I own a small dealership and work with a LOT of Saturns. One of my customers has purchased three from me; the oldest is a 97 with 270,000 miles on it and still going strong.
As for tranny shift problems on automatics, changing the valve body will usually cure the reverse clunk problem. The valve body is relatively easily accessed by removing the battery and its holder and then removing the transmission cover. A transmission supply shop can supply a rebuilt valve body for somewhere around $300 or less. It's not difficult to install. If the tranny thunks in all gears, then as stated above, it's likely the line pressure solenoid, which is inside the valve body. You can replace the entire valve body or just the solenoid if you want to open the valve body. Before doing anything, though, you should check the line pressure fuses in the fuse box under the hood. These will cause a similar thunk (usually in reverse and 2nd gears).
I own a 1998 Saturn SL2 and it has about 218,000 miles on it and it runs great the only problems I have with it is a small oil leak and the dome light, also the light that shines on my speedometer. It runs great and sounds great.
I own a 1994 SL1 with 135,000 miles on it. Have had to install 2 alternators over 14 years and had the brakes done about 2 years ago. I am now looking at having to replace the clutch which is very expensive but since it has been so reliable otherwise, it's a good investment and I hope it'll last many more years. Haven't heard great things about reliability in the newer Saturn models at all so I am not sure if I would buy another one today. I NEVER use Saturn dealerships- only local mechanics that I have built a relationship with.
Got a 96 SL2 with 167K miles, no major issues (replaced alternator, radiator, will replace A/C compressor soon). Bought used in 2003 for $2600. Has been a great car.
I own a 1996 Saturn SL1 that has been mainly reliable. The only problem I had was a sensor that went bad in the engine. I took it to a mechanic who said the car was done and told me to scrap it. I took it to another guy, and he took it apart, found the bad sensor, and replaced it. The car has run good since. The main problem I had was the ceiling crumbled apart. I tore out the main ceiling and the headliner is still there. What can I do about this? What would I need to fix it myself?
Saturn SL2 2002 model -- at 35,000 miles it started bucking like mule when it shifted into 2nd and 3rd gears (automatic). Took it in to a Saturn dealer whom did repairs on the transmission -- 1,400.00.
After 1 week it started with slamming into reverse gear -- made it home -- but bucked like it did before -- the next morning phoned the dealer to return it but.. started the car, and lo and behold, a bright red puddle appeared under the front end of my car -- egads!!! I killed it and now it's bleeding all over my new driveway...
I'm very good with all maintenance - including the "disposable" rotors that are included with this model -- my dad worked for GM for many years and we bought GM vehicles, but after this piece of junk I may buy foreign -- hmmm a Hyundai with that ever appealing 100,000 mile warranty:)
I bought a brand new 1998 SL2 Saturn that has 84,000 miles, the only problem I have had was a fan motor replaced, but now my transmission is leaking very badly and the dome light does not work.
I am retired so I don't put a lot of miles on my car. I am true to having it serviced every 3,000 miles. I did have to have the headliner replaced this year. I was using the Saturn dealership up until 2 years ago, and they got so expensive to service my car that I had to find someone else.
Overall the car has performed good.
I have an 1996 SL2 AT ABS/trac with 235700 miles on it. Sole owner and maintain it according to the schedule or close to it. It's been very reliable. Changed the alternator once around 200K when it started whining (apparently is was about to die). Battery lasts about 5-6 years or so I've changed it twice now. My water pump just went out and got replaced. But yeah I've been lucky apparently or I just take good care of my car. I'm an mildly aggressive driver, like the "sports handling" but I don't overboard with it. Only complaint is that it's loud. Why can't small cars be nice and quiet like the bigger fancier cars? Any how I'm apparently lucky and got good parts on my saturn. 12 years, going strong, and still get 32+MPG the hilly Puget Sound area. Hopefully it'll last till the next gen cars (PHEVs etc) get all their wrinkles worked out and become more affordable.
Take care of your car and it'll take care of you.
I have a 1998 Saturn SL2, bought brand new in 1998. Had some mechanical problems as usual.
Had water pump replaced and other parts replaced as usual. Also had to have engine mount replaced.
Front door gaskets are also falling off. Superglue works for a little while. Otherwise, 256,000 miles later the car still works great. Trying to see how many miles I can add before junking car.
In 1997 I bought a brand new Subaru. At 100,000 miles had to have car towed to junk yard.
This particular car is great. Would love to have another just like it. Only problem is ceiling material is falling off like dandruff. Looks like a bunch of cats clawed at my ceiling. But, if this is my only problem, I have no complaints.
I do get regular oil changes and tune ups. I can't say we liked our 2000 LS200 and 2002 LS200 and now our 1998 SC. The 2000 LS broke down and had almost every part replaced The 2002 LS caught fire on the way to the dealer due to check engine light coming on. 1998 SC has a blown head gasket.
Note to GM: Don't send me an apology E-mail. All we ask is for a car we can trust and not shady dealers who troll the repair department and not cars that break down when you buy them. We also want a decent repair that lasts more than 90 days.
Your CEO should have traveled to DC in my 1998 SC and not a luxury corporate jet to beg for money. I'll bet his Saturn doesn't break down on the way home as our LS did or catch fire while driving it. I wonder what the mileage record is for a Saturn still on the road.
I have owned 3 Saturns in the 1996 to 1998 range. The first was a 96 bought around 99 or 2000. I drove it for years. It is still in the family and runs maintenance-free in spite of being driven by a 21 year old musician. The second (a 97) is no longer with us, it was rear-ended by a speeding motor home and would not operate at about 60% of its original length. (I was in it and not seriously injured.) The third is a 98 that I bought about a year ago. I drive it to work everyday and it has been totally maintenance free. It did start the infamous "clunk going into reverse" a few months back. I have found that the clunk can be avoided by giving it a couple of seconds after putting it in reverse before taking my foot off the brake. I plan to take a look at what is causing the clunk once the weather gets warmer. (I did check the motor mounts).
I have gotten excellent gas mileage with all 3 cars. I think these older Saturns are great little cars.