Saturn finally launches its growth mission


NEW YORK – Saturn has been long on promises, short on new products for years. But, finally, the expansion is under way.

“We’ve told the world we would revitalize the brand. Now we’re showcasing what we’re going to do,” said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn general manager.

Lajdziak unveiled four vehicles at a media preview of the New York Auto Show:

• A midsize Aura sedan to replace the dull and now discontinued L-Series;

• A turbocharged Red Line edition of its Sky roadster;

• A midsize Outlook crossover that seats up to eight;

• A concept called Prevue that hints at styling changes coming when the Vue sport utility is redesigned, probably for 2008.

The first three bow this year.

“Rick (Wagoner, GM chairman) laid out a plan for recovery and this is part of it,” she said of the expanded lineup.

If only Saturn did this a few years ago.

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” Lajdziak shot back in an interview here. “We’ve been able to remain successful in the marketplace with a limited product portfolio, and I can’t wait to capitalize on the new products to shore us up in a big way.”

Saturn sold 213,000 units in 2005, up from 211,000 in 2004, thanks in large part to the Vue, which helped offset midsize sedan declines with the departure of the L-Series.

“Saturn has been a laggard when it comes to new vehicles, so expanding the lineup is a good sign,” said Catherine Madden, senior analyst with Global Insight. “One of the criticisms is that GM targeted Saturn to fight the Japanese but without expanding the lineup, they’ve lost buyers.”

While sales rose to 213,000 units in 2005, they’ve fallen steadily since topping 280,000 units in 2002.

Saturn also has responded to gripes that GM has been slow to bring out hybrids.

Lajdziak said the Aura will come out with a choice of V-6 gasoline engines this fall and add a gas/electric next spring.

Aura is built on the same platform as the Pontiac G6 and Chevrolet Malibu Maxx now and the next-generation Malibu due out for 2008.

But it will be a “mild” hybrid like the Vue Green Line. The gas engine will shut off at the stop light and a battery pack will provide a power assist at restart. The batteries, however, don’t kick in at other speeds to take the load off the gas engine.

The 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe will be the first GM dual-mode hybrid in which the battery pack will provide power boosts to relieve the load on the gas engine.

While Saturn has new products coming, none will be built at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant, putting the fate of that facility in doubt.

The compact Ion coupe and sedan ceases production at Spring Hill at the end of this year, or early next year, leaving only the Vue there. The next generation Vue, expected for 2008, isn’t slated for Spring Hill.

“We have nothing to announce about Spring Hill,” Lajdziak said. “GM hasn’t assigned anything there as yet. We’ll see what fits.”

Though Ion goes away, Lajdziak said Saturn will get a new small car, she just won’t say what or when.

“We aren’t going to get a version of the Cobalt; we aren’t going to go down that path,” she said of settling for a derivative of the compact Chevrolet.

“We aren’t going to walk away from small cars. We’ll have an announcement at the right point in time, but we aren’t ready to say anything now. We’re looking at alternatives.”

It’s likely there will be a gap between Ion’s departure and the arrival of its successor. Saturn is expected to build a stockpile of Ions to fill the void.

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