General Motors Corp.'s Saturn division is taking aim at a major sales boom and is looking in part to the car culture of Southern California to spark interest in its vehicles.
At the same time, the company once again is taking advantage of plastics to tweak the look of its models.
The carmaker introduced its new performance version of the Saturn Ion and Vue vehicles April 8. The new Red Line uses the design capabilities of Saturn's thermoplastic body panels to produce cars with new fascias, a spoiler and rocker panels.
``From a design standpoint, you can do a lot more things with plastic than you can with sheet metal,'' said Kip Wasenko, design director for GM's performance division and a designer of the original Saturn coupe and sedan.
``That was one of the big things we did from the first Saturn coupe and sedan, where the plastics were a big advantage from a design standpoint. You can change so much, much more rapidly, assuming there's money in the program and an interest in it.''
Saturn debuted in 1990, designated to cut into the sales of Japanese automakers in North America. The assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., includes its own in-house injection molding shops for both interior components and the exterior body panels that have given the cars their unique look and style.
During the past year, the division has launched two new models - the Ion, replacing the original S series, and the sport utility vehicle Vue - joining them with the midsize L series for total sales of 280,248 in 2002. But Saturn has even bigger plans, with an announced intention of hitting 500,000 in sales by 2005, well over its best sales year ever, 286,000 in 1993.
The goal may not be as likely as Saturn would like, said Mike Wall, an auto analyst with CSM Worldwide of Northville, Mich., but there are some changes coming up at the division that should boost sales.
Not only is there the Red Line - intended to generate excitement among young buyers - but Saturn soon is expected to launch other upscale models, including a minivan, that should keep buyers coming back.
``There has been a struggle because they lacked bigger vehicles beyond the sedan until the Vue came out,'' Wall said. ``They needed a cadence, a way to move people up into other vehicles.''
The Red Line is aimed at adding to its offerings while generating excitement among an influential group of consumers.
``It's going to add a performance product for Saturn buyers that's really needed,'' Wasenko said during an April 15 telephone interview. ``Performance is at a whole new level of interest in the marketplace.''
The performance-vehicle fans - typically called ``tuners'' - spend millions of dollars each year in aftermarket body systems and components to turn their cars into the types of specialty vehicles featured in movies like The Fast and the Furious. Domestic cars hold little interest for them, but now automakers are taking notice of them, with bigger-horsepower versions of the Ford Focus and Dodge Neon now available.
``Ford, GM, Chrysler, they're all beginning to recognize that there are younger kids out there who have money and want to spend it on their cars,'' Wall said.
And the cars they choose now, he said, will set their future buying preferences.
To give the standard Saturn a new look, Wasenko's performance design team lowered the overall body of the Ion, with a front fascia with a larger air inlet to support a more powerful engine and rear fascia designed around a chrome exhaust-pipe tip.
The Vue likewise has new front- and rear-end looks, along with new side-body styling cues.
Saturn's plastic body systems - combined with the company's in-house injection molding - made it a natural for the performance group, Wasenko said.
The carmaker can give Saturn a face lift at minimal costs.
``That's one of the real benefits of working in plastic,'' he said.
Saturn's exterior body production unit in Spring Hill has 36 presses in a 200,000-square-foot space with a current capacity of turning out panels for 200,000 Ions, 100,000 Vues and 100,000 L-Series sedans, said Greg Young, engineering leader body systems/polymers.
The facility goes through 19 million pounds of resin annually - polypropylene, thermoplastic olefin and a polycarbonate/ABS blend - producing every vertical panel in every Saturn, with the exception of the rear quarter panel in the L Series, which is steel.
Spring Hill, Wasenko said, has far more capabilities to produce designer systems for Saturn than any aftermarket company, and the Red Line gives the carmaker a chance to show the real flexibility available with plastics.
``We could have, perhaps, marketed the advantages of the plastic material better,'' he said. ``Resisting the dents, the dings, the lack of rust. I don't think the average consumer is as enlightened as they could be.''
GM also will have a chance to test out other performance vehicle variations it envisions for other models - also taking advantage of plastics, he said. Designers are looking at a cross section of resins, from thermoplastics to sheet molded compound to carbon fiber.
``It does open up ways to certainly reduce weight, which in a performance aspect is very, very important,'' Wasenko said. ``Also, those types of materials have more design flexibility and freedom from my point of view.
``Plastics will certainly be playing a big role in what we're doing going forward.''