EARLY CRITIQUE OF SATURN CARS

By most accounts, Saturn is the best small car GM has ever built. Or, rather, the best two cars: a coupe and a sedan. Interior design is up to Japanese standards: roomy, with well-placed controls and plush, attractive fabrics.

Critics like Car & Driver editor Csaba Csere say exterior styling is not distinct enough. The sedan resembles Oldsmobile's Cutlass Supreme; the coupe echoes the Geo Storm.

Customers can choose a fuel-stingy base or peppy performance version of the aluminum four-cylinder engine, each with either stick or automatic transmission. The powertrains are lively, critics observe, but not as smooth or quiet as, say, a Honda Civic.

Saturn planners hope to lure buyers from imports. ``That's a lofty goal,'' says Chris Cedergren, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates. ``You're asking someone who's in love with their Toyota, Honda, or Nissan to trade in their car on an unknown.''

Saturn hopes the pricetag will be a deciding factor: The base price is $7,995 for the sedan, and $11,775 for the top-of-the-line sports coupe.

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