The cars we loved.
Saturn’s SL2 sedan made quite a name for itself in the early 90’s by shaking up to the American small car market. As a sedan, it offered quite a bit of performance with its ‘twincam’ four cylinder. For those wanting that performance minus two doors (or 3), there was the SC1/SC2 coupes. The first generation cars mirrored the sedans angular Oldsmobile inspired lines and they offered high value and a reasonable performance alternative to GM’s own Cavalier/Sunfire twins. GM’s new kid on the block was a fresh start up that did not have to share the old, somewhat dated components that traded amoungst ‘J’ cars. This had to make Chevrolet and Pontiac a bit envious, as the Saturn was seen as having newer technology and better build quality.
The second generation SC coupe would see drastic changes that were similar to the sedan. For the first time both the sedan and coupe shared the same wheelbase, making the roomier coupe easier to get into and out of. All new body panels would continue the dent-proof theme of before on a steel space frame. The edges were rounded out and from some angles, the new SC looked like a bloated Ford Probe. The SC still seemed to take many of its design cues from other GM cars, mostly from Oldsmobile, but managed to retain a look that identified it as a Saturn. At around $18,000 loaded the SC2 was still a bargain with close to Geo Metro-like mileage and lower end Talon/ Eclipse performance. The new SC2 and SC1 looked more alike than the previous generation. The biggest exterior distinction was the addition of small fog lights in the air intake of the SC2 models. SC2’s also could be had with 15′ alloy wheels, where the SC1 usually came fitted with wheel covers.
The heart of the SC2 was its 1.9 litre DOHC in-line four cylinder engine. It produced a healthy 124 hp. The words ‘Twincam’ on the cam covers looked suspiciously Toyota-like, but the engine was a homegrown Saturn effort. The SC1 used a SOHC version of the same engine for 100 hp. The performance minded SC2 was also very efficient, thanks to its light weight (under 2,500lb.) and low drag coefficient (.31), it could reach highway gas mileage in the high 30’s. The lighter weight would also aid in performance. 0 to 60 could come in 8.6 seconds with cars equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission. That was faster than the Civic EX and on par with the Cavalier Z24. The 130 mph speedometer was not just for show as the SC2 could get within 5mph of burying the needle. Previously owners complained of engine and wind noise at highway speeds, so Saturn added more sound deading to address the problem. Once again interior noise levels were reduced significantly, but the cabin of the SC2 at 65 mph was still nosier than a Civic EX at the same speed.
Where sophistication was concerned, the Saturn SC2 trailed the Honda, but was a notch above GM’s “J” cars. Thanks to the SC2’s fully independent suspension, it had sporting road manners. Most of GM’s small cars still made due with some manner of rear torson beam suspension. The MacPherson front and tri-link rear setup in the SC2 was not as sophisticated as the double wishbone in the Honda, but it got the job done. Roll bars at both ends insured better performance than the SC1 (which only had a front roll bar). Like other small cars from GM, the SC2 featured anti-lock brakes and a stainless steel exhaust. Anti lock brakes was becoming an option on many upmarket cars, but GM had offered it on inexpensive cars since 1991, with some Saturns being no exception. Inside, there were noticeable improvements in surfaces textures. The rounded edges dash with its pod-like center stack was carried over from the previous car, but looked more at home with the new soft edged exterior. Leather seating was also available, an option unavailable on the Cavalier Z24 for a while.
In 1999 a small rear third door on the driver side was added. This gave the SC more functionality than most coupes and was the start of the third door theme being carried over to future models like the SC’s replacement; the Ion. The third door concept was eventually used by Mazda in its RX-8 sports car, an example of a Saturn innovation that never got traction when Saturn was the exclusive user.
The SC2 and to some extent the SC1 were well built cars that did not really catch on with the general public or the tuner crowd. Strangely, they were cheaper but better built than the Cavalier Z24, but considerably less popular. Somehow the ratty, mechanically dated ‘J’ car appealed to a much larger crown. The SC may have been too Japanese like for the traditional ‘Heartland’ coupe buyer (they were buying pickups instead), but not Japanese enough to appeal to the majority of the small coupe market that preferred Honda, Toyota or Nissan. Saturn continued to struggle with the issue of popularity for its coupes, even as they were leaders in quality and buyer experience surveys. Saturn tied Lexus in 1998 in a J. D. Powers quality survey, but the accolade went un noticed with buyers in general. The Ion replaced the SC in 2003, but did little to improve Saturn’s small coupe sales.