Cheap to buy.
Cheap to fix (if you do your own work).
Easy to fix.
Cheap to drive.
Easy to drive.
Ridiculously fuel efficient (especially the manual transmission). I get about 37 mpg average with a good mix of city/highway, and between 45-55 on highway, depending on speed.
For its year it is in top 10 most fuel efficient cars. Mileage is comparable to the early Prius, but at the cost of a replacement battery pack.
In summary, I have found this car reliable, and by far the cheapest to buy, drive, and run of anything I have owned.
I was scared to buy one years ago when I read some of the horrible reviews, but it was so cheap I couldn't resist, and now four years later I'm back to talk about it.
The number one thing to keep in mind is that these cars are mostly driven by young drivers, the poor, and people that just don't care about them at all because of their price. My father was a mechanic, and none of our cars has ever seen a shop, and I can say this car has about average reliability, above average if you consider that none of the issues were severe (expensive). A lot of the common problems are probably due to poor maintenance.
-- I can't believe stories of cylinder heads cracking 5 times when it hasn't happened to me once in 45k miles. It is very likely that the radiator cracked first, and they didn't notice until all the coolant evaporated and overheated the head. This DID happen to me, but I caught it before the coolant was empty, because this car has a low coolant light. Cracked radiators are a common problem, do not buy the cheapo aftermarket ones like I did the first time. After I got a decent quality one, hasn't cracked yet, and it's been a couple years. I thought it cracked again, but it was actually a rip in the hose. Maybe this is why people are reporting repeated crackings?
-- The other stories about the check engine light going on and off could easily be solved if the engine codes are checked with a scanner. Any decent shop will do this for free. I had this problem, and it was the EGR code and oxygen sensor. Replacing the oxygen sensor and cleaning the valve fixed it. Cleaning the EGR valve can be done by anyone, needs to be done on most cars infrequently, but a bit more on Saturns because they usually burn oil, which soots it up faster. I have only needed to do it once so far.
-- I had trouble starting it for a while, and it turned out to be rusty battery terminals. The number one cause of starting trouble is dirty battery terminals. Saturn OEM side post terminals suck, but you can get aftermarket replacements that pop in off fleabay for 10 dollars. I think a lot of reports of batteries dying or cars not starting for no reason were actually bad terminals.
-- The most annoying problem I had so far was a broken shifter bushing. It failed slowly, but I was too lazy to replace it until suddenly it snapped on a cold day, leaving me without any gears. The part costs around 20 bucks on ebay, and it took me about 10 minutes to replace.
-- The wipers have come loose, but I fixed that with thread locker. More annoyingly, the overhead lamp is junk, but you just have to bend the contacts back into place when it stops working. Don't hit it to make it work like many people do; this breaks the clips holding it to the ceiling and bends the contacts even worse. Gently take it off, and you'll see right away what needs to be done, and then pop it back in.
-- The car does burn oil, but the rate has been steady since I bought the car, and is between 1 or 2 quarts between oil changes. More in the winter. This is normal for Saturns, and the likely reason is an improper oil control ring. I have heard the problem was mostly solved in the 99 model.
-- I'm sure some of these poor reviewers have gotten lemons, but I think a lot of them gave the car a bad rap because they got the car for cheap and didn't care about it. Noticing many of the reviews listed problems like broken engine mounts, worn out clutches, pulsating brakes, loss of first/second gear in a manual, and blown out stereos within periods of a year or less, most of these are obviously due to abuse. I have had none of these problems in a fairly high miles car that I've been driving for years.