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1996 Saturn SL1 Sedan Review



SEE ALSO: Saturn Buyer's Guide


It's not often that an automobile manufacturer starts up a new division. Such an action is an expensive proposition, involving creation of new design, testing, and production facilities, and a new distribution network. Most new automotive brands in the past decade have been in the high-visibility, high- status luxury field. Saturn is different. General Motors' newest division produces low-priced, economical sedans, station wagons, and sports coupes that combine state-of-the-art technology with innovative design, production, and sales techniques. The corporate culture at Saturn is very different from that which was traditional in the American industry at the time of the company's founding in the mid-1980s, emphasizing teamwork and cooperation at all levels. Distribution is unique, with Saturn "stores" selling cars at set, no- haggle prices and providing a degree of customer service normally associated with expensive luxury marques. Saturn can be seen as a research and development project for future development of all GM brands, with its mission statement to "market vehicles developed and manufactured in the United States that are world leaders in quality, cost, and customer enthusiasm through the integration of people, technology, and experience throughout General Motors." Although it is slowly being folded into the GM mainstream, Saturn is in no danger of losing its unique identity or of "falling out of orbit".

When the first Saturn sedan was sold to the public in the 1991 model year, it offered practicality and economy through the creative use of technology. For the 1996 model year, all Saturn sedans get a major restyling with increased interior space and a number of mechanical refinements. Three versions of the sedan are available: the entry-level SL, the well-equipped SL1, and the sporty SL2. We drove an SL1 for a week and found it to be a pleasant, practical, and economical car.

APPEARANCE: Although all of the body panels are new, the 1996 SL1 sedan still has the now-familiar Saturn look. The body design is more rounded and contemporary, with a definite relationship to other sedans in the GM family. The Saturn "space frame" construction, with unstressed body panels attached to a cage-like frame, made restyling simpler than for a unibody car. As before, vertical body panels are made of dent and scratch-resistant polymer. The hood, roof, and upper deck lid are steel. The passenger compartment is taller, offering increased window area and headroom. The SL1 has body-colored door handles and gray bumper fascias, and new wheel covers.

COMFORT: Much work has gone into reduction of noise, vibration, and harshness levels since the first Saturn sedan was introduced in late 1990, and the 1996 redesign adds yet more smoothness and quiet. The Saturn sedan has become a refined, civilized automobile. Head room front and rear has been increased, making the Saturn one of the better small cars for tall folks. Seat fabrics are new. The front bucket seats are higher and very comfortable. The rear bench has been redesigned for greater comfort, and folds down with a 60/40 split for extra cargo capacity. Rear-seat legroom is very good for the car's size. A new instrument panel with dual airbags was introduced last year. It continues this year. A good AM/FM radio, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and rear window defogger are standard equipment. A variety of sound system upgrades, air conditioning, power door locks and windows, keyless remote entry, and cruise control are available.

SAFETY: Every Saturn SL1 has dual airbags, deformable front and rear crumple zones, side-impact resistant door beams that meet Federal 1997 standards, height-adjustable front shoulder straps, child-security door locks, and daytime running lights. Traction control and antilock brakes are optional.

ROADABILITY: The Saturn SL1's fully-independent suspension has gotten some minor revisions that make noticeable improvements in ride quality and handling. The new, more aerodynamic body shape has less wind noise than the original style and increased window area for better visibility. These factors and additional soundproofing make the Saturn SL1 a pleasant car for around-town use or long trips. Traction control, for enhanced safety and control in adverse conditions, is now available on Saturn sedans with manual transmissions.

PERFORMANCE: The SL1 is equipped with the 100-horsepower, single overhead cam version of the Saturn 1.9-liter aluminum 4-cylinder engine. It now has sequential port fuel injection for lower emissions levels and excellent gas mileage with no sacrifice in driveability. The Saturn engine has good power for all uses. Our car had the standard 5-speed manual transmission. The optional 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic has gotten software upgrades for better operation.

CONCLUSIONS: The second-generation Saturn SL1 sedan has evolved into a roomy, refined, and economical car.


       Base Price                       $ 12,250
       Price As Tested                  $ 13,478
       Engine Type                      inline 4-cylinder, sohc
       Horsepower                       100 @ 5,000
       Torque (lb-ft)                   114 @ 2,400
       Wheelbase / Length               102.4 in. / 176.8 in.
       Transmission                     5-speed manual
       Curb Weight                      2,348 lbs.
       Pounds Per Horsepower            23.5
       Fuel Capacity                    12.8
       Fuel Requirement                 unleaded regular
       Tires                            P175/70 R14 Firestone FR680
       Brakes                           disc/drum, ABS optional
       Drivetrain                       front engine, front-wheel drive
       EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
           city / highway / observed         29/40/35
       0 to 60 mph                           10.5 sec.
       1/4 mile (E.T.)                       17.2 sec.
       Coefficient of Drag (cd)              .315