years as a division.

Saturn was created in the 1980s by GM as an early way to fight the Japanese imports with domestic manufacturing. One of the major plans of Saturn was that it would be the test area to try ideas in manufacturing and then to move them to GM overall. For that reason the plant was built away from the rest, in Spring hill, Tennessee, and they got a separate union contract for the division. Employees were empowered to stop the manufacturing if quality was an issue. Today we see they have made that plant just another GM plant and scattered Saturn in the existing GM plants. Basically GM never moved the concepts to rest of company but instead has changed Saturn to having same models as rest and building same. So much for experimentation

Saturn was advertised as a different kind of car company and it established itself as that. For the early years not only were there employee celebrations but also once a year the owners of Saturn cars were invited to a big party in Spring Hill. The cars were different, featuring non GM parts and design and most being more plastic and less metal.

The dealers were a different breed also. The biggest item most people realize on them is that they were all no-haggle deals. Also a dealer was assigned for a large geographical area and the dealerships did not get name of owner but were Saturn of what ever geographic area. Interesting enough now we see both sides of that larger area dealerships argued about big 3 problems and Saturn problems. The big 3 auto makers we are told as one of their big problems is they have too many dealers and need to cut back drastically. But out of the same critics we hear the reason Saturn has not done better is because they have a single dealer over a larger area, much like most foreign car companies in the USA. The dealers also made ownership fun like the company and many had annual picnics for owners and when you bought a Saturn they had the employees come out and send you off like a champion and a winner.

Saturn has a strong dedicated following among its owners and Saturn clubs exist today in many cities.

I have personal experience with Saturn and my experience is excellent. I bought a Saturn SL2 in 1999 and kept it for two years. I put about 54000 miles on it and did not have any problems. In 2001 Saturn sent me an offer that I checked out and could not turn down. They offered me 110% of book value on my “old” Saturn and almost 0% financing. I had paid 2 of 4 years on old car and by doing the trade the new loan was just 4 years also and was a smaller payment. Basically I was paid to drive a Saturn two years. Both of my Saturns came from Saturn of Augusta, Georgia.

The 2001 SL2 has been an excellent car. For some reason when I bought it I decided to keep complete records on maintenance and repairs. It is my everyday car still today. Since I took the job in NW Georgia two years ago I have averaged about 45000 miles a year on the car. The car today has 288,000 miles on it. The odometer reads that number as apparently Saturn also expected the cars to last many miles as it is not limited to displaying 99,999 miles as most cars or 199,000 miles as my 1986 Buick Skylark which has 279,000 miles. The Skylark was my primary car for 13 years and I moved it into retirement with 269000 miles on it, although I still drive it most weekends and will take out of town occasionally. Last Thursday and Friday I drove it 100 miles to Macon. The Skylark has had the engine and transmission replaced, but remember not only does it have 279,000 miles but it is also old enough to drink and vote. The Saturn is still on the original motor (I changed spark plugs once at 229,000 miles only time and they looked good still) and original transmission, although the filter in transmission did get clogged in Atlanta in February 2008 and had to be towed). I have changed oil about every 4000 miles. I can show you every time oil changed (date and mileage), wipers, head light, tires, brakes, etc.

The car has been an excellent one for me. It has been south to Florida, north to Maryland and west to Arizona (twice, last time a year ago with about 250,000 miles on it). Yes I do a lot of highway driving on it since I put about 800 miles a week on it. It has been good on gas mileage. It gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway and a little less in city. That has been since brand new although it now sometimes will get up to 38. My 1999 model got the same mileage. I get ads from the different car companies telling me I need to trade in my car on a new higher MPG model and I look at ad and go why. They claim some of their models get over 30 MPG and I am getting 36 MPG now. Think I will stay with my 36. I have managed to wear out all 4 struts on the car getting them replaced after I had 280,000 miles on the car and the handling is back firm like new.

GM should look again at Saturn and see if they failed to look at where it worked. It was intended as more than another profit center, but a place they could try new and different concepts. If Saturn disappears I will be one of that “different kind of car” crowd that will shed a tear for it. I hope it is around a long time to come.



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