Saturn Would Have Turned 37 Today: We Look at What It Might Have Been

2006-2009 Saturn Sky - a rebadge that was at least interesting 47 photos
Photo: Saturn / General Motors
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January 7 would have been a special day for a certain brand that was once owned by General Motors, Saturn. Back in 1985, Saturn LLC was established on January 7, which means that 2023 would have brought its 37th anniversary (that is exactly one year younger than Sir Lewis Hamilton). As those of you who have heard about Saturn are aware, the brand did not make it past its 25th anniversary.
With the death of Saturn behind us, we can now look at it differently from what has happened to other ex-GM brands. For example, Saab was supposed to be saved by another firm, and its remains have not lived long past its post-GM era.

On the other hand, the Hummer brand managed to emerge from its ashes like Phoenix and turn itself into an EV brand, and its first model of the new era is seen as something that is as offensive as its first production model once was when it first debuted.

In case that slipped under your radar, we are referring to the entire – "who needs a truck this big" discussion, which is now a potential safety issue because the electric Hummer is too heavy for some U.S. roads, and its immense power and torque make it dangerously quick for a vehicle of its size.

But let us get back to Saturn, what it was, what happened to it, and what could have been today. When it was launched, Saturn was "a different kind of car company," which was also attempted by other manufacturers later, and they also implemented a "no-haggle pricing policy."

1995 Saturn SC1
Photo: my66coupe on Bring a Trailer
The latter seems like an innovative idea in the world of dealer markups that we are seeing today, but it did not catch on to a sufficient level. Tesla is trying something similar with its no-dealers and no-discount policy, though.

Saturn initially started out with positive reviews for its all-new models, which were built in Tennessee, and even came with dent-resistant polymer exterior panels to reduce the hassle and cost of a repair from minor scratches and dents, as well as offer the potential to make facelifting the vehicles easier for the manufacturer.

The latter part was not done, and the entire dent-proof thing was eventually replicated by various manufacturers with special paint, and the rest is up to insurance companies to sort between themselves. The ideas themselves were not wrong, and some were ahead of their time, but it did not cut it.

Toyota's Scion brand was also meant for younger customers, and it also focused on hassle-free selling. While Scion ended up being a bit more popular than Saturn, it did that in an entirely different era, back when Saturn was already getting closer and closer to its demise.

2007 Saturn Ion Red Line
Photo: YouTube Screenshot/ThatDudeinBlue
If we add two and two together, we have two competing brands in the same market, North America, and both focused on volume sales with hassle-free pricing, as well as a youthful demographic. One brand followed the other in popularity, and they both faded away with just a few years between them.

While Saturn was original for its first decade or so, with dedicated models that strayed from GM's parts bin as much as they could.

The trend had to stop when the range was expanded, and then Saturn went through a complex badge-engineering process that involved sharing platforms with various GM-owned brands. Most were rebadged Opel models from across the Atlantic, and that did not work out great for the young American brand.

Many years later, General Motors stopped selling its Chevrolet brand in Europe after investing a hefty amount of money in marketing in Europe and then started to look for partners for its Opel and Vauxhall brands. These were eventually sold to PSA Peugeot-Citroen, which turned the German and British marques back on a profitable road under Stellantis' umbrella.

Saturn Sky
Photo: General Motors
Even if GM had continued with Saturn past its end date of October 31, 2010, the brand would have struggled for many years, as the competition was fierce in the volume segment, and Saturn did not have remarkable success in beating its Asian rivals in the 90s. Things did not improve later, with more models in its line-up than ever, and the firm would have faced the need to be reinvented at least once or twice past 2010.

Saturn would have definitely struggled to scramble new models once General Motors had sold its Opel brand, and rising manufacturing costs in the U.S. might not have justified its existence going further. Sadly, it could have been different if you ask us, but only if GM had done something that was seen as radical back in the late '90s.

Toyota tried to be radical with Scion from day one, and it caught one in the early 2000s, as the U.S. and Canada-only brand had an average buyer age of 39 instead of 54 years old (as it was for Toyota). Back then, the average buyer age of 39 was the lowest in the industry, and it proved that young people wanted a certain kind of vehicle and that automakers (at least one) were listening.

The financial crisis of 2008, as well as the fallout of that in respect to auto loans, the automotive industry itself, and many other industry trends, led to the demise of both Saturn and Scion, but the former was already on life support in its last few years, while the latter was just dropping sales.

Saturn Sky Red Line
Photo: Saturn LLC
Toyota kept the most popular Scion models as its own, and therefore the 86, Yaris, and Corolla were sold as such on the American and Canadian markets.

Now, as we mentioned above, GM could have done something about Saturn if it wanted to save the marque, and that started in 1997 when it offered the GM EV1 in the brand's showrooms at the time. The EV1 obtained favorable reviews among those who drove one at the time, just like the first Saturns did.

Unlike the first Saturn cars, GM decided to get its EV1 models back, and crushed almost all the ones it had leased to customers. The sad fate of the EV1 continues to be sad today, as it could have made GM an Electric Vehicle pioneer, even if it did not have the cool factor brought to electric vehicles that came with Tesla Motors.

General Motors EV1
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Fair Use)
Imagine if GM had a brand focused only on eco-friendly vehicles and had been so ever since 1997. It would have been GM's Prius moment, but spread over an entire brand that only sold hybrids and EVs, with a goal to only sell EVs from a certain point going forward. That last bit sounds familiar today, eh?

Saturn could have been all that, but only if enough people had seen the potential of EVs back then. Sadly, things turned out differently, and you might say that Saturn has felt the "curse" of the EV1 worse than GM. It must be a bit frustrating to think that General Motors had the first mass-produced electric vehicle on the market in the modern era, years ahead of any other brand, and it was also a specially-designed model, too, not an adaptation.

It is a bittersweet irony, if you will, but we fail to find the sweet part anymore, as GM needed sixteen years to launch its next EV after the EV1, the Spark EV, and an extra three years since the debut of the EV1 to come up with a worth successor. GM's first purpose-built EV after the EV1 is the Chevrolet Bolt, and some feel that the automaker shot itself in the leg when it killed off the EV1.
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Editor's note: For illustration purposes, the photo gallery shows images of various Saturn models, as well as the GM EV1 and the Hummer EV.

About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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