Saturn was a General Motors brand that was in existence for about 27 years and could be called a companion brand, although it was more of a badge engineering exercise towards the end of its life.
In 1982 the concept for Saturn was developed. General Motors was hit hard during the 1970s firstly by Japanese imports and then later by the main Japanese manufacturers setting up facilities in the US to build cars. These factories were typically outside the control of the powerful unions that had held the Big Three to ransom. This meant that their costs were much lower and therefore the unit price for their cars was much cheaper than their US competitors.
Saturn Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors was officially founded in 1985 to counter the threat of the Japanese manufacturers. The following five years were spent developing a new model outside the design studios run by the group head office. This meant that by the time the first model, the S-Series, arrived it was a unique design in the GM stable. It used space frames as opposed to a unitary construction and this enabled several panels to be made from a light plastic that were dent resistant and helped with the performance and economy of the vehicle.
The S-Series came in several models: the SC (coupe), SL (Sedan) and SW (a wagon) and were successful right from the launch by the then CEO, Roger Smith. The cars had an inline four cylinder motor of 1.9 litres and delivered around 85hp. The first generation was built up to 1996 and then Saturn released the second generation that was basically a face-lifted model. It was in production until 2002 and over its life the S-Series maxed out at about 310,000 units per year in production.
In 1999, the S-Series was joined by the L-Series, a model that was based on the Vauxhall/Opel Vectra design using the same 2.4 and 3 litre motors. The L-Series wasn’t that successful with only about 400,000 produced over 5 years. It was replaced by the Aura that was a restyled Opel Vectra.
In 2002, Saturn launched the Vue, a slightly restyled cross-over model. The base car was also badged as the Chevrolet/Holden Captiva and the Vauxhall/Opel Antara. The Vue was the best selling model produced by Saturn and this saw the company get into badge engineering rather than designed whole new cars.
The S-Series was replaced by the Ion in 2003 which was a design based on a Chevrolet/Opel platform but with a body and mechanical items taken from General Motors and external parts bins. It was in production for 5 years and two series and was fitted with GM’s four cylinder Ecotec motor of 2 – 2.4 litres and came with a choice of gearboxes including a Continuously Variable Transmission version. The Ion was based on a platform used by Opel for their Astra model and in 2008 the Ion was replaced by the Saturn Astra, built in Belgium and was simply an Opel with a Saturn badge.
Saturn also sold a minivan built on the same lines as its sisters badged as Buick, Chevrolet and Pontiac. The Relay was in production for only two calendar years before being replaced by another minivan – the Outlook, also a Chevrolet behind the badge. The Outlook was in production until General Motors (version 1) crashed in 2008.
Like many manufacturers, Saturn used different badging for their performance models and these became known as the Red Line versions of each model. They also produced a Green Line model that was the fuel efficient version.
For the sports orientated driver, Saturn rebadged the Vauxhall VX220 / Opel GT / Daewoo G2X / Pontiac Solstice as the Sky. The Saturn and Pontiac versions were built in the US whereas the earlier Vauxhall/Opel models were built by Lotus in the UK and were originally based on the Elise – the same as the Tesla Roadster, Detroit Electric and Hennessey cars.
In 2008 when General Motors was keeling over, senior management decided to sell off Saturn along with other US brands. Penske were interested in becoming the delivery channel with another company undertaking the manufacturing. An agreement was announced by both parties and then in 2009, Penske pulled out citing a withdrawal of Renault Samsung as the manufacturing partner. General Motors then decided to drop the brand completely, sell off the remaining stock and close the dealer network which happened in 2010 after production was halted a year earlier.