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The Nation's Homepage

This is James R. Healey's USA TODAY column, which appeared Jan. 15, 1999.

Saturn picks up on 3rd-door advantage

Saturn is a miracle.

How any car brand could survive parental abandonment - General Motors' treatment of its once-favorite child - is hard to understand.

But interesting things survive at the homespun car brand that former GM CEO Roger Smith powered into being in 1990.

For instance, Saturn folks had the idea for a small, car-based sport-utility vehicle years ago, before Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V stormed into a market few knew existed. Unfortunately, GM was spending money elsewhere, and Saturn will get its SUV late.

And a bigger Saturn, based on a GM European Opel, makes its debut later this year, built in Delaware instead of Saturn's Tennessee home. That gives Saturn fanciers a bigger model and helps insure Saturn's future in a market shunning small cars.

More immediately, look what Saturn's done to its coupe: Aping pickups, it added a small, rear-hinged third door behind the driver's door. The idea is to make it more convenient to toss bags and bodies in back without folding the front seat forward.

Saturn hopes the innovation enlivens coupe sales, down about 31% in '98 from '97, in a coupe market that's shrinking overall.

The three-door hit the market late 1998, as a '99, for about the same price as the old two-door. Saturn expects the innovative feature to draw enough new buyers to boost coupe sales to 20% of Saturn's total, vs. 15%.

The three-door wasn't ready promptly at the start of the '99 model year. So Saturn built a few two-door '99s and cut the price about $500. The three-door became the standard coupe in November, and prices were boosted back up close to the '98s.

The base '99 coupe, SC1, is $12,885, or $150 less than the '98 SC1. The '99 SC2 is $15,445, or $150 more than the '98.

The stub door makes purists howl. A coupe, by definition, is a two-door car. Saturn acknowledges as much but says "three-door coupe" describes the car perfectly to shoppers.

Test driving a well-equipped, '99 SC2 three-door, priced $17,910, left no doubt: The extra door's a big help getting people and stuff into and out of the back seat.

The door seems well-executed. It fit just right on the test car. It opened smoothly and closed solidly. Saturn says reinforcements needed to handle the extra door mean the three-door will be safer in a crash than its two-door predecessor. Crash tests show previous Saturns are among the most crashworthy small cars.

As on pickups, the abbreviated, rear-hinged back door has no outside handle. You have to first open the driver's door, then finger a latch buried in the jamb on the front edge of the back door. That's inconvenient, especially for a back-seat rider trying to lunge to freedom without help from the front.

And there's the nagging question: If three doors are better than two, how about four?

It was hard enough engineering a third door while keeping the car's price down. Adding a fourth door could force a sales-chilling price increase, Saturn worries. "We talked about it," says Stuart Lasser, the New Jersey Saturn dealer who came up with the three-door idea, "but anybody in the market for a four-door is a sedan buyer."

One problem with the three-door: The hinge line is obvious, spoiling the clean, unbroken styling sweep that's a coupe's major selling point.

And, as with those three-door pickups, there are times you wish that the third door were on the side it's not.

Saturn's choice of the driver's side location is inconvenient for parents. Mom and dad usually prefer the passenger's side, which is the curb side on most U.S. streets. But Saturn forces you to handhold kids into the traffic lane to get them in through the third door.

Saturn expects few such complaints because 63% of Saturn coupe buyers are single.

Beyond the door, the '99 Saturn gets other upgrades:

  • Engine. It's the "power module" in Saturn-speak. The hoary beast has been calmed via changes to the cylinder head, timing chain, pistons, crankshaft and camshaft cover. A high-capacity, low-noise exhaust introduced in '98 also contributes to noise reduction.

Neither version of the 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine gets more power, but the changes improve fuel economy about 1 mile per gallon on both the standard and the higher-performance engines.

  • Interior. Better-looking fabric and easier-to-reach seat-belt buckle make the place nicer. A digital odometer modernizes the dashboard, but like most such devices, it's harder to read in bright sunlight than the old-fashioned kind.

The third door, because it eliminates the center pillar (auto folks call it the B pillar) from which the safety belt hangs, spurred Saturn to adopt a seat-mounted driver's belt. That makes the belt easier to reach.

Unchanged and still surprisingly delightful in the '99 three door is the underappreciated sportiness of Saturns. They are sold to a non sporty crowd but nonetheless feel responsive and fun in corners. Driving a Saturn vigorously is much more satisfying than you'd expect from a car made by the happy-talk crowd.

The test car also accelerated quickly, and it braked smartly, in about the right proportion to how hard the brake pedal was pushed. Sounds simple, but such linear feel is rare.

But Saturns are getting old, having undergone few overt - though many hidden - changes since '90.

And they show evidence of cheapness. The trunk, for instance, had no scuff plate on the opening to keep your cargo from destroying the rubber weatherstripping when you wrestle heavy items into and out of the trunk. And a reinforcement panel near the trunk latch is poorly finished and has sharp edges.

Heater controls are old-fashioned sliders, but they slide smoothly, unlike most .

The driver's mirror has to be adjusted with a manual stalk, even though the passenger's has a handier power toggle. The manual rig probably saves money and a little weight but seems incongruous and down-market on a car with multiple power gizmos.

Perhaps worst, despite the years of refinement, Saturns still don't feel quite as polished and refined as the best Japan brands. The plastic, for instance, has a brittle feel. And the suspension transmits too much noise into the passenger compartment.

But you'd have to shop at a Lexus store to get the same treatment you'd find, for one-third the price, at one of the 388 Saturn showrooms.

And the three-door coupe is a bright idea that shows the lights still are on, even though GM, through neglect, had nearly shut off the power.

Though Saturns are only ho-hum cars overall, the company's respectful way of treating customers is an automotive treasure. If the three-door coupe contributes to its surviving and thriving, hooray.

1999 Saturn 3-door coupe

What is it? Small front-wheel-drive, four-passenger plastic-body coupe with unique small door behind the driver's door for improved rear-seat access.

What's standard? SC1 base model has 1.9-liter, 4-cylinder engine rated 100 horsepower, 114 foot-pounds of torque; five-speed manual transmission; rear-access door; power steering, brakes; rear-window defroster; adjustable-interval wipers; dent-resistant, non rusting plastic body panels; tinted glass; folding rear seats; AM/FM stereo; adjustable steering column.

SC2 has 1.9-liter, four-cylinder rated 124 hp, 122 ft.-lbs.; height-adjustable front seat; fog lights.

How soon? On sale now.

How much? SC1 starts at $12,885, including $440 destination charge. SC2 starts at $15,445.

How big? Not very. Specifically, Saturn SC1 is 180 inches long, 67.3 inches wide, 53 inches tall, on a 102.4-inch wheelbase, weighing about 2,500 pounds.

Who'll buy? Mainly single (63%), thirtysomething women (67%).

Overall: Adequate car, good dealers; getting a little expensive when popularly equipped.

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©COPYRIGHT 1998 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.