We all know that Saturn is on the bubble. Although many GM execs have been quoted as saying that the company is "committed to Saturn," several sources -- external and interal --suggest that among the four core brands The General is focusing on, Saturn isn't one of them.
Who's fault is this? Blame the birth parents.
I've watched and/or reported on Saturn from its beginning, when the it was founded in 1985 as "A Different Kind of Car Company." Then-General Motors Chairman Roger B. Smith, who made more than his share of mistakes, had a vision for a GM company and brand that could take on what were then no-so-lovingly called "the imports." The first Saturn cars, which finally came to market in 1990 as 1991 models, were anything but special. But there were so many aspects of Saturn that were.
Among them: Plastic, dent free body panels. No haggle pricing. Nordstrom levels of dealer service for cars priced more like K-Mart. Management and executives -- suits -- that didn't wear suits. Reunions at the factory for any owner of any model that wanted to come. Honest, clear advertising messages. No intent on producing luxury or sporty models (sure they only made toasters, but people buy a lot of toasters). USPs -- Unique Selling Propositions -- that made Saturn different than all the other GM brands.
Smith and Saturn's first president Skip Lafave, are long gone. Seen any new Saturns made with mostly plastic body panels lately? I haven't received an invite to a Saturn Homecoming in a long time. Over time, one by one, GM has stripped away virtually all of Saturn's USPs. Instead of being A Different Kind of Car Company, Saturn become just another Me Too GM brand.
Make no mistake: the realities of modern automobile production dictate that carmakers maximize their global chassis architectures, systems, suppliers, and such. To put it simply, developing standalone products costs more and takes longer. Yet to simply spray some branding on the same stuff you sell at several other stores and call it "differentiated" isn't good enough. People can tell the difference.
GM management has tried to bring Saturn-specific products to our market -- the Astra and the VUE, both developed and sold as Opels in other countries -- but they've not had enough impact to make a difference. The rest of the lineup is shared by one, two, or in the case of the Outlook crossover, three other GM brands. Company exec Mark LeNeve said just a week ago that "We don't have enough finances to fund all these brands." Duh.
At this point, I'm not sure if Saturn can be saved. Moreover, I'm not sure it should be. When it was something different, it served a purpose, stood a chance, and had success attracting buyers that would not have normally considered an American automobile. Now that Saturn is little more than a badge, I'm not sure it matters.
What do you think?