Imported compact sedans did much to eat up US market share in the 1980s, and so General Motors responded with its own unique formula.
Last week, we covered a 1982 Toyota Corolla Tercel found streetside in San Francisco. That Corolla Tercel summed up a lot of what made ’80s Japanese cars so popular in the US – it was simple and reliable.
This was a departure from the perception of American cars, which were departing the 1970s in more practical downsized versions that nevertheless prioritized styling and long options lists above consistent build quality and durability.
Still, that old American flair was prized by buyers of richly-appointed Honda Accord LXs and Toyota Camry LEs, with their shiny exterior trim and cushy velour interiors. Buyers wanted something with style that was free of the American-car stigma.
That’s where GM’s Saturn division came in. Its first entry, the Saturn S-Series, combined a distinct look with a novel structure to woo import buyers.
The Saturn’s plastic exterior panels were hailed as a breakthrough in sparing owners the dings and dents of shopping carts and other car doors. More than 20 years after being produced, this SL1 shot in a San Francisco Costco parking lot shows how those panels visually loosened up over time, either by cracking or having whole chunks taken from them.
The cracks end up being analogous to the dings you’d probably see on a metal-bodied Chevy Cavalier from this period, though you probably wouldn’t be able to zip-tie the Cavalier back together like this.
A downside of the plastic was the wideness of the gaps between the panels, which looked even wider on a white car. This trunk lid exaggerates that by being upwardly askew, but the surrounding panels illustrate the somewhat random fit and finish the plastics lent the SL1.
Compensating for that was this Saturn’s bold style. The S-Series was designed when plain little imports like the Corolla Tercel were filling US highways. We talked about the Corolla Tercel’s lack of tumblehome, with side glass that had barely the slightest curve to it, seen below.
Compare that to the Saturn’s expanses of swoopy panes that debuted about a decade later, when the S-Series first hit showrooms for the 1991 model year. GM clearly thought that styling would be a compelling way to one-up the imports.
Few other compact sedans at the time had the Saturn’s sleek flush-mounted glass…
…and even fewer had such a tilted-back angle to their windshields.
The greenhouse shaping wrapped smoothly from the windshield over to the sides…
…and the roof panel was a color-keyed pod above the wraparound rear glass.
You wouldn’t find such elaborate rear glass in other compact sedans, though it existed elsewhere in the GM stable – in the sedan version of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
This SL1’s modernity extends to its front end, with an expression resembling that of a kind robot.
Saturn didn’t survive GM’s bankruptcy, partly because the massive investment that launched the division wasn’t sustained, and its products became dated. They still appealed to Saturn’s core faithful, but the distinguishing features of this SL1 were only mildly developed over time.
Meanwhile, buyers had long since moved on to the next versions of compact-car style. But this SL1 reminds us of when Saturn was the one that got everyone’s attention, at least for a little while.