From the outside, the Saturn is not dressed to impress, but it still takes good care of itself and never shows up with day-old clothing. The famous plastic sidepanels keep away dents and rust, and the clean up quite nicely. Though the Saturn's design is not racy, it's easy to keep looking like it just came off a showroom floor.
The interior is equally utilitarian. Hard, tough plastics are everywhere. They don't try to be pretty - they just try to do the job, and with the exception of thin window cranks and fidgety A/C buttons, they succeed.
The biggest surprise about the Saturn SL2 is the more-than-needed engine. At 124hp, the DOHC 4-banger provides more juice than most of today's econo-boxes. Combined with the Saturn's thin-and-fit body (about 2500lbs), it will get you going to 60 in about 8 and 1/2 seconds. The SL1, please note, does not have this additional horsepower, and is as leisurely as a Kia Rio on Valium. The extra bit of GO! in the SL2 makes driving at least a little bit pleasurable. And yet, I still get almost 40 mpg on the highway, and 30 in the city - numbers that put most of today's treehugging, bubble-shaped economy cars to shame. This engine is really a treat for the economy-minded; I'm surprised GM hasn't revived it for newer small cars (instead they just use whatever Daewoo gives them).
The downer is the terrible 4-speed automatic transmission, which drains all power at 65mph+ because it refuses to downshift unless you stand on the gas. It can be similarly sluggish during hard acceleration, sometimes forcing the pilot to step off the gas for a moment and allow the tranny time to catch up.
The ride is stiff and sorta-sporty. Minor bumps that my wife's Kia Rio never report are easily felt in the Saturn, but the Saturn doesn't have much body roll in turns, and unlike the Rio, it never sways more than once because of a big bump.
First impressions on reliability are optimistic. The car appears to have high build quality (for it's cheap-o class).
The Bottom Line: The Saturn does everything a reasonable person would ask it to, and a little more. It's nice to drive a car that offers 40mpg on the highway, and yet doesn't drive like a sloth. Safety is also great on these vehicles in front-impact. Side impact is decent for front-seat passengers - remember, side impact airbags were just starting to show up in these years.
But most importantly, Saturn's resale value has plummeted. Let's face it - they're not as pretty as Toyotas or Hondas, and with Saturn itself transforming completely, there is no one around to tout the virtues of these cars. I picked mine up for 5k - a bargain. If you're in the market for a used economy car, take a serious look at a SL1 or SL2.