The demise of Pontiac has grabbed auto industry headlines over the past few days, but little has been said about GM’s abrupt change in plans for its Saturn Corp. Yesterday, the giant automaker said it no longer plans to build Saturns through the end of 2011. Instead, it will phase out Saturn at the end of the 2009 model year.
That’s sad. Those who recall the history of Saturn know that it grew out of GM’s desire to prove that an American automaker could produce small, reliable, affordable vehicles that could compete with those of foreign automakers. Early on, GM did its best to make that happen. It searched the world for the best ideas, poured money into advanced technology, built gigantic new manufacturing facilities, changed the sales experience, adopted new management practices, and essentially built a wall between Saturn and the rest of the company. In its commercials, Saturn called itself, “a different kind of car company.”
And in the beginning, Saturn really was different. In the 1992 J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Surveys, its vehicles ranked only behind luxury carmakers Lexus and Infiniti. The Saturn brand name quickly developed a reputation for reliability.
But if you’ve watched Consumer Reports’ ratings over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a steady decline in the perceived reliability of Saturns. This year, the Saturn Vue, Sky and Outlook had “worse than average” ratings. Now, we hear the company’s vehicles will be phased out after this model year.
Obviously, Saturn now has the misfortune of being part of a company with monumental financial problems. But not long ago, many experts would have expected Saturn to be the last of GM’s divisions to fail.
I don’t know how or why that all changed, but the unfortunate bottom line is that America’s biggest automaker made its best attempt to build a so-called “import buster,” and ended up throwing in the towel within 20 years.