2001 Saturn L200 Road Test

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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 the time that, rather than risk any of their main divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, GMC), they created a completely new and autonomous Saturn division which 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 is still typical between management and the unions. Cars would be assembled by work teams that had decision-making authority on the best way to do their jobs and minimal interference from upper management.  This and the excellent working environment at the new factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee made for happy workers.

This bold experiment continued in the showrooms where Saturn set a no-haggle policy, adding just enough markup to provide a fair profit for the dealer with little incentive to discount the already low sticker price.  In addition, they required their dealers to pay “sales consultants” fixed salaries, rather than the traditional commission-based pay that was based on how many cars they sold. Imagine how amazed consumers were at the friendly, professional treatment and the lack of sales 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 cars had been filled with defective antifreeze that could cause engine damage.  Instead of repairing these cars, Saturnexchanged them for new cars. The cost of this decision was more than offset by the positive press that it brought them.

After a decade of building compact cars, GM recognized that the time had come for Saturn to offer a “grown-up” car for their loyal customer base to move up to.  So Saturn set out to create a mid-sized car worthy of their reputation: one that could compete in a crowded market segment that includes cars like the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus and Honda Accord.  The result is the Saturn L Series, a mid-size four-door sedan and station wagon that has a number of interesting features, not the least of which is Saturn’strademark dent-resistant plastic body panels.

The mid-sized L series was introduced in 1999 as a 2000 model with the model designations of LS, LS1 and LS2 but those names were changed for 2001 to L100, L200 and L300.  The wagon version is available as the LW200 and LW300. The names were changed after one year because they sounded too similar to the smaller car’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 airbags, an emergency trunk release handle to prevent someone from accidentally becoming trapped in the trunk (available mid-year),and some new colors.

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  

The L100, L200 andLW200 come with a 2.2 L four-cylinder engine and either a 5-speed standard shift transmission 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 seat, anti-lock brakes, and traction control.  The color was Blackberry which you would swear looks black unless the sun is shining on it at which time you will notice dark red highlights.  It was an interesting effect and the only 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 who choose this car are looking for a conservative, care-free, economical transportation appliance that will get them from point A to point B, with a minimum of fuss.  

The advantage of the recyclable polymer body panels that are used for the front and rear bumpers, front fenders and the four doors is that they are resistant to dings and dents that make an old before its time.  Other obvious advantages are that these bolt-on plastic panels don’t rust and they are easy to change if they are damaged. 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 parking lot.  Shopping carts will bounce harmlessly off the plastic panels and find their way to the nearest freshly polished Volkswagen Jetta. 

The interior looks better than expected for a car in this price range with seats that are comfortable and supportive.  There is also enough room in the rear seat for three adults to sit in reasonable comfort. The optional leather trim was nicely tailored and had a good feel to it.  The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds down to reveal a moderately sized pass-through to one of the largest trunks found in a mid-sized sedan. There is a standard remote trunk release button on the dash which is a convenience, but if you want to disable it, you must open the trunk and flip a switch inside the trunk lid.  While you’re at it, you should also lock the fold-down rear seatbacks so they can’t be opened from inside the car. This is accomplished by crawling into the large trunk to reach the locking levers that are located on the seatbacks.

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

The optional 6-way power seat controls were lined up in a row on the side of the driver’s seat and were not very intuitive.  They consisted of one control to move the seat forward and back, a second one for up and down and a third for the power reclining seatback. Despite the lack of a tilt control for the seat,  I was able to find a comfortable driving position in short order. The driver’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 there are not many people who would opt for a stick.   But there are some people who won’t be happy with anything but a stick so I guess Saturn should be commended for going through the expense of making one available.  

I personally don’t understand why anyone would want to live with a stick shift in a car that is used for day-to-day driving.  One argument that I have heard is that a stick will give you better gas mileage. Yes, it does, but in this case, only by one mile per gallon in city driving, and only if you are very meticulous about always shifting at the exact right time.  Another argument would be that there are fewer things to go wrong, but that is a fallacy. A standard shift car will need periodic lunch replacement, a costly job that requires removal of the transmission, while most modern automatics are extremely reliable and usually last for the life of the car with minimal maintenance.    The 4-speed automatic transmission for this car is an $860 option but you will more than make up for that additional cost at trade-in time where an automatic car will be worth at least $1000 more than an equivalent car with a stick. Finally, there’s the fun-to-drive argument that I can understand, but I personally wouldn’t want to live with one in a family sedan that I use for every day commuting.  But, that’s me.

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

On the road, the 4-cylinder engine was strong and willing and, unlike previous Saturnengines, was smooth and reasonably quiet.  Wind and road noise was low on the highway and engine noise was subdued at anything under 3000 rpm. At idle, it was difficult to hear or feel this engine running at all.  At cruising speed, it was acceptably quiet with plenty 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-sized sedan 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 effort expended to eliminate the noise and harshness problems associated with most4-cylinder engines.  For instance, there are two balance shafts that sit low in the engine block and are used to cancel vibrations before they begin. The power steering pump is mounted directly to the cylinder head and is driven by the camshaft and the oil filter housing is cast into the block and uses a filter element that is replaced from 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 change intervals 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 disc and rear drum brake system felt powerful with an easy-to-control pedal feel.  Cornering and handling in general were also very good, but unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the ride. It was okay on smooth roads, but got choppy and sometimes even jarring on bad pavement, certainly not up to the standards set by other sedans in this class.  The P195/65R15 Firestone Affinity all-season tires were quiet and had reasonably good grip on dry roads. On wet roads, these tires left much to be desired with poor traction during cornering and braking. The optional ABS and Traction Control had to work overtime to help keep the tires out of trouble. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, ABS should be standard equipment on every car sold.

Mid-sized sedans account for 24% of all new car sales which means that this is a huge market and Saturn would like a piece of it.  But there are a lot of very good cars in this category, in fact, some of the best cars in the world can be found here. Cars like the Camry, Accord, Altima, 626 and even the Taurus will give this Saturn a tough time.  The Saturn L Series does have some things going for it as well. For one thing, the price is right, and those plastic body panels are very desirable features as is the good gas mileage and peppy performance. The dealer experience and owner satisfaction are big points in Saturn’s favor as is the excellent reliability record that Saturn has had in the past.

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

How would I improve this car?

How does the Saturn L200 fit your driving style? 

Conservative drivers will feel comfortable driving this car.  It is smooth, handles well and has good brakes. Unless you have a strong desire to do something with 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 drivers will 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.


Engine Type2.2-liter 16 Valve Dual-Overhead-Cam 4 Cylinder, with twin balance shafts 
Compression Ratio9.5: 1
Horsepower135 @ 5,200 RPM
Torque142 @ 4,400 RPM
Fuel RecommendedRegular 87 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission – Standard


Five Speed Standard Shift

Four-Speed Electronically Controlled Automatic

TiresP195/65R15  Firestone Affinity All Season
Overall Length190.4″
Width78.8″  (mirror to mirror)
Turning Diameter36.6 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight2,964.4
Fuel Tank15.7 Gals.
Miles Per GallonEPA city 25, hwy 33. 
Acceleration 0 to 608.9 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$16,750 + 500 destination charge
Price as Tested $20,400

Saturn L200 Front Wheel Drive Sedan

Standard Equipment

Major Available Options

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Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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