1999 Saturn SL2

By November 10, 1999
1999 Saturn SL2

We can’t help thinking that Saturn would have revolutionized the car-buying business if the unique plastic-bodied cars it introduced in 1990 had driven as well as a Toyota Corolla. This year, with a redesigned engine lineup, they’re a whole lot closer to the benchmark.

Saturn’s no-nonsense lineup consists of a coupe, a sedan, and a wagon, all based on the same platform. Each body style is distinguished by a base model and a more-powerful model. It’s useful to think of the numbers in the model line as standing for the number of camshafts in the engine. The SL1 sedan comes with a single-cam engine, while the SL2 is powered by the more-powerful twin-cam. The prices of the sedans are reasonable, and we think the quicker, pricier SL2 is worth a look even for budget shoppers.

Saturn has been winning accolades for high resale values. Its cars are also known for their low maintenance and repair costs. But Saturn is best known for the enthusiasm of its workforce. Buying and servicing a Saturn is designed to be a pleasant process; the company has been named best overall nameplate in sales satisfaction by the J.D. Power research firm for four consecutive years.

The only thing diluting all this good value is that, in the past, the cars have been perceived to be unrefined and, well, cheap. Most of this can be blamed on the previous noisy engine and drivetrain.

To address this, both Saturn engines have been completely redesigned for 1999. The new engines are vastly smoother. Power output remains exactly what it was last year, which is 100 horsepower for base cars (SL1) and 124 horsepower for higher-priced (SL2) models, but fuel-efficiency has been improved.

Walkaround

The look of the latest Saturn sedan hasn’t changed much since it was restyled for 1996. The plastic panels that make up the body are bonded to a steel subframe. These body pieces are flexible enough that minor dings don’t form lasting impressions. And they won’t rust.

Saturn’s sedan lineup consists of the $11,035 SL, $11,735 SL1, $13,195 SL2. An automatic transmission adds $860. Anti-lock brakes are $695. A $1,445 option package for the SL2 adds cruise control, power windows, power door locks, remote keyless entry and security system, right power mirror and alloy wheels. A similar package for the SL1 goes for $2,055. Air conditioning is standard on SL2, but adds $960 to the SL and SL1.

With all the power amenities and an automatic transmission, as well as flashy things like a spoiler and aluminum wheels, our SL2 tallied up $16,650.

Interior Features

The Saturn sedans seat five, four comfortably. SL1 and SL2 come fully trimmed in cloth, while the SL uses cloth and vinyl. Leather trim is available for the SL2 for $700. Front seats are comfortable with built-in lumbar support, though the seat bottom cushion is a little short.

The unconventional Saturn interior features a central pod that contains climate and audio controls. The instrument panel, protruding center console, and large switches and stalks make the car easy to operate, even if you’re wearing big gloves. The forward portion of the front console has an ashtray that can be moved from side to side or removed entirely to provide twin cupholders.

Reduced-force airbags are standard, of course. The biggest change for ’99 inside the sedan are longer buckles that are easier to reach with the front shoulder belts. Shoulder belt height adjusters have also been improved to enhance ease of operation. A child seat holdout mechanism makes it easier to thread the belt webbing through the child safety seat by not yanking against you when the seat belt is fully extended.

Driving Impressions

GM worked hard to reduce noise and vibration in the 1999 Saturn engines. Pistons were made smaller and lighter, connecting rods were made longer, more counterweighting was added to the crankshaft, the block was redesigned and reinforced, the timing chain was made smaller. The cylinder head was redesigned on the twin-cam engine. The list goes on and on.

All that work paid off. The new twin-cam engine is so smooth that power delivery is now nearly invisible. It’s also much quieter at cruising speeds. You don’t notice the previous sand-papery feel of engine vibrations through the steering wheel and pedals. Your ears feel 20 feet farther from the sounds of the engine, gearbox and driveshafts. The noises you do hear are not as annoying. The SL2 engine now hums along happily with a pleasant roar in the middle of the rev range. It no longer feels like it’s going to blow up every time you hold the gas all the way down for an extended period.

A larger muffler produces a much more pleasing sound. Where the earlier twin-cam Saturn engine sounded like a mis-matched quartet of singers, the new motor sounds like a solo performer without the irritating backup singers. If you were blindfolded, you’d never guess you were riding in a Saturn.

The redesigned engine is also more efficient; it delivers an impressive 35 mpg on the EPA highway fuel economy test, an improvement of 1 mpg over last year’s car.

Fortunately, all this refinement doesn’t take the fun out of driving a Saturn. Even though the SL2 isn’t as quick as a Dodge Neon or Honda Civic, it offers adequate performance in city traffic.

Steering and handling is one of Saturn’s strongest suits. The SL2 seems to provide more accurate steering response than a Dodge Neon. The SL2 comes with 185/65R15 tires that provide good roadholding in sharp corners. Though it rides well, the softly tuned springs allow the body to lean over in turns. Softer springs also require slowing a bit more for railroad crossings and rough roads to avoid bottoming out the suspension.

To save money building the cars, Saturn has changed the rear brakes from discs to drums, something we don’t think rates as progress. In all fairness, however, base Hondas and Toyotas make do with drums in back as well. We tested the optional anti-lock brakes on a variety of surfaces, and found adequate stopping distances. The characteristic pulsing feedback from the anti-lock brakes will seem intrusive only to luxury car drivers. What’s more, the ABS-activated traction control system is a worthwhile aid for lead-footed drivers on slick roads. A switch on the console allows the driver to turn off traction control for those times when a bit of wheelspin is needed to get unstuck or to accelerate at maximum levels.

Similar in construction to a Honda transmission, Saturn’s automatic transmission uses helical inline gears normally associated with manual transmissions instead of the planetary gearsets that make up most automatic designs. The biggest benefit of this design is that flat-towing the car in neutral behind a motor home won’t prematurely wear out the transmission. Perhaps that’s why we see so many Hondas and Saturns leashed to the back of big camping rigs.

The standard five-speed manual, we’ve found, is light to shift, but the distance the lever travels during each shift is longer than those in Nissan’s Sentra and Honda’s Civic. Also, there is no distinct feel in the clutch pedal.

Summary

The small car market is not booming in these days of cheap gasoline. As a result, Saturn has started to offer aggressive leasing deals that take advantage of its reputation of maintaining high residual values.

Toyota might have been forced out of the small car business if the 1999 Saturn SL2 had been introduced a decade ago. During that time, however, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota have refined each successive edition of their own small cars. So it’s a crowded field of good small cars.

But now, buyers can take advantage of the unique hassle-free Saturn dealer network and come away with a nimble-feeling compact car that offers some quality. While Saturn is renowned for its pleasant buying and owning experience, finally building a car that feels like it is worth more than its price may be its greatest achievement to date.

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