Saturn Improves Comfort And Styling in New Coupe

GM division poised to enter mid-size car market

Excellent service has kept customers coming back, but Saturn's automobiles have always been mediocre. Reliable, yes, and economical, as consumers demanded. But noisy and uncomfortable as well.

Now the company is about to change all that. It completely revamped its sedans and station wagons last year, and its second-generation coupe showed up at dealerships this month. The new coupe is sleeker and more aggressive-looking than the old model - the lines flow much more smoothly, and the car looks more integrated. Styling is all-important in the market for small, sporty coupes. Unlike the four-door redesigns, this car looks sharp.

The little Saturn also feels sporty. Acceleration is strong, especially in the upscale SC2. Handling is where the car really shines. Flicking around corners on twisty roads, the coupe is right at home.

The new coupe is based on the larger sedan chassis, which allows more legroom. Saturn designers kept taller drivers especially in mind as they added an extra inch of rearward travel to the driver's seat tracks. John Harris, chief engineer for the new coupe, explains that the car was designed to reach a larger demographic group than the old car.

The coupe is available in the base SC1 and the sportier SC2. The SC1 comes with a 100-horsepower engine, split fold-down rear seats. The SC2 adds a smoother 124 horsepower engine and sportier transmissions, front fog lights, a rear spoiler, and, most important, more comfortable front seats.

Early Saturn seats were universally uncomfortable: thinly padded, set low to the floor, and unnaturally upright - sort of barely softened go-cart benches. The '97 SC2 uses stuffed chairs that would not look out of place in a Toyota Camry or Oldsmobile Cutlass. They add adjustments for lumbar support and height, providing for much more natural driving positions than in the SC1. This creates a greater sense of driving confidence as well as better comfort. The seat can be raised, and the Saturn coupe's longer, higher roofline provides more than enough headroom for six-footers. The seats alone seem worth the extra $1,500 for the SC2.

The base price for the SC1 is $12,895, and for the SC2 $14,095. Fully optioned SC2s can run almost up to $20,000. Other options on both coupes include antilock brakes with traction control, a sunroof, and and a choice of CD players.

Federal mileage ratings range from 28 miles per gallon in city/40 on highway on a manual-transmission SC1 to 24 city/34 highway for an automatic SC2.

Unlike the previous coupes, the new SC1 and SC2 share the same body style. The former SC2's pop-up headlights have been eliminated in favor of standard daytime running lamps, headlights that come on any time the car is running.

Another consistent gripe with previous Saturns was noise levels, especially from the boomy engine. The new Saturns still don't compete with the best from Honda and Toyota, but the noise level is no longer obnoxious.

The Saturn division has always competed successfully with Japanese subcompact econo-boxes. Now Saturn dealers in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson will begin selling GM's EV1 electric this year, and, says to Saturn manufacturing vice president Bob Boroff, engineers are developing a new mid-size Saturn for 1998, dubbed "Project Innovate," to compete against Honda's Accord and Ford's Taurus in the hot mid-size market.

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