Coupes have sporty style, and make a statement about their owners. With two doors, access to the rear seat of a coupe -- if it even has one -- is not of primary importance. Coupe owners are people who are not operating a taxi service. Hauling kids, dogs, tubas, or whatever in the back seat is not a priority. Coupe people are more likely to be younger or older than family sedan people, single or married but without kids.
But there are times that even coupe people need to get something a little unwieldy into the back seat.
In a parallel, pickup trucks have more in common with coupes than may be readily apparent -- especially extended-cab pickups. Look at the basic description of an extended-cab pickup: two doors and a small rear seat with difficult access. Does that sound familiar, coupe owners? And what is the latest trend for extended-cab pickups? Right - - doors. Rear doors for easier access.
No surprise that the ``different kind of car company'' made the connection. Innovation is a Saturn hallmark. The Saturn coupe has been reasonably popular, but, if something different might increase sales, why not try it? And so the three-door coupe was born. All 1999 Saturn coupes built after November, 1998 have a third door as standard equipment. Like the third doors in GM's compact trucks, it's a rear- hinged panel behind the driver's door, and the front door must be opened first. There is a definite logic to this -- in a parking lot, the coupe driver can more easily toss packages, groceries, or a briefcase in the rear seat, without having to move the front seatback forward and so out of adjustment. And when someone needs to get into or out of the rear seat, access is much easier. The convenience is undeniable, with no loss of coupe image. This is no mere sedan.
There are other refinements to the 1999 Saturn coupes to make them smoother and quieter. As before, both SC1 and SC2 levels are offered. I just spent a week with an SC2 automatic and found it to be an eminently practical car. With the automatic it's more of a sporty commuter car than a true sports coupe, but nimble handling and good steering response help make it enjoyable. And the third door is a major convenience.
APPEARANCE: If you don't look closely, you'll miss the left-side door seam, behind the driver's door. Other than that, the newest Saturn coupe is little changed since its 1997 makeover. The front has a definite face, with a wide air intake for a smiling mouth and pointed ``jewel'' headlights for eyes. The long, arched passenger cabin has a semi-fastback shape, but it is not a hatchback. As always, the vertical body panels are dent and ding-resistant thermoplastic. The SC2 has new optional alloy wheels.
COMFORT: Saturns have come a long way in refinement since their introduction almost a decade ago, and the coupes are no exception. Noise, vibration, and harshness have been expunged, and the SC2 is quite a pleasant small car with very good fit and finish. There is room for four, if they are all of average size, and that third door helps access. So does the front passenger seat -- it is spring-loaded to slide forward easily for off-side access. The front buckets are above average in comfort and supportive; there is more rear room than might be expected. The SC2's interior decor is pure Saturn, with a high-tech, modular motif. The main instrument cluster is in a well-hooded nacelle, with auxiliary controls in a central module. There are plenty of small storage spaces in the doors and front and rear consoles. Like the interior, the trunk is larger than expected, and the rear seat folds with a 60/40 split for items too large to fit through the doors.
SAFETY: Saturn coupes have a sturdy steel spaceframe chassis with front and rear crush zones, dual depowered airbags, and energy- absorbing interior materials.
ROADABILITY: The Saturn SC2 is a sporty coupe, not a sports coupe, but still has good handling characteristics that make it a fun car to drive. The speed-sensitive power steering is not too light at highway speeds, and torque steer is minimal.
PERFORMANCE: The twincam version of the 1.9-liter Saturn four- cylinder engine has 124 horsepower, a definite improvement of the SC1 single cam engine's even 100. Even more important, its broad torque range, with a 122 lb-ft maximum, makes it work well with the four-speed automatic transmission. It's not as quick or sporty as a 5- speed manual-equipped car, but it does the job for traffic, commuting, and other real-world chores with minimal fuss. Enhancements this year make both engines quieter and more fuel-efficient.
CONCLUSIONS: Saturn has a RADical new idea. It's a Rear Access Door. It makes Saturn's coupes as practical as they are stylish.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 15,865 Price As Tested $ 18,895 Engine Type dual overhead cam inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 1.9 liters / 116 cu. in. Horsepower 124 @ 5,600 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 122 @ 4,800 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 102.4 in. / 180.0 in. Curb Weight 2,471 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20 Fuel Capacity 12.1 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular gasoline, 87 octane Tires P195 / 60 HR15 Firestone Firehawk Brakes, front/rear disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent tri-link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 25 / 35 / 27 0 to 60 mph 9.6 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.31 OPTIONS AND CHARGES SC2 Package 2 - includes: power locks with remote keyless entry system, power windows, power remote-control right-side mirror, cruise control, 15-inch alloy wheels $ 1,320 Carpeted front / rear floor mats $ 60 Anti-lock braking system $ 695 AM/FM/cassette stereo with premium speaker system $ 390 CA/MA/NY etc emissions $ 125 Destination charge $ 440