Not their finest hour: Saturn

Celebrating the greatest cock-ups in automotive history. This week we look at Saturn
By Sony Thomas, Deputy Editor
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February 12, 2017
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In the Eighties, with the onslaught of Japanese import brands, General Motors was fast losing ground in its home market. Its cars couldn’t prove wrong the growing customer perception that it was not capable of producing entry-level models that could match Japanese rivals in reliability and build quality.

To change this perception, something drastic had to be done, and that something was Saturn. A venture that was started in the mid-Eighties with the blessing of Roger Smith, GM’s then chief executive, and Donald Ephlin, then head of the United Auto Workers, Saturn promised to be a “different kind of company” making a “different kind of car.”

The new brand operated separately from the GM corporation, which meant it had its own assembly plant that employed production processes similar to those of Japanese brands, a unique model line-up, and a separate dealer network that projected a more customer-friendly attitude than GM’s existing dealerships. Saturn’s cars did prove popular initially, but customers soon found out that they were still no match for cars from Toyota, Honda or Nissan. Saturn’s cars were at best average, and their plastic body became notorious for the inconsistent panel gaps, discolouration and cracking.

Also, the creation of an entirely separate division that sapped the conglomerate of billions didn’t go down well with other divisions. And in 2008, when GM announced its decision to focus on Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC, Saturn – along with Pontiac, Hummer, and Saab – was killed. If Saturn is remembered at all, it will probably be as a missed opportunity and a failure.