Mazda recently made a little news splash announcing that their beloved MX-5 Miata was getting a horsepower increase from a disappointing 155 horsepower to a slightly less disappointing 181 hp. As far as affordable roadsters go, there always seems to be a shortage of horsepower — but that wasn’t always the case. For a few short years, America made a beautifully-styled, well-equipped small convertible, with 290 turbocharged hp, that cost less than $30,000 — and it came from a funky little company that didn’t deserve to die.
I’ve always wondered why the Saturn brand, a company that exploded into the economy car scene in 1990, was sabotaged and eventually killed off. Their approach to building and selling a car was brilliant — and despite being a subsidiary of General Motors, Saturn was totally unique from start to finish. Everything with Saturn’s first offering was brand new, from the futuristic styling to the polymer body panels that were dent- and corrosion-resistant, and even the motors were engineered completely in-house. They were built in a new facility out of Tennessee, and proved to be very reliable cars. By 1995, Saturn was selling over 300,000 of their S-series — which, at the time, wasn’t too far behind the sales figures of the Toyota Camry.
The success of Saturn did come at a cost, as other GM dealers felt their sales were cannibalized by this new brand that didn’t need to exist in the first place. Eventually, it seems the bean counters at GM wanted to level the playing field. After the very popular and durable S-series was retired in 2002, it was replaced with the Ion — a car that eventually shared its platform with the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Pontiac G5. This meant Saturn lost its unique voice in the economy car segment, and the Ion proved to be less reliable than the previous S-series.
Still, Saturn was doing fine by the mid-2000s, and saw huge success with their Saturn Vue SUV. Saturn also received respectful praise with the Aura, their new midsized sedan — which seemed purpose-built to be the perfect entry-level executive company car. Both models were offered in hybrid variants as well, which yielded over 30 miles per gallon on the highway. But, eventually, these same platforms were shared with other brands like the Chevrolet Malibu and Equinox. Once again, Saturn was lost in the sea of endless re-badges from their confused parent company.
Eventually, Saturn became a totally badge-engineered brand, with models like the Relay and Outlook offering nothing different from their Chevrolet Uplander and GMC Acadia cousins. The only unique offering in the United States came at the end — a European-built hatchback called the Astra that nobody wanted to buy — as well as the Saturn Sky Roadster. Unlike the Astra, the Sky actually scratched an itch that Americans couldn’t previously reach.
Recently, I rented a 2008 Saturn Sky Redline for eight days on Turo, an app that allows individual owners to rent their personal cars to complete strangers. It was the cheapest convertible available on Turo with a manual transmission — and I was very pleased with how far my $29 a day took me. Even new, these cars were a bargain — especially the Redline model, which offered a 260-hp turbocharged engine, along with a 5-speed manual transmission and a limited slip differential. For a little extra, some dealer-installed tweaks would bump the horsepower up to 290, but in basic form, the price started new at just under $30,000. Fast forward 10 years, and the current owner of the Sky Redline I rented said he couldn’t find a buyer at $6,000.
Of course, the platform was shared with the Pontiac Solstice — but I find the Sky’s styling, which was shared with the Opel GT in Europe, to be much more attractive. Ergonomically it’s a little weird, but the Sky proved to be very fun, and surprisingly comfortable during my 8-day, 1,000-mile trip up and down the California coast. I never gave these cars a second look when they were new — and clearly that was a mistake.
Sadly, the Saturn brand failed to secure a buyer after GM filed for bankruptcy in 2008 — and while many of its models continued with different badges, production of the Sky at its Wilmington, Delaware plant ended in 2009. This was despite the fact that it was selling near Miata production numbers before the bankruptcy. It’s sad to think that we haven’t started a uniquely American affordable brand like Saturn in the decade since.
I’ve always wondered what would have happened if GM had left the Saturn company alone, and allowed them to continue engineering and building their own unique cars — as well as sprinkling in a few unique European re-badges here and there. I suspect the company would have resembled what Hyundai has evolved into — which, coincidentally, is who bought both of the old Saturn dealerships in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Maybe I’m in the weird minority that misses seeing Saturn cars everywhere, but one thing’s for sure: The brand deserved much better.