SEE ALSO: Saturn Buyer's Guide
Saturn really is different. Innovative organizational and retailing policies may have obscured the actual product. That's too bad, because the cars themselves are unusual and incorporate much innovative technology.
Most automobiles today are unit-construction designs in which the body skin is an important structural part of the chassis. This makes for a very rigid structure. It also makes for expensive minor collision repairs and styling revisions. Saturns use a steel "space frame" that is as rigid as some unit-construction chassis. Non-structural polymer plastic and steel panels are attached to the space frame. The polymer horizontal panels - doors, fenders, quarter panels, and bumper fascias - are more resistant to minor nicks, dents, and dings than are metal panels. They can also be restyled more easily. The revised and restyled 1997 Saturn coupes highlight this very well.
As before, Saturn coupes come in two flavors. The SC1 uses the 100-horsepower single overhead cam version of the 1.9-liter Saturn 4-cylinder engine. The SC2 uses the 124-hp twin-cam version. Both now share all body panels and lights, and so look identical except for wheel and tire differences. They have been more than merely reskinned for 1997. They are now built on the same lower chassis platform as the company's sedans, although the upper structure is unique. Not only does this keep life simpler at the Saturn factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee, it has a major benefit to 1997 Saturn coupe owners: more interior room.
As I discovered during a day in an SC2 at the press introduction and a week with an SC1 at home, both are enjoyable cars. The SC1 combines fun with frugality, while the SC2 adds noticeable power.
APPEARANCE: Budget-priced sporty coupes have often been the ugly ducklings of the automotive world. Not the new Saturns. The SC1 and SC2 may now share common body panels, but the styling is far from common. All exterior panels, and all lights and windows have been redesigned. The 1997 Saturn coupes share no external pieces with previous models, but they are discernably Saturn coupes. The long, pointed headlights and low, wide unadorned air intake set into the body-colored bumper fascia see to that. Even without taking the company badge into consideration, the face is familiar. The low front, short, sloping hood, and high rear deck give the Saturn coupe a wedge- like shape. The passenger cabin has a highly-raked windshield that blends smoothly into an arched roof and then to the long, sloping backlight. Large wraparound taillights highlight the rear panel. Steel wheels are standard on the SC1, with alloy rims optional.
COMFORT: Saturn's coupes got a partial interior remake along with all other models last year. The instrument panel continues unchanged for 1997 - no problem there - and the door trim and seats have been redesigned. The longer wheelbase of the sedan platform now used pays off in additional legroom front and rear. The new roofline means improved headroom. Recontoured front bucket and rear bench seats are quite comfortable, and the rear seat has a 60/40 split fold down. Four medium-sized people fit easily, and tall folks can fit in front if the rear seat is used for cargo. Controls and instruments are placed where they are easy to use. Front and rear consoles carry over from last year and provide simple, convenient solution to storage problems. My test SC1 had power windows and door locks, with remote keyless entry. The driver's-side mirror was manually-adjustable via an inside lever, but the passenger-side mirror was power-adjustable. Interior materials were very good for the car's price class, and fit and finish levels were high. The SC1 is a comfortable and functional car that can be a practical only car, not just a weekend toy.
SAFETY: The 1997 Saturn coupes have front and rear crumple zones, side impact protection, dual air bags, and daytime running lights. Optional antilock brakes with traction control are priced lower this year.
ROADABILITY: The longer wheelbase of the new chassis hasn't made the Saturn coupe any less nimble. The fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension balances ride comfort and sporty handling. Revised engine mounts and additional soundproofing materials make the 1997 Saturn coupe quieter than ever, and more refined than many of its competitors. Unlike many sporty coupes, visibility is very good.
PERFORMANCE: The 100-horsepower variant of the Saturn 1.9-liter engine used in the SC1 has enough power to keep the driver entertained while driving by gas stations. With real-world gas mileage in the mid-30 mpg range, fuel stops are few and far between. The standard 5-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly and positively, adding to the sporty character of the car. The optional 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic is one of the most advanced transmissions made. For more urge, there is the 124-horsepower SC2.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1997 Saturn coupes combine style, value, economy, and practicality.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Saturn SC1 Coupe Base Price $ 12,495 Price As Tested $ 15,450 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, single overhead cam Engine Size 1.9 liters / 116 cu. in. Horsepower 100 @ 5,000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 114 @ 2,400 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 102.4 in. / 180.0 in. Curb Weight 2309 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 23 Fuel Capacity 12.2 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P185/65 R15 Firestone Affinity Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, ABS optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, front wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 28 / 40 / 36 0 to 60 mph 10.5 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 18.1 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.33