THERE'S a bright gleam amidst the gloom surrounding General Motors Corporation, and its name is Saturn. This peppy car is drawing buyers into dealerships when sales at other car lots are lagging.
"I can never have enough sales people," says Brian Jamison of Saturn's Marlow Heights, Md., dealership.
Similar reports come from Saturn's 130-dealer network across the country. In California, a salesman reports, customers are trading in Hondas and Nissans for new Saturns, indicating that so far, at least, the car is meeting its main purpose: to wrest market share from Japanese imports.
The April issue of Consumer Reports magazine recommends Saturn as having "exceptional first-year reliability, a breakthrough for a car designed and built in the US."
GM's new division has yet to report a profit. But many workers and managers here believe Saturn is pioneering the "fundamental changes" that GM chairman Robert Stempel says are required in the way the world's largest industrial corporation makes and sells cars. GM lost $4.5 billion in 1991.
Bob Boruff, Saturn's vice president for manufacturing, describes his plant as "revolutionary," in its use of leading-edge technology, in its fanatic insistence on quality, and above all in its empowerment of workers and emphasis on teamwork.
Saturn's first car rolled out of its million-square-foot assembly plant in the cornfields of Tennessee in October 1990. After a slow start-up, it is now beginning to produce 900 cars a day.
Saturn is GM's first direct challenge to Japanese subcompacts, which have such a lead that even GM imports Japanese models under brand names such as the Chevrolet Geo.
Saturn took eight years to get from concept to finished car. On the way, the planned capacity was scaled down from 500,000 cars a year to 250,000. The project has cost $1.9 billion so far, and Mr. Boruff hopes that it will become profitable by the end of l993.
New technology includes the "lost-foam" system of casting engine blocks, a system that uses polystyrene foam patterns that vaporize when molten aluminum or iron is poured into them. The resulting castings are lighter and more intricate than conventionally produced ones.
Among other innovations at Saturn are plastic body panels - lightweight, rustproof, dent-resistant - and waterborne paint that gives the finished product high luster and durability.
SATURN'S basic manufacturing concept is "lean production," pioneered by the Japanese but adapted to American conditions. This approach makes do with half as many workers as traditional mass-production requires, because workers are more versatile and assembly lines can handle several different models.
Intensive training is one key to versatile performance. Five percent of a worker's bonus pay is tied to the training he receives.
But the more important key is the premise that management and workers form a single team dedicated to creating a perfect car. The concept represents a 180 degree turn from the adversarial relationship that still typifies most Big Three auto plants.
Whereas Japanese transplants in the US have generally avoided unions, the United Auto Workers are an integral part of the decisionmaking process at Saturn.
"I spent nearly 14 years in the adversarial system," says local UAW president Mike Bennett, "and it was always in the position of having to react to a manager's decision." Now Mr. Bennett shares responsibility not only for the decisions but also for implementation, "and that really changes the whole relationship between labor and managers."
Saturn's team concept is more radical than that of the Japanese. All workers are called "team members." The members rotate positions, ultimately becoming familiar with almost every aspect of carmaking. They have a say on who will be invited to join the team, and on whether or not to work extra hours. Recently they voted by 86 percent to move from a 40-hour week to a 50-hour week (10 hours a day), in order to meet dealer demand for Saturns.
One team, coordinator Greg Glos recalled, had to fit two taillights for different models. One light was more expensive than the other, but the two were so similar that team members had trouble telling them apart. They did studies on their own time and came up with a recommendation, which management accepted, to scrap the more expensive taillight, saving half a million dollars a year.