SEE ALSO: Saturn Buyer's Guide
From the company's debut in late 1990 through mid-1999, Saturn's offerings were limited to compact- sized sedans, wagons, and coupes. They proved successful, with a host of popular features and an innovative sales process. But, until recently, people who bought a Saturn when their needs were best met with a small car, and who liked their Saturn experience, were out of luck when they needed something larger.
The debut of the L-Series, the first all-new Saturns since the company's inception, solves that problem. And the new Saturn L-models have features that will appeal not only to the Saturn faithful, but to anyone in the market for a mid-sized car. As is the case with the S-Series Saturns, the LS sedans and LW wagons pack plenty of functional innovation into a modestly-priced package. They're the critical "next step" in Saturn evolution, allowing Saturn to compete in a much larger market.
If the "L" is for "Large", then the "S" stands for "Sedan" and the "W" for wagon. The large Saturns leverage General Motors' European interests with some components from the Opel Vectra. But they are in no way Opels badge-engineered into Saturn clothing. The length, width, and wheelbase are different, as are all of the body panels. Only 132 small parts are directly interchangeable between the Saturn and Opel. The new Saturn's chassis is a "space frame" design similar to that of the smaller Saturns, with polymer body panels except for the rear quarter.
Engines are a new 2.2-liter four-cylinder that is much like a larger version of the small Saturn engine, and a 3.0-liter V6 that is a close relative to that found in the Cadillac Catera and some Saabs.
I spent a long day driving prototypes of all of the L-series Saturns through the mountains near Phoenix, Arizona, last summer, and was very impressed. They were solid, quiet, and roomy, with better handling and performance than expected. I came away from the day with the realization that the Saturn L-series could be a serious competitor in the mid-sized sedan and wagon class. A recent week with an LS1 sedan only reinforced that feeling. It combined very European elegant simplicity of design and ride and handling with all-American Saturn practicality. Although the four-cylinder LS1 is positioned in the middle of L-series lineup, and sells for a very modest price, it had the quality feel of a much more expensive car. Midsize sedan buyers, take note!
APPEARANCE: The design theme for the L-series Saturn was "simplicity and honesty." It shows, with a contemporary European profile combined with traditional Saturn styling cues. The friendly front and rear "faces" -- bumper fascia and headlights and full- width taillight applique -- are instantly noted as Saturn, but the LS is much larger than any of the SL sedans. LS sedans and LW wagons share bodywork from the windshield forward, and the doors and front fenders of all are ding-resistant plastic. The gently-rounded shape of the sedan is balanced by strong character lines on the sides and hood. It's simple, honest, and unique.
COMFORT: The well-equipped and comfortable LS1 sits squarely in the middle of the L-series lineup. A contemporary mid-sized sedan with plenty of flair, it is very different from its smaller cousins. In design, materials, and switchgear it has a European feel. Cloth upholstery is found on the comfortably-contoured front bucket and rear split folding bench seats, although leather is available and does not look out of place. The instrument panel is a one-piece design molded out of textured material, with an integrated, woodgrain- trimmed central module for the audio and climate- control systems. Windows, mirrors, and door locks are power-assisted, and the window lifts are on the central console, German-style. The anti-glare shaded area behind the rearview mirror is also very German. American practicality can be seen in the large locking glovebox and covered central console, and cupholders with removable inserts. The trunk is large for the size of the car, and a valet lockout can disable the remote release for greater security. In its interior features and design, the LS1 feels like a more upscale car.
SAFETY: The Saturn LS's sturdy space frame is designed to protect occupants, and has front and rear crush zones. Three-point active safety belts are provided for all outboard positions.
ROADABILITY: Even though it's a Saturn built in Wilmington, Delaware, not an Opel from Germany, the LS1 has a European flavor to its ride and handling characteristics. All LS and LW models share a fully- independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension that is compliant on rough pavement, but allows very good cornering ability.
PERFORMANCE: The economical 2.2-liter dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine in the LS, LS1, and LW1 models is completely new, although it is similar in design and construction to the 1.9-liter S-Series engine. Its maximum of 137 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque is competitive with other cars in its class, and the LS1 is in no way underpowered. I tried an LS with the standard five-speed manual transmission at the introduction, and my test LS1 was equipped with the four-speed automatic. Because of the engine's torque characteristics there is little difference in performance or fuel economy between the two transmissions, and the automatic gets my nod due to its convenience and smoothness.
CONCLUSIONS: There's a big surprise in store for the mid-sized sedan class in the form of the Saturn L- series.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 17,610 Price As Tested $ 18,220 Engine Type dual overhead cam inline 4-cylinder Engine Size 2.2 liters / 134 cu. in. Horsepower 137 @ 5800 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 135 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically- controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 106.5 in. / 190.4 in. Curb Weight 2998 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 21.9 Fuel Capacity 14.5 gal. Fuel Requirement regular unleaded gasoline, 87 octane Tires P195/65 R15 Firestone Affinity Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, ABS optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multi-link Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23 / 32 / 25 0 to 60 mph 9.8 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.309 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Carpeted front and rear floor mats $ 70 AM/FM/Cassette stereo system with 8 speakers $ 100 Transportation charge $ 440