The 2005 Relay minivan will be the first Saturn vehicle marketed without plastic fenders and door panels.
The Relay will share components and sheet metal with three next-generation minivans under development for Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick. That will save the automaker money, and it also will fix a perceived quality problem.
``Plastic does grow and shrink,'' said General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. ``Customers are very sensitive to body gaps,'' especially buyers comparing a Japanese brand to the Saturn Ion or Vue, Lutz said.
Polymer panels have been used for Saturn's door panels and fenders since the brand was launched in the 1991 model year. The panels have become one of the key elements of Saturn's brand character.
Over the years, Saturn's ads touted the polymer panels' resistance to dents caused by runaway shopping carts and other hazards. Dealers also hyped plastic panels because they maintain that new-car look - the panels don't rust.
But Lutz said the plastic panels have two drawbacks. First, it takes longer to produce a plastic panel than one of stamped sheet metal. Second, plastic panels shrink on cold days. That, in turn, increases the gap between the panels.
``So you sell someone a Saturn Vue and he says, `This is really poorly put together. Look how wide the gaps are for the doors - certainly not like a Japanese car,' '' said Lutz, who was interviewed last month at the Frankfurt, Germany, motor show.
Saturn is reconsidering the use of plastic body panels on a second vehicle. Insiders say the vehicle that will replace the L300 sedan is likely to use sheet metal rather than polymer panels. That vehicle is due in the 2006 model year.
The current L300 is based on the previous-generation Opel Vectra. It features polymer front fenders, door panels and bumpers. Its rear quarter panels are made of steel.
But according to company spokesman Sherrie Childers-Arb, Saturn has not soured on plastic body panels.
``The Ion and Vue will continue to have polymer panels,'' she said. ``It doesn't mean that we will totally go away from polymers, because those product decisions have yet to be made.''
The Ion has polymer door panels, and front and rear fenders, for example.
The Relay will share components with three GM minivans: the 2005 Chevrolet Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Buick Terraza. The Uplander will replace the Venture, and the Montana SV6 will replace the Montana.
The four GM vehicles will be styled to resemble a sport utility and marketed as ``crossover sport vans'' rather than minivans. The vehicles' front-end styling will feature tall hood lines instead of the sloping hood on today's minivans.
With the new look, GM hopes to shake an image that equates minivans with soccer moms. It hopes to capture customers who might otherwise buy a sport utility vehicle.