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2001 Saturn L200 Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $15,000 to $20,000 Mid-Size Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person who is looking for an inexpensive mid-sized family sedan that is low maintenance and reliable.
Comparable cars in this class: Buick Century, Chevrolet Malibu,  Chrysler Cirrus, Daewoo Leganza, Dodge Stratus, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 626,  Mitsubishi Gallant, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry  
When GM rolled the first Saturn off the assembly line in 1990,they introduced a radical new way to build and market automobiles. In fact, their people-oriented approach was considered so experimental at thetime that,rather than risk any of their main divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile,Buick, Cadillac, GMC), they created a completely new and autonomous Saturn divisionwhich would sink or swim on its own merit.

For this venture, GM had also taken the revolutionary step of creating a partnership with the UnitedAuto Workers, foregoing the traditional, adversarial relationship that isstill typical between management and the unions. Cars would be assembled by work teams thathad decision-making authority on the best way to do their jobs and minimal interference fromupper management.  This and the excellent working environment at the newfactory in Spring Hill, Tennessee made for happy workers.

This bold experiment continued in the showrooms where Saturn set a no-hagglepolicy, adding just enough markup to provide a fair profit for the dealer with littleincentive to discount the already low sticker price.  In addition they requiredtheir dealers to pay "sales consultants" fixed salaries, rather thanthe traditional commission-based pay that was based on how many cars they sold.  Imagine howamazed consumers were at thefriendly, professional treatment and the lack ofsales pressure that they found in Saturn showrooms.  Imagine their surprise at being charged a fair price without having to engage in averbal wrestling match with a salesperson.

Saturn has won numerous accolades for this total commitment to customer satisfaction. In 1991 they demonstrated the degree of their commitment when they found that 1,836 carshad beenfilled with defective antifreeze that could cause engine damage.  Instead of repairing these cars, Saturnexchanged them for new cars.  The cost of this decision was morethan offset by the positive press that it brought them.

After a decade of building compact cars, GM recognized that the time had comefor Saturn to offer a "grown up" car for their loyal customer base tomove up to.  So Saturn set out to create a mid-sized car worthy of theirreputation: one that could compete in a crowded market segment that includescars like the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus and Honda Accord.  The result is the Saturn L Series, a mid-size four-door sedan and station wagonthat have a number of interesting features, not the least of which is Saturn'strademark dent resistantplastic body panels.

Themid-sized L series was introduced in 1999 as a 2000 model with the modeldesignations of LS, LS1 and LS2 but those names were changed for 2001 to L100, L200 and L300.  Thewagon version is available as the LW200 and LW300.  The names were changedafter one year because they sounded too similar to the smallercar's model designations of SL, SL1 and SL2 and caused some confusion.  Other changes for 2001 include a larger gas tank (from 13.1 gals. to15.7), a rear center shoulder belt in sedans to replace the center lap belt,optional side head curtain air bags, an emergency trunk release handle toprevent someone from accidentally becoming trapped in the trunk (available mid-year),and some new colors.

The L100, L200 andLW200 comewith a 2.2 L four cylinder engine and either a 5-speed standard shiftTransmission or a 4-speed automatic, while the top-of-the-line L300 and LW300come with a smooth running 3.0L V6 and4-speed automatic as standard equipment.  A stick is not available with theV6.

Our test car was a 2001 Saturn L200 with the 4-cylinder engine and the5-speed stick.  Options in our car included a leather interior, 6-way power driver'sseat, anti-lock brakes and traction control.  The color was Blackberrywhich you would swear looks black unless the sun is shining on it at which timeyou will notice dark red highlights.  It was an interesting effect and theonly thing about this car that elicited any kind of comments, pro or con. No one buys this car in the hopes of attracting attention.  People whochoose this car are looking for a conservative, care-free, economical transportation appliancethat will get them from point Ato point B, with a minimum of fuss.  

The advantage of the recyclable polymer body panels that are used for thefront and rear bumpers, front fendersand the four doors is that they are resistant to dings and dents that make a carlook old before its time.  Other obvious advantages are that these bolt-on plastic panelsdon't rust and they are easy to change if they aredamaged. All this adds up to a car that will stay newer-looking longer. You can feel comfortable about parking the Saturn L in a supermarket parkinglot.  Shopping carts will bounce harmlessly off the plastic panels and findtheir way to the nearest freshly polished Volkswagen Jetta.  

 Theinterior looks better than expected for a car in this price range with seatsthat are comfortable and supportive.  There is also enough room in the rear seat for threeadults to sit in reasonable comfort.  The optional leather trim was nicely tailoredand had a good feel to it.  The rear seat back is split 60/40 and foldsdown to reveal a moderately sized pass-through to one of the largest trunksfound in a mid-sized sedan.  There is a standard remote trunk releasebutton onthe dash which is a convenience, but if you want to disable it, you must openthe trunk and flip a switch inside the trunk lid.  While you're at it, youshould also lock the fold-down rear seat backs so they can't be opened from inside thecar.  This is accomplished by crawling into the large trunk to reach the locking levers that arelocated on the seat backs.

The instruments are clear and legible and all the major controls are within easyreach.  The steering wheel has a nice feel due to the swells just above3:00 o'clockand 9:00 o'clock where you would normally grip the wheel.  The radiocontrols are placed within easy reach above the climate controls in the center of the dash whichis the way it should be since the radio is used much more frequently then the heater/ACcontrols.  The inside door handles feel flimsy as do some of the otherinterior trim pieces, but I'm nit-picking here.  Overall the Saturn Linterior is a nice comfortable environment for a car in this price range. 

Theoptional 6-way power seat controls were lined up in a row on the side of the driver'sseat and were not very intuitive.  They consisted of one control to movethe seat forward and back, a second one for up and down and a third for thepower reclining seat back. Despite the lack of a tiltcontrol for the seat,  I wasable to find a comfortable driving position in short order.  Thedriver's seat remained comfortable even after a trip lasting several hours.

To me, a manual transmission in this type of car is an enigma since thereare not many people who would opt for a stick.   But there are some people whowon't be happy with anything but a stick so I guess Saturn should be commended forgoing through the expense of making one available.  

Ipersonally don't understand whyanyone would want to live with stick shift in a car that is used for day-to-day driving.  One argumentthat I have heard is that a stick will give youbetter gas mileage.  Yes it does, but in this case, only by one mile per gallon in citydriving, and only if you are very meticulous about always shifting at the exactright time.  Another argument would be that there are less things to gowrong, but that is a fallacy.  A standard shift car will need periodicclutch replacement, a costly job that requires removal of the transmission, whilemost modern automatics are extremely reliable and usually last for the life ofthe car with minimal maintenance.    The 4-speed automatictransmission for this car is an $860 option but you will more than make up forthat additional cost at trade-in time where an automatic car will be worth atleast $1000 more than an equivalent car with a stick.  Finally, there's the fun-to-drive argument whichI can understand, but Ipersonallywouldn't want to live with one in a family sedan that I use for every day commuting.  But, that'sme.

With that off my chest, let me say that this was a smooth operating clutchand shifter.  It was easy to find the right gear and the clutch engagement wasalways smooth and controllable. The refined shift mechanism would be athome in a car costing twice as much as this one.  There is a light on the dash thatcomes on to tellyou when you should up-shift for the best fuel economy, a nice feature forpeople who are new to "rowing their own". 

Onthe road, the 4-cylinder engine was strong and willing and, unlike previous Saturnengines, was smooth and reasonably quiet.  Windand road noise was low on the highway and engine noise was subdued at anythingunder 3000 rpm. At idle, it was difficult to hear or feelthis engine running at all.  At cruising speed, it was acceptably quiet withplenty of torque throughout the RPM range so down-shifting was minimized. Under acceleration, the engine emitted a pleasing growl and was able to run from0 to 60 in 8.9 seconds.  Not a bad showing considering this is a mid-sizedsedan that has a very good EPA fuel consumption rating of 25 MPG city and 33MPG highway.  

This is a high tech engine to be sure with a lot of effortexpended to eliminate the noise and harshness problems associated with most4-cylinder engines.  For instance, there are two balance shafts that sitlow in the engine block and are used to cancel vibrations before they begin. The power steering pump is mounted directly to thecylinder head and is driven by the camshaft and the oil filter housing iscast into the block and uses a filter element that is replaced from the topmaking it easier for the do-it-yourselfer to do their own oil change. There is also a new oil-life monitor that allows you to extend oil changeintervals to as much as 10,000 miles.  An indicator light on the dash will light up"Change Oil Soon" when the oil has reached its useful life span.

Steering feel and directional stability are very good and the combination front disk and rear drum brake systemfelt powerful with an easy-to-control pedal feel.  Cornering and handling in generalwere also verygood, but  unfortunately,I can't say the same for the ride.  It was okay on smooth roads, but gotchoppy and sometimes even jarring on bad pavement, certainly not up to the standards set by other sedans in thisclass.  The P195/65R15 Firestone Affinity all-season tires were quiet andhad reasonably good grip on dry roads.  On wet roads, these tires left muchto be desired with poor traction during cornering and braking. The optional ABS and Traction Control had to work overtime to help keep thetires out of trouble. I've said this before and I'll say it again, ABS should be standard equipment onevery car sold.

Mid-sized sedans account for 24% of all new car sales which means that thisis a huge market and Saturn would like a piece of it.  But there are a lotof very good cars in this category, in fact some of the best cars in the worldcan be found here.  Cars like the Camry, Accord, Altima, 626 and even theTaurus will give this Saturn a tough time.  The Saturn L Series does have some things going for it as well.  For onething, the price is right, and those plastic body panels are a very desirablefeature as is the good gas mileage and peppy performance.  The dealerexperience and owner satisfaction are big points in Saturn's favor as is the excellentreliability record that Saturn has had in the past.

If you arelooking for an inexpensive family sedan that is reliable, roomy, good on gas and verylow maintenance, and if you are like many people that I know who dread going outto buy a car because they hate the adversarial process, then the Saturn L is worth a look.

Feedback
Do you have any feedback on the Saturn L-Series?  Any opinions orexperiences of your own?  We would love to hear from you. 
Clickhere to send us your comments

Click here for more pictures of the Saturn L

How would I improve this car?

  • Maybe Saturn could steal a stylist or two from Chrysler.

  • Some work needs to be done on the ride. 

  • Make anti-lock brakes standard.

How does the Saturn L200 fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers will feel comfortable driving this car.  It is smooth, handleswell and has good brakes.  Unless you have a strong desire to do somethingwith your left foot while you drive, opt for the automatic transmission. 

Sporty drivers will like the good handling and torquey  engine on this low priced sedan and, yes, you're the type of driver who will probably appreciate the smooth 5-speed stick shift.

Fast driverswill need better tires and wider wheels before even thinking about approaching the limits with this car.  You'll want a better suspension system to keep the tires planted.  The Saturn L is really not meant to be flogged.

 Specifications 

Engine Type 2.2-liter 16 Valve Dual-Overhead-Cam 4 Cylinder, with twin balance shafts 
Compression Ratio 9.5 : 1
Horsepower 135 @ 5,200 RPM
Torque 142 @ 4,400 RPM
Fuel Recommended Regular 87 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission - Standard
Optional
Five Speed Standard Shift
Four Speed Electronically Controlled Automatic
Tires P195/65R15  Firestone Affinity All Season
Overall Length 190.4"
Wheelbase 106.5
Width 78.8"  (mirror to mirror)
Turning Diameter 36.6 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 2,964.4
Fuel Tank 15.7 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 25, hwy 33. 
Acceleration 0 to 60 8.9 Seconds
Base Sticker Price $16,750 + 500 destination charge
Price as Tested $20,400

Standard Equipment
Saturn L200 Front Wheel Drive Sedan

  • 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 135 HP, 142 lb.-ft. of torque

  • Five-speed standard transmission

  • Power assisted front ventilated disk and rear drum brakes

  • Dent/corrosion-resistant polymer panels

  • Tilt steering wheel

  • Multi-adjustable front bucket seats with adjustable head restraints

  • Power windows with driver express-down and rear disable

  • CFC-free air conditioning with dust and pollen filter

  • Daytime running lights

  • 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks

  • AM/FM stereo with CD and eight speakers

  • Oil-life monitor

Major Available Options

  • Electronically Controlled 4-Speed Automatic Transmission

  • Head Curtain Air Bags

  • Anti-lock Braking System with Traction Control

  • Six-way power driver's seat

  • Leather Interior

  • Electric Seat Heaters

  • Power sunroof

  • Foglamps

  • Floor mats--carpeted

  • Rear spoiler

For more information on Saturn, visit saturn.com

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