The Life and Death of the Saturn Brand

Once billed as “a different kind of car company,” Saturn was originally a standalone car company, one wholly owned by General Motors. Unlike GM’s other automotive brands including Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac, Saturn was managed separately at the start, but eventually was brought into the GM matrix, then later dissolved.

Creating a New Brand

Faced with a seemingly unstoppable advance of cheap, higher quality vehicles from Japan, General Motors was looking for a way to counteract that push by developing a new line of small cars to take on Toyota, Honda, and Datsun (later, Nissan).

As early as 1982, GM management began planning the “Saturn” company, named for the rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. The following year, GM chairman Roger Smith announced his company’s intention publicly.

The Planning Stages

The first prototype Saturn vehicle was introduced in 1984, but it wasn’t until 1990 that a production model was made available. During the intervening years, GM formally established the Saturn Car Corporation and began working out a labor agreement with the UAW to gain concessions to make Saturn possible.

The UAW and GM began meeting in 1983 and by 1985 had reached a labor accord for the Saturn operation according to Southern Changes. In exchange for taking a 20 percent pay cut, Saturn workers were guaranteed profit-sharing and other income opportunities based on production and quality goals.

Certain other workers’ rights, including seniority, work rules, grievance procedures, and traditional job descriptions were also modified or removed.

The Saturn Launch

In 1985, GM incorporated its Saturn company and purchased land in Spring Hill, Tenn., to build a manufacturing plant. Construction began in 1986, representing a $1.9 billion investment by GM. By 1988, the plant was completed, the first workers hired and by the following year, the first dealers were appointed.

Production began in July 1990, as sedan and coupe versions of the 1991 S-Series were produced. Two model years later a station wagon was added, giving this model line three body choices that would carry the company through its first decade of existence.

The S-Series won numerous awards, representing a line of compact cars powered by a 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine and paired with five-speed automatic or four-speed manual transmissions.

Intellichoice, MotorWeek, Automobile Magazine, J.D. Power & Associates, and Motor Trend were among those showering accolades on the car. More than 2 million S-Series were produced before this vehicle was replaced by the Saturn Ion in 2003.

Photo copyright Wikimedia. 2009 Saturn Sky Redline Ruby Red Limited Edition photographed at Babylon, NY. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Other Saturn Products

It wasn’t until 2000 that a second Saturn product entered the line-up. The midsize L-Series was introduced, available in sedan and station wagon body styles. Unlike the S-Series, the L-Series was produced at a GM plant in Delaware, a model based on the Opel Vectra.

Saturn continued to expand its product line, adding the Vue crossover in 2002, the Relay minivan in 2005 and both the Outlook crossover and Sky roadster in 2007. By the time of the Relay’s release, GM abandoned offering unique models for Saturn, by rebadging existing GM products to expand Saturn’s product line. Along the way, the L-Series was replaced by the Aura and the Astra replaced the Ion.

Ending a Brand

The end of Saturn coincided with the fortunes of its parent, GM. With GM losing tens of billions of dollars and facing bankruptcy and extinction, then GM chairman Rick Wagoner testified before a Congressional banking committee in a bid to gain a government bailout.

In his testimony, Wagoner explained that the company would concentrate on its four core brands: Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet while looking at shutting down or selling other brands. As for Saturn, Wagoner said that the company would “explore alternatives” for its youngest brand.

A late model Saturn VUE utility vehicle. (Public domain photo via Wikimedia)

Following GM’s 2009 bankruptcy and restructuring, the automaker shopped Saturn in a bid to sell the brand. Race car icon, Roger Penske, tendered an offer to buy the company, but when a deal to have Nissan-Renault supply cars to Saturn collapsed, GM halted production on Oct. 1, 2009. The brand was officially discontinued on Oct. 31, 2010, ending GM’s experiment with its different kind of car company.

Saturn’s demise may be attributed by some to GM’s own financial problems. However, Saturn also competed against other GM brands, especially Chevrolet, setting itself on a collision course for its eventual closure.

See Also – The Brief Model Run of the Saturn Sky

Matthew Keegan

14 thoughts on “The Life and Death of the Saturn Brand”

  1. We have a 2002 Saturn S series, runs like the wind and the leather interior still looks like new. We bought it new and have over 270 Thousand miles. Had they kept making them we would have bought another, love this car

    • You’re not the first that I’ve heard has put over 250k miles on their Saturn. Congrats. A lot of their models are more reliable than people think. Pretty easy to work on as well when something does go wrong.

  2. I had a 1991 and 1995 S-Series and a 2004 ION that ran over 200K miles without any issue. Best car cost Vs benefit and better than all…reliable.

  3. I just bought a 2005 Saturn Vue with only 88k miles on it. I feel like I won the lottery. It runs amazingly and is a great little SUV. I expect it to last me for a while.

  4. I have a 2000 Saturn sl2 as my first car and it has 250,000 miles on it, it makes the best car ever very fuel efficient.

  5. Our family owned several Saturn’s. We loved them. Durable, very low maintenance costs, no timing belt to ever change. Not super peppy but fuel efficient and durable. All of them went well over 200k miles with no major repairs beyond regular preventive maintenance. I have an 04 Ion with 317 k miles on it, everything works and it still runs strong.

  6. Bought and sold and repaired saturns for over ten years. Still drive one today along with lots of friends and family that I sold one too. They had some problems, but most were good cars that will go 200,000 plus! The honda transmission would start too shift funny with very low mileage, but a fluid change would fix that. The ac compressors would stop cooling at low rpm’s and found out later that that was a bypass valve on compressor that only cost $40.00 for the part. Replaced alot of compressors before I found that out! The vct trans was crap!! From 2004 to 2007 was the only year saturns I would buy and sell.

  7. Someone said no timing belts to replace, but that is not correct. The opel 3.0 V6 had a timing belt and the honda 3.5 had one also. The 2.2 had problems with timing chain tensioners, but could be replaced without going into the engine.

  8. I hated it when Saturn went away. My first car that was truly “brand new” was a 2000 SL 2. Perfect size for me and fuel-efficient, plus had a huge dashboard for the overall size of the vehicle. I actually miss that dash! Made it to about 140,000 miles when it began having engine problems, something the bearings or something. Went and got an Ion out of panic while the first one was fixed to sell. The Ion was a bit larger and pricier, but by that time, the S-series had gone away. Generally liked the Ion, but it was a slight cut below my SL 2. Made it to about 160,000 before leaks started happening and it eventually threw a rod. Had to sell it to a junkyard for $300. Currently driving a Nissan Versa, which is about as close to my old SL 2 as you’re likely to find. I still see Saturns on the road today, which is a testament to how reliable they are!

  9. Hi live in Washington I love my Saturn it’s a good car better than I thought I have over 250k miles and it’s still running strong

  10. I have purchased 3 Saturn vehicles. My first was 1999 SC2 and it was the BEST little car for my first vehicle. 200K miles and never had a problem. I cried when I traded it in, and still regret trading it in for a 2005 ION. The ION was good, but I never loved it like my fist Saturn. I needed a larger vehicle so in 2007 I traded it for a 2008 Saturn Vue.
    My VUE has 279,000 miles and is still going strong. Besides routine maintenance, I have only replaced the starter. If you find a used Saturn, purchase it! If you keep up the routine maintenance it will last you for forever! I wish they were still in production, I would be a lifetime buyer!


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