Nimble handling and bang for the buck.

by Mike Knepper

Base Price $12,385
As Tested $15,010


The Saturn story has always led with value. There are few other showrooms where a customer can get more bang for the buck. The SC1 coupe tested here is a perfect example.

Added to that value story is Saturn's focus on customer relations, generally not matched in those other showrooms. And the SC1 offers a unique look that's clean, sleek and a little daring.

The great looks happened two years ago when the coupes got completely new aerodynamic skins and a handsome new interior. New, yet they managed to carry over some of the styling cues from the distinctive look of the 1991-1996 originals.


Walkaround

The coupes are on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as the Saturn sedans and wagons. These cars are stable at high speeds. They offer a good ride quality and decent headroom.

The SC1, priced from $12,385, comes with a 1.9-liter, four-cylinder single overhead-cam engine that produces 100 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 114 foot-pounds of torque at 2400 rpm. Our test car had the standard five-speed manual transmission, but a four-speed automatic is optional.

The SC2 uses a double overhead-cam 16-valve version of the same engine, which produces 124 horsepower. The SC2 also comes with more comfort and convenience features, bigger wheels and more aggressive tires, which add about $1300 to the cost of an SC1.

Our test car had a $1930 option package that included power locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, air conditioning, cruise control and a power right-hand mirror. An optional anti-lock braking system packaged with traction control added $695, which brought our Saturn SC1 to $15,010.

Model-to-model comparisons are difficult to make because different manufacturers roll items into packages, but it's possible to get a base Chevrolet Cavalier or Plymouth Neon with air conditioning for less than a Saturn SC1.

The SC1 is a good-looking coupe. Unlike the first generation, all Saturn coupes come with exposed headlamps. The roof takes a gentle arch to the rear glass, then down to a stubby deck lid. The rear bumper is massive and is a significant styling feature. It's also body-colored, unlike basic editions of the sedan and wagon. The trunk lid opens to vertical and the lift-over height is quite low, which makes loading easy. The rear seatback has a 60/40 split.

All Saturn bodies use a space frame that allows the use of polymer doors, fenders, quarter panels and fascias, a feature that helps keep Saturn owners so loyal. This material is highly dent-resistant, rust-proof and recyclable. Major repairs require the simple replacement of a panel.

Saturns use a standard MacPherson strut front suspension with a tri-link design at the rear -- two unequal-length links control lateral movement, with a single longitudinal link controlling fore and aft movement. Brakes are disc in front, drums at the rear.

The optional traction-control system can be switched off if the driver desires. Standard tires are P175/70R-14; optional tires for the SC1 are P185/65R-15 radials mounted on aluminum wheels.


The Inside Story

The SC1 is low-slung, so getting in is a bit like dropping in. Getting out is somewhat of a climb.

The interior is plain, but not unattractive. The cloth is good quality and the pattern pleasingly subtle. The interior theme is ovoid shapes and rounded corners, with a modular center pod for audio and climate controls.

Simplicity is repeated in the instrument cluster, which includes a speedometer, tachometer and a temperature gauge. The steering wheel is adjustable up and down.

There is no lidded console, just an open catch-all tray. Two cupholders sit in front of the shift lever, one with a removable ashtray insert.

With the low seating position and high window ledge, shorter occupants may feel like they are sitting a bit deep in the SC1.

We found the seats rather uncomfortable, even on short runs. The bottom cushion is short front to rear and lacks support for even average-height occupants. Similarly, lateral support for back and thighs is less than we would like.

With the driver's seat in position for a six-foot driver, a six-foot rear passenger found his knees under his chin. The rear seats are little more than padded depressions; so don't sentence friends to extended periods back there.

But let's not make too much about the back seats. This is a small sport coupe built for fun, not rear-seat comfort. Saturn's sedan and wagon models have more rear-seat room if that's what you need.


Ride & Drive

The SC1 is not quick. Its 100 horsepower does a decent job of moving the little coupe down the road at a moderate pace, but just isn't up to anything much more demanding. The SC1 trails the competition in the horsepower column. The Neon has 132 horsepower, the Cavalier 120 horsepower, the Escort ZX2 130 horsepower.

According to Saturn, the SC1 will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a leisurely 10.5 seconds. The question is, of course, do you want to go more quickly than that? If you do, and you want a Saturn, then you should immediately proceed to the SC2.

Because of this, we recommend against ordering an SC1 with an automatic transmission. You should move up to the SC2 if you want an automatic. Otherwise, you'll be severely lacking in the acceleration department, which can make passing and merging onto busy freeways a bit challenging.

The five-speed manual transmission, clutch and 100-horsepower engine made a happy threesome on our SC1, however. The shifts were smooth and the clutch was linear in its operation, which means there was no sudden engagement point. And the engine delivered its power in an even flow.

Handling is one of the areas where the Saturn coupes excel. The suspension seems happy over almost any surface. Bumpy corners will not upset the handling balance. We enjoyed driving the SC1 over a favorite twisty Connecticut road; it took on a more aggressive personality when we shifted into third and squirting from corner to corner, using only the throttle and steering wheel.

At other times, the SC1 easily settles into a satisfying motoring rhythm. It feels light and compact, the engine sounds are muted and wind noise is low. Its nimbleness makes the SC1 fun to drive.


Final Word

The design of the SC1 is a stunning success and we can't fault a curve or a crease. The interior, while simple, is also well executed. Our only complaint there is with the seats.

The SC1 is built for drivers who do not attach much importance to horsepower figures. It's for value-conscious drivers who appreciate all the SC1 delivers in the way of features for a good price, as well as one of the best-looking small coupes on the road.

However, the SC1 shines in the handling department and is more than a match for its competitors. Those who want a Saturn coupe, but would like to have more power than what's offered in the SC1 should consider stepping up to the SC2.


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© 1998-1999 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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