Why GM would put its first hybrid power train in a package this unsightly and uncomfortable is a mystery and a minor tragedy.
Jonathan Fahey - Forbes - Nov. 1, 2006
Saturn VUE Greenline - A heartbreak in motion
A high school kid working a wedding north of New York City is sent to retrieve a 2007 Saturn Aura from a distant parking lot. When he hands over the keys, he says, with great seriousness: "That is a very nice car, sir. A very nice car."
This is the good news.
The bad news: A parking lot attendant in New York City, seeing a 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line pull into his garage, which abuts two rental car agencies, doesn't consider for a moment that the driver might actually own the vehicle. "Is this for Avis or Alamo?" he asks.
Such is the state of the nascent Saturn revival. General Motors launched Saturn with great success 16 years ago, in an attempt to win back small car buyers from Toyota Motor and Honda Motor. But GM quickly dropped that worthwhile push; as soon as the country fell in love with SUVs, it seems, GM fell in love with SUV profits. Saturn, the money-losing small car division, disappeared into the darkest, iciest regions of the corporate galaxy.
The brand was so starved for vehicles--at one point early in this decade, the company was down to just two models--it is remarkable that Saturn is still breathing. But it has been blessed with loyal buyers who love the brand's "no-haggle" dealerships.
"They completely abandoned their core buyer," says Rebecca Lindland of forecasting firm Global Insight. "But people like Saturn. A lot of Saturn buyers only left because they didn't have a choice."
Stuck with old designs and uncompetitive vehicles, dealers limped along as the division's sales slumped. But now that SUV sales are two years into a freefall, GM again has realized that it might be nice to have passenger cars, and a passenger car brand that has a chance of attracting buyers of imports.
In 2004, GM decided to invest $3 billion over several years to remake Saturn's lineup. This spring, Saturn dealers got some sizzle, a roadster called the Sky. This fall, Saturn got the steak: a four-door sedan called the Aura that is meant to compete head-on with the passenger car leaders, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Early next year, Saturn will get a large, eight-passenger crossover vehicle called the Outlook, and the division's hopeless Relay minivan will, thankfully, disappear. The Ion small sedan and the Vue small crossover will be replaced (not a moment too soon) late next year, and then Saturn will get at least one other small car. Like the Aura, the Ion and the forthcoming small cars will be based on cars developed and sold in Europe by GM's Opel division.
"I'm grateful they finally saw the light," says Adam York, president of Saturn of Medford-Boston, who says he and other Saturn dealers are slogging through yet another tough year. "I've noticed for ten years that alternate choices for Saturn buyers were Honda, VW, Toyota. GM finally saw that this is the brand that is going to conquest sales."
Saturn sales peaked in 1995 at 286,000 vehicles, but eroded to 210,000 last year. Sales through September of this year are flat, but Lindland of Global Insight predicts that with all of Saturn's new vehicles, sales will grow to 340,000 by 2010.
Like the wedding valet indicated, the Aura is a very sharp-looking vehicle. The interior is also pleasant and nicely organized. It is not particularly exciting to drive-the steering is loose and the brakes are squishy--but perhaps buyers looking to cruise won't be bothered by this. It is an immeasurable improvement from the brand's most recent mid-sized sedan, called the L-Series, which was such a dud that GM just stopped making them in 2004, with no replacement on hand. Saturn acolytes will likely come back to the brand for this car, but the company will have to fight to wrestle sales from a field crowded with very good vehicles, like the Camry, Accord, a newly redesigned Nissan Motor Altima, the Hyundai Motor Sonata and the Ford Motor Fusion.
The Vue Green Line, on the other hand, shows how far Saturn, and GM, has yet to go. It is this kind of vehicle that reinforces the image that Detroit is trying so hard to dispel-that U.S. carmakers are simply not up to snuff. GM touts the fact that the Vue Green Line is the cheapest hybrid SUV on the market. At about $23,000, it is. But it feels much cheaper than that-shaking apoplectically at the merest hint of a bump in the road.
The Vue Green Line is also GM's first attempt at a hybrid passenger car. Why GM would put its first hybrid power train in a package this unsightly and uncomfortable (and due to be replaced) is a mystery and a minor tragedy. GM's urgency in getting a hybrid to market as soon as possible is understandable-given how far it lags behind Honda, Toyota and Ford. But why not put it in the Aura (which is scheduled to get a hybrid next year)? That way, the company's first hybrid vehicle would've been something people would ogle at, not wince at.