Sunday, July 22, 2007


Folks don't give Saturn enough credit these days. I don't mean the cars, but the marketing job.

Saturn debuted for model year 1991 with competent, but unremarkable, small cars. The Saturn gimmick was the touchy-feely treatment you got at the dealership. No haggling; you pay what the sticker says. No pressure; we're in this with you and want you to make the right decision. No commissions; our salespeople are salaried. No vending machines; you get fresh-baked cookies in our service lane. No scary industrial midwest factories; all of our cars are built in beautiful Spring Hill, Tennessee, and you can come to our barbecue/homecoming/love-in every year. You get the picture.

The cars were just okay. We had a '91 SL2 on the used lot when I was selling Acuras for a living, and I drove it a bit. It was a bit plasticky inside. I was never charmed, but neither was I particularly offended, until I gave it full throttle on the way back from lunch one day. Sheeeeeesh. Is it supposed to sound like this? What's out there under the hood--a blender full of roofing nails? Didn't matter. It's a Saturn. You don't have to negotiate, and a Toll House is waiting for you back at the dealership. Just buy it, man.

In my view, Saturn was one of the greatest marketing successes of the 20th century--right up there with Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disney. The lesson: with sufficient aura, the product need not be excellent. It must merely be acceptable.

Slam-dunk. Saturn was a juggernaut through about 1995.

Then, GM got lazy. They overvalued the Saturn mystique, and thought it an acceptable substitute for keeping its product competitive. The cars languished, receiving no significant updates for far too long. The numbers suffered.

So Saturn entered the family market with the L-series. It was an unqualified sales disaster. Too many someones at GM were convinced that merely showing up in the mid-size segment with a Saturn badge would be enough to send the Accord and the Camry running. Nope.

Oddly enough, after a decade of marginalizing itself, Saturn seems ready to play today. They have a competitive family sedan in the Aura, a competitive crossover in the Outlook, and a competitive sports car in the Sky. Small Saturns that look promising are on the way. All are on shared platforms, hence all are thoroughly enmeshed in the behemoth that is General Motors. (And most of them aren't buit in Spring Hill.) I've not driven a current Saturn, but I understand the engine noise isn't so unpleasant as to be a defining characteristic anymore, either.

Congratulations, GM. You've made Saturn what Chevrolet should have been 15 years ago.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The highly specific American minivan

The old Chrysler Corporation knew they had something special when they debuted the modern minivan in November 1983. The "success car of the '80s," Lee Iacocca called it. For 2008, they'll be the last American minivan standing. GM and Ford have exited the segment.

There had been small vans before, of course. The Volkswagen Type 2, aka "VW Bus," was/is probably the most recognizable. The critical difference between a "small van" and a "minivan" is in the direction of the scaling. Essentially, a small van is a smaller copy of a big van, complete with engine doghouse, bus-like driving position, and mediocre-to-poor road dynamics. (I include the VW in this description because even though it was rear-engined, it took no significant ergonomic advantage of the recovered space in the front.)

A minivan starts from a car platform, and is scaled up from there. The seating position is preserved, as is a substantial portion of the driving experience. It's a car that looks and acts like a van.

There is a lot of size and form variation on the minivan in other markets. But somewhat surprisingly, the United States tolerates essentially no deviation from the basic Chrysler minivan formula. There are only three unambiguously successful minivans in the U.S. market right now--the Chrysler, the Honda Odyssey, and the Toyota Sienna--and only a car geek can tell them apart at a glance. They're far closer to cookie-cutter cars than any of the blobmobiles that followed the Ford Taurus ever were.

Many vehicles that deviated substantially from this formula have come and gone. Some came out in the early days when manufacturers were trying to understand this new kind of car, and others appeared long after manufacturers should have known better. A few examples:

The Old Small Van
Toyota and Nissan both tried these, the former more successfully (particularly given that the Nissan was prone to engine fires). The Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari fits the description too, though calling it "small" is pushing it. It's oldthink at 5/8 scale, and it doesn't work. (Though if you're going to build a replica of the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, I suggest starting with a Toyota Van. It looks an awful lot like it.)

The Tall Wagon
All minivans are tall wagons in a sense, but I'm talking about a vehicle that's very much like a station wagon with a tall roof, including four conventional doors. Mitsubishi tried hard to make these stick with the Colt Vista, and later (with added sliding doors) the Expo. Honda's first Odyssey was the same kind of vehicle.

I understand this market failure the least. It's a practical package, and Honda had already had some success with a four-door Civic with much the same form factor. Moreover, most of the same thing is making it with some crossover SUVs, like the Chrysler Pacifica and Toyota Highlander/RX-series. Go figure.

The Spacecraft
In hindsight, it's difficult to understand a manufacturer choosing what it should consider a bread-and-butter family vehicle as a platform for radical experimentation, but that's what several of them did. GM's first car-based minivans were just weird, with pointy snouts, four-foot-deep dashboards, and taillights in the greenhouse. Especially in white, they looked uncannily like Dustbusters. Nissan built a flying doorstop called the Axxess, and Toyota's graduation from old small van-dom was the Previa, a jellybeanish contraption with the engine mounted in the middle of the vehicle, under the floor.

Manufacturers, if you're going to build us Americans a minivan, here are the things to remember:
  • American minivans are all the same size.
  • They're all conservatively styled.
  • They all have similar handling and power.
  • They all have the same sorts of creature comforts.
  • They all have dual sliding doors.
  • They all have customizable seating for up to seven people.
Right or wrong, that's what an American minivan is. Copy what's succeeding already. Deviate from this formula at your considerable peril.

Thanks to for the VW image, for the Town & Country image, for the Toyota image, for the Colt Vista image, and for the Lumina APV image.