Noise, Vibration, Harshness: Wont Someone Save Saturn?

When Bad Things Happen to Good Brands: Won’t Someone Save Saturn?

Just as the committed environmentalist delights in biological diversity, so, too, must the maximum gearhead cherish an abundance of automotive brands. All of God’s marques, good and bad, are worthy of our respect, in all their multifarious states of splendor, crapulence, or what have you, each and every one essential to the cosmic balance of things.

Costing billions of dollars and thousands of man-hours to create, car brands are like snowflakes. Each is unique, not only in their corporeal form – products on the showroom floor – but also in the psychographic space they occupy in our minds. Their meaning, real and imagined, counts for so much. And because brands aren’t cheap to build, they’re more easily lost than replaced.

I’d prefer life in a world with a couple dozen automotive brands, even if three quarters of them are lost, sick, or dying, rather than one where only a handful of brands survive and that is that. This latter scenario is what some academics and depressive auto industry analysts have been forecasting since the 1980s: that, one bleak day, we will end up with just six or seven car giants. It’s starting to seem like they were right. Which is bad enough. But who could have been depressed enough back then to predict that so many great Detroit brands might not make it to the Free Market Finals?

The big concern in the 1980s was, as it always had been, that General Motors would take over the world. As I write, the automaker is on life support, careering toward bankruptcy and being forced by its government benefactors to write up plans for the outright elimination of a once-key division (Pontiac) and for the high-speed disposal of others (Hummer, Saturn, and Saab).

GM is also preparing to part with a controlling interest in its powerhouse European division, Opel. This may be the greatest tragedy of the many now in progress at General Motors, for it cuts so deep into bone that it might threaten the survival of all that’s left.

Owned by the American giant since 1929, Opel is GM’s chief repository of small-car knowledge. Excise promising, Opel-derived vehicles like the upcoming Chevrolet Cruze and Buick LaCrosse, and you’re left with the side of the company that gave us TrailBlazers and Impalas, arguably the least relevant of all GM’s engineering outposts. Just when GM really needs what Opel has to offer, pfffft, Opel’s gone. Problem? Consider the recent announcement that the corporation is considering further platform sharing in Europe and Latin America with Fiat. Yes, the same concern that is set to become Chrysler’s surprising parent. Pretty soon, it seems, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne will be so busy fixing the American industry, he’ll have to set up his own office at the White House.

The record shows that I didn’t like what GM did to Saab (although I really liked the 9-3X I drove a few months back), and I never thought Hummer was a good idea. Saturn left me cold. Yet I still believe in these brands. There’s no reason that, with the right products, they can’t be rescued from futures of eternal rest.

Saturn, it seems to me, is the most promising of the death-row bunch. This is strange, since the division never had a car worth being proud of until the Aura and the Astra. At last, the cars were right and the brand was tight, but it was too late, as GM had no money left to market them and then everyone stopped buying cars anyway.

Saturn was born of failure. GM chairman Roger Smith, who pried $3.5 billion out of the other divisions’ fingers to establish Saturn in the 1980s, wanted to build a quality small car to take on the world, which GM’s existing divisions were proving serially incapable of doing. (Remember the X-cars, anyone? Along with the disappointing J-cars, they made Japanese cars look really good.) Saturn was meant to serve as a test bed to educate the larger company on new ways of doing things, from manufacturing processes to labor relations to marketing.

But corporate infighting quickly eroded Saturn’s mission, and by the time the first Saturn car actually left the line – shortly after Smith departed in 1990 – it had already failed, in GM’s internal tests, to meet the challenge posed by the benchmarked Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Technical mediocrity and all-around lameness would describe Saturn cars for almost two decades. And yet in spite of this, Saturn was still a success, developing an enviable reputation.

Success with Saturn was easily GM’s most awesome mind-over-matter marketing triumph in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Sure, GM had a big hand in the marketing-driven success of truck-based SUVs, which defied reason and sound policy to grow from a tiny slice of the U.S. market in the 1980s to a huge portion in the ’90s. However, unlike the SUV, which was profitable in the short term but ultimately proved the industry’s ruination, Saturn never made any money. It could have, though, had it ever been given the tools.

Placing Saturn in orbit were fiendishly clever television and print spots that played up for maximum, smoke-and-mirrors effect the company’s “new” relationship with its union workers, a no-haggle pricing policy, and its bucolic manufacturing home in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The appealing surrealist picture that Saturn’s ad agency, Hal Riney & Partners, painted – along with a dealer body that worked hard to make customers feel loved – managed to transcend all. At one point, an incredible 87 percent of all Saturn buyers didn’t know they’d just bought a GM product.

Saturn brought new customers to GM, inspiring many who didn’t know cars but liked the warm, fuzzy Saturn feeling. Ironically, among their loyal numbers were many sworn GM haters. Now that’s what I call a brand! Twenty years on, even after the division has shed its groovy labor agreement; a Tennessee factory; and its signature, pointless plastic body panels, the good name adheres. Marketing made GM a star in the first place, and the Saturn brand was the corporation’s last greatest marketing hit.

So it’s no wonder that some savvy investors are considering taking Saturn off GM’s hands. Among them is Oklahoma City’s Black Oak Partners, which proposes to buy Saturn’s name and supply its remaining 384 dealers with cars made by various other companies. It remains to be seen whether buyers will care if their cars were built, as one presumes likely, in China or some other low-cost country. Because although one might wish otherwise, Saturn never was about the car.

Meanwhile, if this takeover keeps another brand alive, I won’t complain. The world will be richer for it, no matter what. A brand is a terrible thing to waste.

-Jamie Kitman

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