Do-Overs Worth Doing From Hummer, Saturn, and Saab
It's been about five years since Old GM morphed into the sinewy paragon of corporate efficiency known as New GM. While I don't really weep for the axed nameplates -- a brand is 10 percent history and 90 percent marketing artifice -- there are a few specific vehicles from Saab, Saturn, and Hummer that I'm really starting to miss. And, as the Chevrolet SS née Pontiac G8 proves, New GM can revive a dead car if it feels like it. Join me, then, in my petition to resurrect three machines that deserve to ride again.
Hummer H3T Alpha. Hummer was easily the least sympathetic nameplate in General Motors' portfolio, peddling as it did pseudo-militarized versions of Chevy Colorados and Tahoes. The H2 became the icon of the brand, which is unfortunate because 80 percent of H2s were registered to tanning salons in Tampa, and the other 20 percent belonged to professional cage fighters. The rest of us went back to buying Tahoes.
The H3 was a different matter, always more likable due to its smaller scale. The H3 Alpha added a honkin' 5.3-liter V-8. And the pickup version, the H3T Alpha, was sort of like a production version of the AEV Brute Double Cab, a four-door mid-size pickup stuffed with big power and serious off-road gear -- the Adventure package included 33-inch tires and front and rear locking differentials. I drove one over a mountain outside of Telluride. The transport driver who picked it up afterward wrote, "Vehicle returned filthy" on the claim sheet. You bet it was!
If any Hummer is a future collectible, that's the one. So let's restyle the front end, press the Hummer logo out of the skid plates, and bring this thing back as an offshoot of the upcoming 2015 GMC Canyon. (We'll call it ... the Grand Canyon.) It wouldn't have quite the attitude of a Hummer, but that's OK -- I need to protect the value of my warehouse full of H3Ts.
Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi. Raise your hand if you like the idea of a 280-hp, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive wagon with a manual transmission and rear-axle torque vectoring. That mouthful of car-nerd nirvana describes the late 2008-2009 Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi, a sharp-handling hatch that proved Saab could build a competitive car, just in time for Saab to build nothing at all.
Poor Saab. It so badly wanted to make a BMW M3 competitor, but even the Turbo X wasn't that. Nonetheless, Saab missed no chance to put the Turbo X in the context of the M3, as if to bask in the reflected glow of its performance credibility. I remember a press conference where Saab pointed out that the Turbo X had 295 lb-ft of torque—the same as an M3! It also had tires and windows, just like an M3.
The Turbo X's ace card wasn't its power but its incredible agility. Saab conducted a wet-track road-course exercise to demonstrate how the Turbo X's trick Haldex all-wheel-drive system allowed it to outgun rival performance cars on slick surfaces. Saab claimed that the feisty Turbo X outran the BMW 335xi and the Subaru WRX STI on the flooded track. Of course, the company also included an M3 in the test, which probably wasn't the brightest idea, since the rear-wheel-drive M3 somehow still beat the all-wheel-drive Turbo X. The Saab people acknowledged that the M3 must have a pretty cool differential, or something, to allow it to do that.
Saab's self-identified competition for that test underscores the company's bewildering position circa 2008. Was Saab a grown-up Subaru? Or a Swedish BMW? The Turbo X was the best car Saab ever built, and it wasn't even sure who'd want one.
Solution: Bring the Turbo X back as a Chevy, with cloth seats and a $30,000 sticker, to battle the Ford Focus ST. In the company's final years, the Saab badge was desperately slapped on other GM vehicles. Poetic justice demands that the badge engineering go in the other direction one final time.
Saturn Sky Red Line. The Sky (and its Pontiac twin, the Solstice) caught an inordinate amount of flack over its clumsy details -- the inconveniently placed window switches, say, or the gas-tank tumor that bulged into the trunk. Those design quirks were artifacts of Bob Lutz's impatience to get the damn thing built already and probably would've been ironed out in a second generation, if there'd ever been one.
Quibbling over packaging misses the big picture, which is that GM followed through on building a hot, turbocharged junior Corvette. The Red Line had forged aluminum control arms at all four corners, 260 hp, and a curb weight a hair over 3000 pounds. A warranty-compliant factory ECU reflash can goose the boosted four-banger up to 290 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. And you're gonna bitch about the cupholders?
The biggest problem with the Sky wasn't the packaging but the ignition switch. My father-in-law, Roger, owns a 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line that's subject to the recent huge recall, and the ignition detent is ridiculously weak. (Long before the recall notice arrived, the car shut down on him on a two-lane road -- he just restarted it and kept driving. )
Back in the early 1980s, Roger swore off GM -- probably literally, with a lot of swearing -- after buying a new Camaro that broke down on the way home from the dealership. That car was so dismal, and GM was so adversarial, that Roger informed the dealer that he'd never buy another General Motors product. For twenty-five years, he made good on that threat.
Finally, the Sky Red Line compelled him to forgive GM for its shoddy quality control, only to have it turn out that the company still had shoddy quality control. The difference this time is that the car itself is good enough that he's kept it even after it tried to kill him. The '82 Berlinetta wouldn't have received such a pardon.
Who knows, Roger might even buy another one, if there were another to buy. So let's fix the ignition, gussy up the interior, and slap a bow-tie emblem on the hood. Since the Sky would become a Chevy that's basically a mini Corvette, they could call it the Chevette. On second thought, let's make it a Cadillac.
OK, we'll throw a little "art and science" at the styling and unveil the 2016 Cadillac XRL (for "ex-Red Line," get it?). Oh, and give it new cupholders, too. They really were pretty bad.