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SEE ALSO: Saturn Buyer's Guide

1996 SATURN SC1

by Tom Hagin

SPECIFICATIONS

     Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 12,195
     Price As Tested                                    $ 14,155
     Engine Type                            1.9 liter I4 w/SPFI*
     Engine Size                                 116 cid/1901 cc
     Horsepower                                   100 @ 5000 RPM
     Torque (lb-ft)                               114 @ 2400 RPM
     Wheelbase/Width/Length                    99.2"/67.6"/174.6
     Transmission                              Five-speed manual
     Curb Weight                                     2281 pounds
     Fuel Capacity                                  12.8 gallons
     Tires  (F/R)                                     P175/70R14
     Brakes (F/R)                                      Disc/drum
     Drive Train                  Front-engine/front-wheel-drive
     Vehicle Type                        Four-passenger/two-door
     Domestic Content                                 95 percent
     Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                              0.33

PERFORMANCE

     EPA Economy, miles per gallon
        city/highway/average                            29/40/35
     0-60 MPH                                       11.0 seconds
     1/4 mile (E.T.)                       17.3 seconds @ 78 mph
     Top Speed (Est.)                                    107 mph
     * Sequential port fuel injection

It's hard to believe that the Saturn automobile has been on our roads for nearly seven years but the Saturn idea began long before that - 1982 to be exact. The new company's philosophy included no-haggle pricing, unusual marketing and a pleasant dealership experience for shoppers. It became revolutionary concept that is only just now being adopted by some used car mega-dealers around the country.

This week we test Saturn's entry-level coupe, the SC1, and find that it's still a no-nonsense economy car with a very loyal following.

OUTSIDE - Saturn's cars are constructed in a unique way. Dent and corrosion-resistant polymer body panels are attached to an unusual steel space frame, which is very rigid, yet lightweight. But its body isn't made entirely of plastic. The hood, roof and rear deck lid are steel, which provides interior protection by absorbing energy during a crash. The coupe underwent a slight styling change in 1995, and isn't scheduled for a makeover until next year. It still looks relatively modern, and has aged well considering the current crop of rounded cars available in today's market. SC1 models come standard with 14-inch wheels with full hubcaps, while this year a 15-inch aluminum wheel and larger tires are optionally available.

INSIDE - Dual airbags and three-point seat belts replaced the original awkward motorized belts, and the instruments are quite large and very easy to read. The bucket seats of the SC1 are low, perhaps too low for some drivers, but provide enough support to keep back fatigue from becoming a problem during long-distance driving. A neat touch is found in the space beneath the removable ashtray which becomes a contoured cupholder, and all Saturn models come with a tilt steering column. A split-folding rear seat greatly increases trunk space, which is easily accessed since it features a low lift-over height. Our test SC1 was outfitted with just the right amount of optional equipment: air conditioning ($920), carpeted floor mats ($55), and an upscale stereo system ($295). Buyers of Saturn's $1,815 "Package 1" will receive power windows, door locks and right outside mirror, plus A/C, cruise control and remote keyless entry.

ON THE ROAD - When the base Saturn models debuted in 1990, just 85 horses (about average for economy cars) were on tap. The SC1 is now powered by a 1.9 liter inline four cylinder engine that gives 100 horsepower and 114 lb-ft of torque. New this year is a more emissions- efficient sequential port fuel injection system, which replaces the previous model's multi-port unit. Mechanically it's a spartan design which uses a single overheard camshaft and two valves per cylinder, but Saturn has gone to great lengths to quiet its engines. Where previous models sent engine noise drumming into its cockpit at virtually any speed, the new engines are audible only under heavy throttle. Acceleration is good, too, and zipping into traffic won't cause panic. Equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission owners can expect the SC1 to average about 35 mpg - quite a bit more under frugal driving.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - SC1 uses four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front, and a link-type rear setup. On the highway, the ride is predictable, but not especially smooth. Potholes in the pavement transmit firm jolts inside (typical of an inexpensive coupe), but a full load in back tends to smooth things considerably. The power steering system gives plenty of road feel, but is somewhat heavy. Uplevel Saturn models are equipped with speed-sensitive variable effort steering, which works much better. New this year is the availability of traction control on manual-transmission models using an anti-lock braking system (ABS). Traction-control limits the amount of wheelspin under acceleration, such as when accelerating on ice. It can be de-activated as well, as some conditions warrant. Braking is achieved with front disc and rear drum brakes, with ABS offered as an option.

SAFETY - Dual airbags and side-impact beams are standard; ABS is optional.

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