It looks like we might be saying goodbye to Saturn Distribution Corp. The Saturn brand apparently will be a casualty of parent company General Motors Corp.'s financial meltdown and the global recession.
Last week, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told our sister publication Automotive News: My personal favorite would be to see Saturn survive and prosper. But frankly, the reality is that that is probably not going to be the outcome.
Lutz added: We spent a huge bundle of money in giving Saturn an absolutely no-excuses product lineup, top to bottom. They had a better and fresher lineup than any GM division, and the sales just never materialized. So we have to act on that. It's our duty.
So the brand that promised to be A Different Kind of Car Company (an early slogan) is probably going to disappear sometime in 2011, when its current vehicle lineup is retired.
Saturn has changed quite a bit since GM's top brass first got the idea to create a new brand, way back in 1982, to compete with Japan's small-car imports. Saturn was actually founded in January 1985, and the first car rolled off the assembly line in July 1990.
Saturn will long be remembered for the plastic-bodied sedans that were an early part of its history. It's not a bad legacy. Other vehicles have featured plastic bodies. But, with the possible exception of the fiberglass-body Chevrolet Corvette, Saturn stands out as one of the best known.
Although Lutz would like to save Saturn, he's also the guy who was responsible for moving the company away from using thermoplastic body panels. Thermoplastic's thermal expansion and contraction meant they need larger gaps between panels, and Lutz ruled that the gaps were too big.
Some other elements of the Saturn legacy cooperative labor-management relations, no-haggle pricing generated a lot of interest. It's too bad that the public never really bought Saturn vehicles in big enough numbers to make the experiment a success.
Does the apparent failure of the Saturn brand give the plastics industry a black eye? I don't think so. General Motors had some good ideas that it tried to implement with Saturn. It was just too slow to get them accomplished. GM needed a small, fuel-efficient car to compete with Toyota, Nissan and Honda in the 1970s. By the time Saturn hit the market, consumers were more concerned with quality than economy. And by the time Saturn was established in the small-car category, consumers had moved on to SUVs and minivans.
Saturn was a step behind consumers' tastes, but a generation ahead on its innovative use of materials. Eventually, all cars are going to stop using steel body panels. Fuel economy will dictate the change perhaps as soon as the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards start to kick in, a decade or so from now.
When the change finally comes, you can think back on those old 1990s Saturns and smile, and remember that once, GM had the right idea. Too bad they were just too slow to really take advantage.
Don Loepp is Plastics News' managing editor and author of The Plastics Blog.