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New Car/Review

Road impressions: 2000 Saturn SL1
America's Trabant.

Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

I don't know how many of our American readers are familiar with a car called Trabant but in Eastern and Central Europe there is nobody who would not instantly know all about that little two stroke minimalist machine from the former East Germany. Made of plastic it provided millions of comrades with an alternative to waiting for buses and trains. It was slow, it was smelly, it was uncomfortable. Had the Berlin Wall not fallen in 1989 they would still be making it and in all probability it would be like the Saturn I have been driving lately. Oh it modest or what?!

I cannot remember the last time I dreaded getting into a car as much as when I had to get into this 15 thousand dollar shame on General Motors for the second time. Why the second time I hear you ask. Well, first time round I drove just for a few miles which was enough to give me a monumental backache. The 4-cylinder engine was noisy, the whole car reminded me of an old song which went something like " shake, rock and roll". I don't remember it word for word but you get my drift. Abysmal. Wheelspin in first gear followed by a total lack of torque. If you want to pass anyone-and your chances are limited to buses, cyclists and pedestrians- you'd better change down two gears otherwise it will take for ever. By the time I reached the airport I was hoping that somebody might steal it during my absence.

By now you probably think that I am being unreasonable to something lots of people pay money for. Well, I did some market research and those who've driven it hated it. They all recalled the advertising campaign when the shopping trolley was driven into the side of the car and as one of my neighbors pointed out-it's a sad day if all Saturn can talk about is that the doors bounce back upon minor impact. Vow! Talk about diverting attention. I can't blame them in a way, had I been the copywriter at the ad agency I probably would have done the same. What could they have said. "Listen to the ancient, basic 8 valve 1.9 cylinder engine?" or "Save on your medical bills, your kidney stones will exit without surgery" or "Your children-as long as they are under 5 years of age will enjoy sitting in the back"i.e. I challenge anyone over the age of six to sit behind a six foot tall driver for more than a mile without complaining. The thinness and nastiness of the cheapest plastic mouldings some clever cost cutter in the finance department imposed on the engineers has to be seen to be believed, it really is yuk, yuk, yuk, all the way.

How in this day and age of cars like the Ford Focus they can sell even one Saturn is beyond me and is probably due to the persuasive powers of the salesmen. The Focus was voted Car of the Year in Europe and it also won several major awards in the United States. It costs between 12 and 15 grand and the difference is chalk and cheese. The new Beetle may cost a fraction more but again, .it is in a different league by a country mile. 15 thousand dollars is a lot of money and there are literally millions of very good second hand cars on the market.

I understand that there is a new, improved Saturn on the way with a 2.2 liter four valves per cylinder engine which is supposed to be a lot better. Well, it could not be any worse, that's for sure. GM are a funny lot. They do certain things very well. The Suburban I drove the other day was just outstanding in every way. The new Oldsmobile Aurora was also a huge step in the right direction. Maybe one day the company will get around to doing a reasonable imitation of the Focus. They could do an awful lot worse and it would not be a minute too soon.