What's New for 2002
Safety enhancements are the big news for 2002. All Saturn L-Series models now feature standard head curtain airbags, antilock brakes and traction control. Other enhancements include four-wheel disc brakes (on all models except L100), automatic headlamps, LATCH child seat anchors and post airbag-deployment signals. A DVD entertainment system will be available later in the year along with the OnStar communications system. New options packages add even more value with features like an in-dash six-disc CD changer and automatic climate control. New 15-inch alloy and 16-inch chrome wheels round out the upgrades.
While Saturn enjoys strong customer loyalty with its line of small cars (almost 50 percent return to buy another Saturn), GM researchers found that when owners move on, they most often move up to a midsize vehicle. So a medium-sized entry makes perfect sense for both Saturn and its loyal customer base. Enter the Saturn L-Series, American-built sedans and wagons designed and priced to compete with top imports such as Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord.
Available as base L100, midlevel L200 or top-line L300 sedans as well as fully equipped LW200 or upmarket LW300 wagons, all models include air conditioning, four-wheel independent suspension, a theft-deterrent system and ABS brakes with integrated traction control. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard on all models except the base L100, which still uses a disc/drum combination.
Inside, the L-Series features a spacious interior with logical, easy-to-use controls. Seats have been designed for all-day comfort. Sedans offer 17.5 cubic feet of trunk space, which is about 3.5 cubic feet more than you'll find in an Accord. With the rear seats folded, cargo capacity in the wagon is 79 cubic feet -- this is 10 more cubic feet than the Subaru Legacy wagon offers and 2 cubic feet less than the Taurus wagon's capacity.
Although marketed as a lower-cost alternative to the import powerhouses, the L-Series still offers plenty of options for those who want all the trimmings. A new Sport package adds foglamps, a sunroof and a rear spoiler along with newly styled 15-inch alloy wheels on the L/LW200 and 16-inch chrome wheels on L/LW300. A Premium package includes everything in the Sport package along with an in-dash six-disc changer, automatic climate control, power seats and full leather upholstery. A DVD entertainment system will be available as a midyear option that features a flip down viewing screen and wireless headphones that allow rear-seat riders to enjoy their favorite movies while the driver and front passenger can still listen to the radio. The OnStar communications system is another midyear addition that gives all L-Series the added benefit of 24-hour assistance with everything from directions to hotel reservations.
Unlike other Saturns, the L-Series has steel quarter-panels; nevertheless, engineers were able to fit Saturn's signature dent-resistant polymer panels for the doors and fenders. We're hoping that Saturn will take more care in the assembly of its L-Series cars, as previous models suffered widely from ill-fitting panels and wavy plastic bodywork.
A pair of engines are offered: a Saturn-exclusive 2.2-liter 135-horsepower DOHC four-cylinder with twin balance shafts and a 3.0-liter 182-horse DOHC V6. The four is standard on L100, L200 and LW200 and comes with a five-speed manual transmission. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic is optional. The V6 is available only in the L300 and LW300 and must be mated to an autobox. Though the mandatory automatic may not please sport sedan/wagon wannabes, we've found this transmission to be quite savvy -- it never picks the wrong gear. Combined with the healthy V6, the L-Series is quick on its feet, with plenty of power for freeway merging and passing.
Saturn wanted the L-Series suspension to provide a balance between a smooth ride and European handling -- this balance holds up until the car is pushed on rough or undulating roads. And while our editors have praised the responsive steering feel in the past, we've also noted that response becomes sluggish during spirited driving on canyon roads.
A head curtain airbag system -- for both front and rear passengers -- is now standard on all models. When electronic sensors along the sides of the vehicle detect an impact, the bag drops from the roof rail and unfolds as it inflates. Saturn says that the system will help reduce the severity of head and neck injuries incurred by occupants involved in side-impact crashes. While we approve of this timely safety upgrade (timely indeed, since the 2000 L-Series earned a ''poor" rating in the "side impact front" category) we would still like Saturn to add seat-mounted side airbags to protect against torso injuries. We're pleased to see that the company has added a three-point seatbelt for the rear center passenger in its L-Series sedan, but we don't understand why the wagons were denied this important safety feature. Saturn claims that its L-Series wagons compete against offerings from Volvo, Subaru, Volkswagen and Audi, but all of these brands offer a standard three-point belt in the center of the rear seat.
Unquestionably, a fully loaded L-Series car offers excellent dollar value (though you will pay the no-haggle price regardless of demand) when compared with similarly equipped Accords, Camrys and Passats -- but the Saturn doesn't meet its peers' established standards for build quality and interior materials. Decide whether you're willing to make these concessions before you buy.