1994 Saturn SL SL2 1.9 DOHC from North America

Summary:

The best small American car of the 90s, for whatever that's worth

Faults:

Pathetically, 5 problems have sprung up in the past 5,000 miles alone:

The odometer quit at 70,000.

A little after that, the ignition switch stopped working properly, no longer recognizing when the key has been removed (which gets the warning chime blaring whenever the door is open).

Then the car began making a high-pitched squealing noise upon startup about half of the time; it turned out to be a broken serpentine belt tensioner.

Finally, a random knocking noise emerged from the rear at low speeds (sounded sort of like a loose Coke can in the trunk), which a mechanic said is probably a broken suspension bushing.

Random electrical issues also spring up sporadically -- twice it wouldn't start, another time the check engine light went on.

At some point in the past (I got it used), the seat leather ripped markedly and the headliner started falling off. Also, the turn signal lever buzzes against the steering column (bad design).

General Comments:

Having owned most of the small Japanese cars of the 90s, I figured I'd try a Saturn SL2 -- the only domestic entry to get acclaim back in the day. I'd say the respect was deserved: this is a good-looking, nice-driving car that, according to Consumer Reports, is the only reliable American car of the 20th century (even if my own ownership experience doesn't support this).

For sure, it has character. In the SL2 (but not SL1) is a twin-cam engine that pumps out 124 HP -- good for 0-60 in 9 seconds with the automatic, and also returns 27 MPG. It has quick steering that gives good feel of the road, plus decent tire grip (another SL2 exclusive thanks to 15" wheels). The pedals are well-weighted, and models equipped with anti-lock brakes get 4-wheel-discs that feel solid. Ride quality can be a little jumpy, but is usually reasonable. Aside from the absurd Ford Explorer-like turning circle, there's nothing unusual to report about the drive.

Back in the day, the press made a habit of complaining about the engine's loud and crappy drone. I think the main reason this was an issue is that Saturn was one of the first to use a timing chain (everything besides the Nissan Sentra used a timing BELT), which is inherently noisier but promises lower costs in the long-run. Here in the 21st century, everyone else has now switched to a chain, and the Saturn doesn't sound much worse. So it was just ahead of its time.

But if Saturns drive well and last long, their interiors leave a lot to be desired. The quality of materials is atrocious, and everything housed within the dashboard is kind of ugly. The shape of the center console is odd and useless, the glovebox opens the wrong way, and the lone cupholder is a flimsy afterthought. Taller people might take issue with the Saturn being only 5'5" (roughly 3 inches below average -- part of the reason it looks cool), and don't expect any person taller than that to fit in the back seat, which is even less comfortable than the front seats. The turn signal lever manages to feel both soggy and stiff. The speakers sound horrendous, though the ones in front are at least easy to swap out (just pry off the grilles with a screwdriver). Finally, the motorized seat belts were pretty out of date even in 1994. At least the controls are laid out well, thanks to Saturn being the first GM car to emulate Japanese ergonomics.

Despite its problems (and the problems my car gave me), I'd still recommend picking up a Saturn SL2. Go for a 94, which has a cooler interior than the 95+s, and a cooler exterior than the 96+s.

Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Don't Know

Review Date: 24th June, 2012

1994 Saturn SL SL1 1.9 from North America

Summary:

Low quality, incredibly safe, economical car

Faults:

Odometer broke at 68,000 miles.

Speedometer only worked up to 70 mph, and then started going backwards.

Water pump went out, cheap and easy fix.

Leaked oil like crazy.

Reverse quit working permanently.

Second gear went out, replaced the solenoid in the valve body for $90, and it started working again.

AC quit, replaced compressor and still didn't work. Most likely from a clog in the lines (system refused to pressurize).

Almost every plastic interior piece broke or fell off over time (dash, console, window trim, etc.)

General Comments:

Even with the shoddy build quality and mechanical issues, this car was extremely reliable and got great gas mileage.

Unfortunately these came with a terrible automatic transmission that burns out valve body solenoids, and wears out reverse either in the valve body or input shaft. The 1.9 L engine is cheap and easy to work on, and never let me down, although it did leak a lot of oil.

Also, it got great gas mileage, both city and highway.

I wouldn't have guessed it by looking at it, but it was incredibly safe as well, since it met a tragic end on the highway, totalling the car, but leaving me completely unharmed.

Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? No

Review Date: 11th April, 2012