What's New for 1998
All models get reduced-force front airbags, and sedans and wagons get new seat fabrics. The SC2, SL2 and SW2 are equipped with new headrests, and the optional alarm system now has a programmable passive arming feature. On the mechanical side, structural upgrades to the engine blocks and transmission case housing are said to reduce noise and increase durability. Additionally, the automatic transmission's programming has been tweaked to reduce hunting on hills and improve shift quality. And Saturn says that revised shock absorbers on all cars provide a smoother ride. Restyled alloy wheels and plastic wheel covers round out the changes.
Just because we don't like Saturns doesn't mean that you won't. There is inherent goodness to Saturn designs, and the SC is no exception to the rule. The cars are fun to drive, they are reliable and Saturn dealers have almost single-handedly sparked a retail revolution that emphasizes the ownership experience over sales commissions.
Unfortunately, we expect more from Saturn. We expect comfortable seats, quality switchgear and more attractive designs. When buying a Saturn, the consumer pays full sticker, and frankly, we don't think the cars are worth the price of admission.
Let's examine the SC coupe, which in its least livable basic format costs more than $13,000 and doesn't include air conditioning, power windows, power door locks or a cassette stereo. Under the hood is a 100-horsepower 1.9-liter inline four-cylinder engine, putting power to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. Add minimal essentials like air conditioning and a cassette stereo and the sticker climbs well above $14,000. At this price, you're still cranking that window up on your own. Want ABS (which includes traction control)? You're at 15 grand, and the car still has plastic wheel covers and manual locks. Is this value? We think not.
Move up to the SC2, which gives you a more powerful twin-cam engine, variable effort steering, a sporty suspension, aluminum wheels, fog lights, spoiler, multi-adjustable seats and a leather-wrapped steering. The tariff for these goodies is an additional $1,300, which is well worth the money, in our humble opinion. But at this price, you could get behind the wheel of a Honda Civic HX replete with power windows and power door locks. Add a CD player and the option package that includes air conditioning, power equipment, cruise control and remote keyless entry. The price soars above $17,000 and that doesn't include ABS, floor mats or an automatic transmission. With these additional items, the SC2 closes on $20,000 after taxes.
At least the SC2 is a good time in the twisties. Saturns grip the road well, and the SC2's twin-cam engine provides entertaining acceleration. Seating positions are low to the floor, and the seats themselves feel somewhat flimsy. Long haul comfort is not a Saturn strong point. The dashboard is contemporary in style, but there isn't much invested in the plastic used for panels and buttons. The styling? Well, you be the judge.
Saturn dealers treat you like a human being. The service is outstanding, the advertising tugs at the heartstrings and the cars run for a long time. Still, sales are sliding, and we think it has more to do with stale product and high prices than anything else. Shop around before settling on the Saturn.