Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Saturn - what planet is GM living on?

An interesting report today by the UK Newspress service from the Detroit motor show about the GM Saturn brand. Apparently, GM has decided that Saturn is now going to be its 'green' brand, and launched three eco-friendly models at the show.

Two of these cars are supposedly environmentally friendly versions of a clumpy SUV called the Vue, which looks suspiciously like the Chevrolet Captiva and Vauxhall Antara to me. One is a hybrid due to appear late this year, and the other is a plug-in hybrid that's expected to appear in 2010.

That's all very well as far as it goes, but why doesn't GM just make a bit of an effort to get its US buyers off SUVs and US-market bloatmobiles and into something a bit more like its much more fuel efficient (and much better) European cars. A more fundamental objection is this; if we're going to crack climate change, I think GM needs to do a bit more than just offer greenery (or what passes for it) as a bit of a gimmick for one of its smaller brands - it really needs to do something across its whole operations.

Anyway, I find all this chopping and changing when it comes to the Saturn brand a bit depressing. I can remember following closely what GM did with Saturn from the time it was founded as the group's sixth North American brand (next to Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac) in 1985, through to the launch of the first Saturn car in 1990. It was a fascinating story; at the beginning, Saturn was kept entirely separate from the rest of GM, and had its own plants and models. The idea was to get out from under the burden of legacy plants and practices and reproduce some of the conditions that allowed the Japanese 'transplant' factories built on greenfield sites to flourish. At least in the early years, GM's efforts and the products themselves got a fairly good press but Saturn has never, apparently, been that successful in financial terms, which is no doubt why it has lost much of its independence in the last few years, and AFAICT, its cars no longer seem to be produced in separate plants.


Saturn Simon said...

Interesting points of view. The only ones I'd argue are:

"Two of these cars are supposedly environmentally friendly versions of a clumpy SUV called the Vue"

Clumpy? It's a compact. Heavy for its size, unlike the old model, but a compact SUV none the less comparable in size to a RAV4.

"which looks suspiciously like the Chevrolet Captiva and Vauxhall Antara to me."

That's because it is basically an Antara.

I don't think Saturn is necessarily going to be GM's 'green' brand either. There are hybrid versions of other GM cars too such as the new Chevrolet Malibu for instance. Saturn seems to have more than most though. I think Saturn is basically now GM's US brand for cars with European (read Opel)-inspired design and driving dynamics. Saturn's 'Green Line' range could be considered a green brand, like VW's Bluemotion, but not the Saturn range as a whole. They have 'Red Line' performance models too don't forget.

"its much more fuel efficient (and much better) European cars."

Are GM's European cars now necessarily better? Looking at the new Chevrolet Malibu, Cadillac CTS, the GMT900 SUVs and the Saturn Aura I'd suggest not.

"if we're going to crack climate change"

Nothing GM or any of the other car makers can do will ever make a difference to climate change as far as I can see.

David Wilkins said...

Thanks for your observations saturn simon! I think what Americans call compact is probably still clumpy by European standards!

Actually, I have to say I quite liked the Captiiva when I tried it last year, and I've got the Antaraa turning up next week, so I'll be interested to see how they compare.

I'm not familiar in detail with all of the US models you mention, but I am quite a fan of Cadillac's current cars - in particular the sharp-edged styling. Over the last couple of years, I've made a point of covering both the BLS and the CTS in the Independent, even though they are not big sellers in the UK - I'll be trying to get a booking for the new CTS for the Verdict in the next couple of weeks (there's a bit of a delay as Caddy's UK operations, including the press fleet, are being transferred from an independent importer to Vauxhall/GMUK). Should be an interesting one.

I hope GM wil persist with Caddilacs in the UK - I suppose they will never be more than a niche product, but on the other hand they probably deserve to do a lot better than they have done so far.

In fairness to GM on the subject of greenery, they are pretty good on bioethanol - assummiing that's a good thing, which not everybody does, of course.

Anonymous said...

Being from the US, and an avid Saturn follower (and former Saturn retailer employee), I figured I'd pop in to say a few things as well.

Many of us Saturn loyalists are disappointed in Saturn's change into the "American Opel" - but it was either this, or the close of the brand completely. The old Saturn brand was stale, unimaginative for the most part, and losing money rapidly. The introduction of the new "green" models, as well as the revamp into the European designs has brought a much needed breath of fresh air into the division, though at the cost of alienating some of the longest running customers.

I, for one, will never buy a new VUE (I drive an 07 VUE Red Line, the performance edition, built in Spring Hill, Tennessee in the original Saturn plant) because it is built in Mexico, which I find to be a slap in the face to the Spring Hill manufacturing team and all American plants. They made a lot of mistakes with this new SUV, everything from the very mainstream styling (looks nearly identical to the new Honda CRV) to the added weight for apparently no reason (it shrank in size and gained 1000 lbs!)

However, regardless of the mistakes us "Saturn people" see, for the most part it has been exceptionally well received here. Sales are mediocre, but it is receiving good press reviews (something the older VUE never seemed to manage).

Try as GM might to get people "into" smaller cars, it's just not the American mindset. The subcompact Aveo is nearly a complete flop - Americans view it as an unsafe 'tin can' of a car, and the majority of buyers get it because they either cannot afford anything bigger or because it is for their child and they don't want to spend more money than that. This has been seen across the board with small cars - the Honda Fit so far is the only one to have taken off, the Toyota Yaris is selling far below expectations and the Nissan Versa isn't doing so hot either. Saturn is planning to bring out a version of the Corsa, but I just don't see that there's a market.

Families, young adults, retired couples, and teenagers all want SUVs. This is evidenced by the increasing sales of SUVs each year, and the increasing number of them available from manufacturers. I think GM is doing the right thing by giving people want they want - SUV size and small car fuel mileage.

Wow, that was a long comment. =)

David Wilkins said...

Thanks for that interesting perspective. I supppose what I find disappointing about Saturn is the the erosion of its identity as something a bit different - back in the 80s, GM was so often criticised for selling what was basically the same car with different badges, and the separate identities of Olds, Buick and Chevrolet seemed to become rather blurred - so mujch so that Olds eventually had to go.

When Saturn came along, it seemed like such a breath of fresh air, taking a different approach in so many areas - perhaps the story hasn't turned out the way everyone hoped, but at least it was a worthwhile effort. Then again, manufacturers who try to move things on are rarely rewarded - look at the effort Audi put into the advanced A2 which only enjoyed mediocre sales.

On the subject of the Captiva/Antara/Vue, the Antara I will be trying next week is a diesel, which, in line with expperience, I'm expecting to be a lot more coonvincing as a product than the petrol Captiva I tried a few months ago - I know the US market tends not to like diesels but I wonder whether that's something that needs revisiting given how much diesels have improved in the last few years.

Anonymous said...

I think if you look at the overall impact of Saturn on the US automobile market, you'll see that it DID work - most, if not all, dealerships have picked up the Saturn sales philosophy of "treat the customer like a friend, not an enemy," and it has made the car buying experience easier for all Americans. It is very disappointing to see Saturn folded back into GM as far as the "cloning" but at least the dealerships, for the most part, still have the 'old school' Saturn approach.

You'll also see that Saturn's trends towards innovation have really led the marketplace over here. Manufacturers are a little more willing to try things that are outside the box. Just look at Toyota's Scion line, full of innovative designs and very successful.

We will be getting our first diesel passenger car soon, predicted in 2010 - and it will be the Saturn Aura. Saturn is still GM's "test bed" to an extent, this is a good example. I'm hoping that it will start catching on, I'm honestly thinking of getting one - I just wish I could get it in convertible! The US public is generally afraid of diesels due to the diesel cars of the 70's that belched horrible plumes of smoke, froze up in the winter and were just generally bad cars. I'm hoping that they will start paying attention to the 2 VW models and the soon to be 1 GM model that run on "clean" diesel and will realize that times change. One of the big challenges for auto manufacturers that produce diesel cars oversees is the much stricter US restrictions on emissions because of California - all cars sold in the US now have to meet California's emissions regulations, and there are very few diesels that do.

Though if I DO get a diesel Aura ... you can be sure I'll plan on converting it to biodiesel!