Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Dead Kind of Car Company

I was at the Saturn dealership getting my oil changed on the day GM announced that the Saturn division would be phased out by 2011. Not exactly the cheeriest place to be. It already looked like a ghost town with only a skeleton crew. As the mechanic was about to move my Ion into the garage bay, he discovered that the car wouldn't start. Something called a "lock sensor" had gone up, or so they told me. The service man, whom I'd never seen before, told me that the cost of my little oil change visit had jumped by $250. This wasn't the first time I had brought my rattle-trap of an Ion in for an oil change only to find that the car needed more repairs than I had counted on. This never happened in the old days, and in that moment I could understand why GM was having so much trouble staying afloat.

I was one of the early Saturn owners. Back in the early 90s, we were considered almost like cult members, but there was a reason for our loyalty. First, the original Saturn model was a completely unique car; not a basic GM chassis and body on which each division slapped its own grill work and emblems. The whole Saturn concept was to create the best possible compact car they could devise that would appeal to Gen-Xers just entering the working world and looking for practical transportation. Honda had done the same thing for the Baby Boomers with the Civic 15 years earlier and the Big Three automakers saw a big chunk of their market share disappearing. Honda caught the Baby Boomers in the mid-70s with the economical Civic, then as the Boomers became more affluent, enticed them with the sporty Prelude. By the 80s, when the Boomers were having kids and settling down, Honda offered the four-door Accord sedan and the Odyssey minivan. This long-term marketing approach proved quite lucrative and GM was going to try and beat Honda at its own game with Saturn.

As their marketing claimed, Saturn truly was a different kind of car company, at least as far as other GM divisions were concerned. Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Buick tried to appeal to everyone with a compact coupe, a mid-sized sedan, a full-sized sedan, and various stationwagons and vans for more utilitarian use. Such a large variety created manufacturing and inventory headaches as different models rose and fell in popularity. For Saturn, they stuck with one basic car which came in a variety of packages. There was the base coupe and the sporty coupe; the base, mid-range, and luxury sedan; and the stationwagon. Same chassis, only two engine types (both four-cylinder jobs but one had dual overhead cams), and a limited number of options. Simple and clear cut.

Within that limited range, however, the Saturn engineers threw in all the nifty features they wanted to see on a modern car. The most famous feature was the plastic body panels that resisted dents. Less noticeable were things like using a timing chain rather than a timing belt in the engine. The chain never needed to be changed while a belt needs to be changed every 60,000 miles or you might have the thing break on you suddenly and destroy your valves. Saturn also developed an elegantly simple anti-lock brake/traction control system that cost hundreds less than those offered by the competitors. Although an option, it was affordable and one that saved me lots of trouble during some bad winters.

Beyond the quality vehicle, Saturn offered tremendous service. There was no haggling over the price, so you didn't have to do any song and dance with the sales person. He or she was paid a salary rather than earning a commission, which eliminated any high pressure sales tactics. They were simply there to serve your needs. They made you feel special, but not in a phony way. The staff was trying to build a long-term friendship, and it always felt sincere.

I remember when I purchased my first Saturn: a steel blue Saturn SL-1 (the mid-range sedan). After I finished with all the paperwork, my car was parked at the front door. An announcement was made on the intercom for all available staff to meet at my car. The man who sold me the car presented me with some gifts and the entire staff, gathered around my vehicle, gave me a rousing cheer. They were even waving and cheering in my rear view mirror as I pulled away. Who wouldn't pledge loyalty to a car company willing to do that?

Even after I had been driving the car for awhile, the sales person would periodically call the see how the car was running and would invite me to some evening seminars they would have about how to maintain the vehicle. The service staff at the dealership would show you basic maintenance procedures like changing the oil and fixing a flat tire. Back then, I was practically living at the office and could never attend, but I liked the fact that they would offer such services free of charge.

I always took my car to the Saturn dealership for service, and I came to know the service staff very well. Most stayed there for years and seemed to enjoy working in that environment. Instead of the stress and frustration I felt at most service stations, I felt like a welcome friend at Saturn. I actually enjoyed visiting them.

For several summers after buying the car, I would receive an invitation from the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee to join their weekend celebration. This carnival-like event included games, rides, and tours of the plant. Again, I never attended, but hundreds of loyal Saturn owners did. There was a real sense of connection between Saturn owners and those who made and sold them.

It was all so wonderful, but it wasn't profitable. After about five years of red ink, GM pulled back from this grand new scheme. Unlike Honda who stuck to their marketing plan across decades, GM executives were only concerned with quick profits. The little extras began to disappear at the dealership. The summer festivals in Tennessee ended. Still, the old gang at the service center were there and they always treated me well.

By the late 90s, the original S-Series cars were long over due for a makeover, but there would be no built-from-scratch vehicle this time. Instead, GM took the cars from their European division, Opel, and revamped them to become the new Saturns. I was concerned about this development, but I retained faith in the company. The Saturn L-series, a mid-sized sedan, came out just as I was ready to put my original Saturn out to pasture. When I test drove the new sedan, I was impressed with the luxury appointments and the smooth ride. I special ordered my new, dark-blue car because they had so few on the lot. I was thrilled to have a new, luxury sedan to match my rise in salary since I had bought my first one. The idea of cultivating a loyal customer base from first job to retirement seemed to be working, at least where I was concerned.

But then the problems started to arise. Within a few weeks of buying the car, a hole in the floor was discovered when I drove through a torrential rain storm and ended up with a cabin floor full of water. The problem was quickly repaired by an apologetic Saturn, but this did not bode well for the quality of the new car. Along the way, other small problems developed that never occurred on my old car and should not have occurred on such a new automobile.

A few years later, the new Saturn Ion came out to finally retire the original S-Series cars. The Ion was roundly panned, and for once Saturn had a serious image problem. I ended up with a Saturn Ion against my better judgment. When my mid-size developed so many problems that the repairs would cost more than the car was worth, I was ready to drive it to the nearest Carmax and trade it in for a used Camry. The Saturn staff, still friendly and sympathetic, offered instead to take my car in trade for more than what I could have gotten at Carmax and sold me a low mileage, used Ion off their lost for a ridiculously low price. I didn't really want the car, but I couldn't turn down the deal.

Since that time, I've had to pay for several unexpected repairs on the car, and it only has 25,000 miles! I had zero repairs on my first Saturn until it was passed the 50,000 mile mark, and even then they were few and far between. Each time I go to the dealership, there are new faces and I don't completely trust that these repairs are legitimate. I've lost all faith in them, not that it matters now.

It's little wonder that the American car makers are in such trouble. Even when they have good ideas, like Saturn and the early electric car, they quickly abandon them for quick profits. Just as Saturn was declining, GM put all its might behind giant SUVs, as if the gas crises from the 70s never happened and we suddenly had an endless supply of oil. They are now paying for their short-sightedness, and seemingly unwilling to take any blame, much like the Wall Street bozos who invested heavily in toxic debt, never thinking that the bottom would fall out. Until the executives of American companies give up on chasing short-term profits and focus on long-term marketing strategies, we are doomed to an endless cycle of boom-and-bust scenarios. Saturn owners pledged their loyalty to the company, but GM wouldn't return the favor.

I have only owned American brand automobiles my entire adult life. I don't think I'll ever buy another American car again, and it's a real shame. I'm old enough to remember when the U.S. brands held such a mystique, but I'm also old enough to not be fooled again.

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