General Motors launched its Saturn automobile manufacturing company in 1990, largely in response to the success of Japanese small-car imports in the United States. Saturn's headquarters and primary manufacturing facility are located in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Saturn is known for its company-wide "no-haggle" sale policy. Saturn dealers (called "retailers" by the company) are encouraged to sell vehicles at list price. Customer satisfaction with dealer service is among the highest of any car brand in the U.S. The company also won praise for its environmentally-conscious manufacturing processes and for its innovations such as using flexible plastic side panels on its cars to avoid minor dents.
When it was launched, Saturn was a significant departure for GM. The company's products used a dedicated platform (the Z-body), a dedicated engine (the 1.9 L Saturn I4 engine), and were made at a dedicated plant (in Spring Hill). In fact, the company's three car models (SL, SC, and SW) were all just a single car in three different body styles, and the company referred to all three as Saturns. All of the original Saturns featured dent-resistant plastic body panels which were also touted as allowing the company to change the look of the vehicles at will. However, in practice, the company kept the vehicles mostly unchanged for years.
The first real change came with the 2000 Saturn L-Series midsize car. It shared the GM Epsilon platform with the Opel Vectra, along with its engine, and was built at a GM factory in Wilmington, Delaware.
Today, the company shares GM's Delta and Theta automobile platforms, along with the company's Ecotec engine, and vehicles are built at many GM plants along with the Spring Hill factory. The Saturn VUE even uses a Honda engine, and the plastic body panels will be discontinued on most future vehicles.
In recent years, Saturn has been criticized for not keeping pace with the rest of the automotive industry, most recently for the low quality of the new ION series. Sales have been declining, and the ION production lines were halted for two weeks in 2003 to allow dealer inventory to reduce. The L-series line was canceled after production of the 2005 models.
Saturn is currently in transition. General Motors has given Saturn a wealth of new products including the Sky roadster, Aura sedan, redesigned ION compact sedan/hatchback, redesigned VUE, and a large SUV built off of the GM Lambda platform. To save money, GM decided that Saturn and Opel will share numerous models that differ only slightly. For example, the redesigned VUE will be the same as the Opel Frontera, the Sky is the same as the new Opel Speedster, the next ION will be the same as the next Opel Astra, and the Aura is very similar to the Opel Vectra.
The Saturn brand will be repositioned in the upper-end of the family car market, stopping just south of entry-level luxury. Volkswagen is in the same market position that GM wants to take Saturn (only going as high as the Passat). Saturn faces a struggle in achieving a premium image. When GM showed the Aura to a focus group with no badge on it, participants gave it a rating of 5/5 in terms of desirability and style. When they discovered that they were looking at a Saturn, the average rating dropped to 2.5/5.
The company's independent manufacturing operations are in doubt, however. GM has begun moving Saturn production away from Spring Hill, and announced that that plant would be integrated with the company's regular plant mix, producing product for all GM brands. It is currently being retooled for larger cars, and the shop to produce Saturn's iconic plastic body panels is being dismantled as the company moves to conventional steel panels.
The company will soon offer two sub-lines of vehicles: "Redline" Saturns are performance-oriented, while "Greenline" cars will be more environmentally friendly. The VUE and ION Redline models, launched in 2004, will be joined by a Greenline VUE in 2007.
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