1997 SATURN SL BASE
Used Car - 1997 Saturn SL Base in Mesa, Az
Actual costs may vary.
Major Accidents, Lemon History and Odometer Problems
» Get A Free CARFAX Record Check
1997 Saturn SL ReviewThis car review is specific to this model, not the actual vehicle for sale.
Value and fun in a design home run.
It's difficult to find more quality, more good looks, more fun and more value in a coupe than Saturn has given its pair of two-doors, the SC1 test driven here and the slightly pricier SC2.
For 1997 the coupes are wearing a completely new aerodynamic skin. New, yet it manages to carry over some of the styling cues from the distinctive look of the 1991-1996 originals. And there's a new interior to go with the exterior changes.
Much less obvious but mechanically more important, the coupes are now on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as the sedans and wagons. That means a 3.2-inch increase in wheelbase which means a more stable platform for improved ride quality and more interior headroom.
The SC1--from $12,895, including destination--has a 1.9-liter, four-cylinder, single overhead cam engine that produces 100 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 114 pound-feet of torque at 2400 rpm. Our test car had the standard five-speed manual transmission, but a four-speed automatic is optional.
The SC2 uses a double overhead cam 16-valve version of the same engine that produces 124 hp. In addition to the horsepower, the SC2 comes with more comfort and convenience features, bigger wheels and more aggressive tires, which adds up to a premium of about $1200 compared to the SC1.
Sedan pricing starts with the very bare bones Saturn SL, from $10,995 and the wagons begin with the SW1, at $12,595.
The word value popped up back there. The ever-popular V word has been a key to Saturn's marketing philosophy from the start, and GM's newest division is still serious about it.
Our test car had an option package that included power locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, air conditioning, power remote right-hand mirror and cruise control. In addition, the optional ABS included traction control. Add in the $400 destination charge and the total was $15,450.
Model to model comparisons are difficult to make because different manufacturers roll items into packages, but a quick check of base price--including destination charge--and air conditioning only revealed: Cavalier, $12,275; Neon, $11,895; Eclipse, $15,141; Avenger, $15,944; Probe, $15,575. So we think Saturn's value claim stands up to scrutiny.
About the new exterior look. Saturn proudly points out that 'every exterior panel, all glass and light assemblies have received a striking makeover.' Agreed. All coupes have exposed headlamps this year. Previously, the headlamps on SC2 models were pop-ups.
The roof takes a gentle arch to the rear glass, then down to a stubby deck lid. The rear bumper is massive and is a significant styling feature. It's also body-colored, unlike basic editions of the sedan and wagon. The taillights wrap around and the trunk lid is covered with reflective materials of various colors--red, yellow, white. The trunk lid opens to vertical and the lift-over is quite low, so loading is easy. The rear seatback has a 60/40 split.
All in all, the SC1 is about as good looking as coupes get these days, unless you're enamored of such free radicals as the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon.
All Saturn bodies use a space frame which allows the use of polymer doors, fenders, quarter panels and fascias, a feature that helps keep Saturn owners so loyal. This material is highly ding- and dent- resistant, and major repairs require the simple removal of a panel. The material is also rust-proof and recyclable.
Saturns use a standard MacPherson strut front suspension with a tri-link design at the rear--two unequal-length links to control lateral movement, with a single longitudinal link looking after fore and aft movement.
Brakes are disc in front, drums at the rear. As mentioned, the ABS is optional ($695), but includes traction control, which can be switched off if the driver desires. Tires are a modestly hefty P175/70R-14 for all Saturns. The option for the SC1 is P185/65R-15 tires on aluminum wheels.
The SC1 is low slung, so getting in is a bit like, literally, dropping in. And getting out is something of a climb.
One tester's initial reaction to the interior was 'plain, but not unattractive.' Good summation. The cloth is good quality and the pattern pleasingly subtle. The theme is ovoid shapes and rounded corners, with a modular center pod for audio and climate controls.
Simplicity is repeated in the instrument cluster which has a speedo, a tach, a fuel gauge and a temp gauge. Period. We've always held that sporty cars should have a few extra instruments in keeping with the sports car heritage. But that means extra cost, so if you want a tachometer you need the SC2. The steering wheel is adjustable up and down, so what instruments are there are visible to all.
There is no lidded console, just an open catch-all tray. Two cupholders sit in front of the shift lever, one with a removable ash tray insert.
The seating position is close to the floor, the window ledge high, so shorter occupants may feel a bit deep into the SC1.
We found the seats rather uncomfortable, even on short runs. The bottom cushion is short front to rear and lacks support for even average-height occupants. Similarly, lateral support for back and thighs is less than we would like.
The driver's seat fore and aft travel has been increased an inch this year. With that seat in position for a six-foot driver, a six-foot rear passenger found his knees virtually under his chin. The rear seats are little more than padded depressions, so don't sentence friends to extended periods back there.
But let's not make too much about the back seats. This is a small sport coupe built for fun, not rear seat comfort. Sedan and wagon models have more rear seat room, though this is not a strong suit in terms of the best in this class.
The SC1 is not quick. Those 100 horses do a decent job of moving this sweet little coupe down the road at a moderate pace, but it's not up to anything much more demanding. According to Saturn, if you wring out all the performance in there, you will hit 60 mph from stop in 10.5 seconds. The question, of course, is do you need to get there any more quickly?
If you do, you need the SC2. And you do not need the performance that goes with the base engine paired with an automatic transmission in any Saturn. Automatics will work better with the twin cam engine.
The engine, transmission and clutch make a happy threesome. The shifts are smooth, the clutch is linear, which means there is no sudden engagement point, and the engine delivers its power in an even--if tepid--flow.
The handling is quite good, we found, with the suspension happy over almost any surface. Over a favorite piece of twisty road the SC1 could be persuaded to take on a more aggressive personality if we shifted into third, and left it there, squirting from corner to corner and dealing only with the throttle and the steering wheel.
That's for when the boy/girl racer impulse hits. In the normal mode, the SC1 easily settles into a satisfying motoring rhythm. It feels light and compact, the engine sounds are muted, wind noise very low. The SC1 is simply fun to drive, thanks to its teriffic looks and nimbleness.
The redesign of the SC1 is a stunning success. We can't fault a curve or a crease. The interior, while simple, is also well executed. Our only complaint there is with the seats, although that's a significant complaint.
In the horsepower column, the SC1 trails the competition badly. The Neon has 132 horsepower, the Cavalier 120 and the new Escort ZX2 130. But the SC1 is built for drivers who do not attach much importance to horsepower numbers. It's for value-conscience drivers who appreciate all the SC1 delivers in the way of features for a good price, as well as being the best-looking (save the Acura CL) small coupe on the road.
Spring Hill, TN.
Options As Tested
ABS, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power right-side mirror, cruise control, keyless remote entry.