In 1989, General Motors introduced us to an innovative new car company named Saturn, a company whose unique approach to customer service earned its compact sedans and coupes a tremendously loyal following. But when your product line consists of only compact cars, even the most loyal followers must eventually look elsewhere for their larger vehicle needs. So Saturn has finally introduced its first mid-size cars, the L-series. But is America’s friendliest car company tough enough to take on the big boys in the fiercely competitive family car mainstream?
It better be! Because entering the mid-size family car segment means going up against heavyweights like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and the Ford Taurus. To fight the good fight, the Wilmington, Delaware built Saturn L-series, that’s the LS Sedan and LW Wagon, got a lot of help from GM Europe. Germany’s Opel contributed their new Vectra chassis, stretched to a 106.5-inch wheelbase. The L-Series comes wrapped in smooth, if not particularly distinctive, plastic and steel body panels that hint strongly of its Opel heritage.
While under the hood, the base engine is an all-new 2.2-liter balanced-shaft 4-cylinder engine that will soon be used throughout the General Motors global empire. In Saturn trim it delivers 137 horsepower, and 135 pound-feet of torque in an extremely quiet manner.
Saturn’s first V-6 comes from the Opel Omega, and also powers the Saab 9-5 and Cadillac Catera. For the LS2 the 3.0-liter dual-overhead-cam engine is slightly detuned, delivering 182 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 mates only with a 4-speed automatic transmission, while the 2.2 4-cylinder comes standard with a pleasant shifting 5-speed manual.
At our test track, a V6-powered LS2 sedan nearly rocketed from 0-to-60 in 7.4 seconds, and finished the 1/4-mile in 15.7 seconds at 89 miles-per-hour. Power builds uniformly, peaking at around 5,000 rpm. Shifts are refined, if a bit lazy. There is strong reserve power for passing and overall L-Series acceleration is most impressive for its class.
Ditto the handling. Reaction by the front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link suspension, also from the Vectra, is quick and stable, though the overall feel is a little soft. The power rack-and-pinion steering delivers moderate levels of feedback. Out in the real world, the LS2 delivers a fine ride. It’s smooth, but not mushy. While not quite as European taut as the Oldsmobile Intrigue, it compares well to the Honda Accord.
Brakes are 4-wheel discs on our LS2, which stopped it from 60 in an average distance of 124 feet. ABS is optional, and though our car lacked it, good pedal feel helped us control the brake’s tendency to lock. Front discs and rear drum brakes are standard on most other models.
Of course to many families, accommodations are more important than performance. And the L-series offers buyers more overall interior room than a Honda Accord.
The cabin is wide and airy, with a clean, businesslike dash and a healthy load of standard features, and large bucket seats that are comfortable for long trips. A pollen filter is standard across the line, as are easy to use Saturn style HVAC controls. While our LS2 sedan carried a standard CD and cassette stereo.
Rear seat room is plentiful, easily accommodating tall adults. Plus, the 60/40 split folding design expands the trunk’s already healthy 17.5 cubic-feet of cargo capacity. For those with greater cargo needs, the LW lineup, GM’s only mid-size station wagon, offers 29.4 cubic-feet of easy-to-load space with the second seat up and 71.3 cubic-feet with it folded flat. The rear seat is also split 60/40. But a reinforcing bar attached to the seatback, while out of the way when fully folded, limits cargo height in split configuration. But that’s one of the few complaints that we have about the new Saturn L-Series. This is a car designed with the comfort, room, versatility, and performance that mid-size family car buyers demand.
And at prices they can afford. The base LS sedan starts at only $15,450. The LS1, at $17,190. While V6-powered LS2 models start at $20,575. Wagons carry base prices of $19,275 for the 4-cylinder LW1, and $21,800 for the LW2 with the V6.
We expect the Saturn L-Series to give established mid-size family car lines a real run for their money. In our opinion, you can’t get a better family car for less. And it shows everyone that America’s friendliest car company now has some real teeth behind the smile.
Engine: 3.0-Liter Dohc V-6
Torque: 184 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.4 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.7 Seconds @ 89 MPH
60-0 MPH: 124