1996 Saturn SL SL2 1.9L DOHC from North America
Not a bad little plastic car, if you can find a nice one!
Coolant temp sensor.
Needed exhaust work.
EGR valve installed backward (!)
Valve cover leaking.
Trunk had severe leak.
Struts badly worn.
3 of 4 speakers blown.
Broken console latch due to poor design.
Clearcoat flaking badly on factory alloy wheels.
Lower right torque strut on engine bad.
Two adjusters broken on driver's side headlight.
Engine is a little buzzy.
Ride is firm, but not harsh.
Handling is tight... especially with new struts.
Seats are nice, and interior is holding up well.
Shifter is somewhat balky and imprecise.
Clutch has very little feedback/feel, though the pedal is very light.
Turning radius is a bit wide for a car this size.
Car is fairly quiet and does not have many squeaks/rattles.
Brakes are decent.
These are not bad little cars! I got mine from a guy who bought it from a wrecking yard. The car had not been hit, but it had a bad motor. He replaced the motor with one from another SL2 that had been rear-ended, drove it for a month or two, then it developed an electrical problem. After that he purchased a new Ford truck, and the Saturn sat for about two years.
When I got the car it would run... poorly... until the engine got warm. Then it would quit, and it would not restart until it had cooled down for awhile. These cars are notorious for having a poorly designed engine coolant temp sensor, and this one was no exception. The temp sensor is made of plastic instead of brass, and after awhile they crack and short out. This causes the engine computer to give the car more fuel than it needs when it is warm, and it stalls out. I replaced the temp sensor and it ran better... but not well.
The car kept throwing a diagnostic code for the EGR valve. I took the valve off, noting it's position on the engine, and then put it back on. Still threw the code. I assumed the EGR valve was bad, so I went to the wrecking yard to source another. While pulling it off, I noticed that the valve was on backwards when compared to my car. Turns out the valve on my car was put on BACKWARDS by somebody. Turned it around, and the car ran great!
It then started throwing a code for an O2 sensor. I discovered that the ground wires for the sensor were not hooked up. They must have forgot to do it when they replaced the motor. Got this stuff sorted out, along with the other issues above, and the car has been great.
Overall, these cars are a really good value if you can find a nice one. They get Honda Civic mileage, but are cheaper and not as likely to get stolen. I get 29-32 in town, and mid-30s on the freeway. Mileage is similar to what I was getting in my 1991 Toyota Corolla, but this car is bigger and roomier.
Plastic body panels will never dent or rust, and are easy and cheap to replace if you have a minor accident. These cars, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, are abundant in the local wrecking yards. GM made hundreds of thousands of them from 1991-2002, and many parts are interchangeable between ALL those years.
One thing I would suggest is avoiding the SL1... some of them have a tendency to crack their cylinder heads (read other reviews here).
All older Saturns seem to use oil... it's just something they do. By "use" I mean that they don't leak it, and don't really burn it. It just sorta disappears. My car uses about a quart every 3500-4000 miles, which is good by Saturn standards. Some of them will use a quart every 750-1000 miles. Try not to rev the hell out of the engine, keep the oil clean, and you should be fine.
Overall, these cars are pretty decent little commuters. I would certainly buy another.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 2nd May, 2010
12th Oct 2010, 23:23
Original poster here.
My '96 Saturn now has 191k, and all I have had to do in that time is change the oil and replace the front brake pads.
Go, Saturn, go! If you find a nicely maintained SL2, do not hesitate to buy it! They are underrated cars.
31st Jan 2015, 16:36
Thanks for the review. A co-worker (who is a mechanic) is selling me his 1996 Saturn SL2 (manual transmission) for $500. I look forward to getting over 30 MPG.