Busman's Holiday
Goodbye Saturn
by Steve Wood
November 10, 2004





Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and sell. Now you might think I'm talking about stocks, some speculative investment, or even a relationship with a significant other, but I'm not. I'm talking about a "family." Annie and I were welcomed into the "Saturn Family" two years ago when we bought a Saturn L-200. At least that's what it said on some of the paperwork they gave us:

Welcome to the Saturn Family
Much of the satisfaction of ownership comes from a well maintained trouble free car.

It was and is a pretty car. At that time, the L-200 series only came with a four cylinder engine, so we got one with a five-speed transmission to give it enough pep to serve our needs. We lived happily ever after...for 25,000 miles. A cylinder that apparently drives the clutch disk in and out failed at that point. The car was still under warranty, so, being family, Saturn "fixed" the problem. We didn't blink an eye when they put in a new, $700 cylinder to fix the problem. We thought little more of it until last week.

Annie said she was going to have to take the Saturn in, as the transmission was acting up again. She took the car into our local Saturn dealership where we'd bought it and, being family, had all of its periodic maintenance done. Now, at 81,000 mostly highway miles, the exact same failure occurred again.

When Anne reminded the folks at the dealership that this was exactly the same problem that they'd previously "fixed," it didn't seem to make any difference. Apparently, being "family" only applies when you're buying a Saturn or paying for periodic maintenance. We would have to pay another $700 for the third cylinder to go into the car...with a total bill of $1300, as the last "fixed" cylinder had leaked enough to ruin the clutch disk as well.

Feeling fairly certain that Saturn wouldn't treat "family" this way, Anne contacted Saturn Corporation directly at their home office. They took her information and said that they'd contact the dealer and get back to us. When they did, they offered a 15% discount on the repairs. While this may sound like a reasonable offer, consider that the same part failed twice in exactly the same way inside of 55,000 miles.

So, the Saturn "family" answer to a repeated failure that smells to Anne and I suspiciously of a design flaw was to offer to fix what they'd supposedly fixed before, now for only $1105. Not surprisingly, Anne and I wondered if we shouldn't just drive the car home and trade it off for something else, anything but another Saturn. Only, the car that was drivable, but obviously in need of some repair when she brought it in with a transmission problem, is now undrivable after the Saturn family teardown, estimate, and reassembly. It won't even go into gear. So...a pretty, but currently useless, white Saturn L-200 now adorns the lot of Saturn of Terre Haute.

Chances are, Saturn Corporation, or maybe more correctly, Saturn of Terre Haute, will get their $1105 or $1300. Annie and I will have to pay for yet another $700 clutch cylinder that probably won't last any longer than the two that came before it. But, we'll cut our losses and sell the car...and be done with Saturn for good. Even with "family," we can't afford a car with a $700 part that fails once a year.

Having said all of that, did you ever wonder how much a car company like Saturn spends in advertising to attract each new customer it gets to buy into the "Saturn Family?" I doubt it's $1300, but I'm also sure the advertising cost per new customer might be high enough to surprise many readers. Having spent that much to attract a customer new to Saturn, it would just seem to be good business to keep them happy when there's a questionable repeated part failure. Doing so would obviously mean a highly increased chance of repeat sales.

Saturn had a chance to do the right thing. They could have, without admitting much of anything, acknowledged there might be a problem with a part that has failed twice in 55,000 miles. They could have appeared magnanimous in fixing something that wasn't strictly covered by a warranty, service bulletin, or recall. Instead, Saturn Corporation and Saturn of Terre Haute chose to enrich themselves by $1105-$1300 at the cost of totally alienating a previously loyal customer.

I guess the "Saturn Family" just doesn't need us anymore.

Follow-up (12/18/04)

I've received several emails from other Saturn owners experiencing the same or similar problems with the transmission, specifically the clutch, on their Saturn L200. First, I should add that I got the price on the part wrong. It was just over $100. The installed price with other odds and ends was $700. That didn't change our total "discounted" bill of over $1100.

Here's the part that should blow you away, or at the very least, convince you not to buy a Saturn. When the slave cylinder finally came in, the replacement part proved immediately defective. Saturn still maintains that they do not have a design or manufacturing flaw. Guess it's sorta like the thing where the headlights blink for no reason at times (A friend's headlights actually go completely out at times!) and Saturn refers to it as a "characteristic."

To get back on subject, we had a clutch slave cylinder fail at about 25,000 miles. The replacement part failed at 81,000 miles. The third slave cylinder failed at...81,000 miles...bad part right out of the box! And Saturn still claims there isn't a problem...at least one they're willing to own up to.

So, Anne and I are paying off the Saturn. We'll never do business with Saturn corporation or Saturn of Terre Haute again. In our opinion, they're simply not being honest about a bad part or design.

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©2004 Steven L. Wood