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Saturn and Me: GM Loses a Customer

By Allan Sloan
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Until last week I had been one of General Motors' most reliable customers for more than 15 years. But my relationship with GM ended the very day the company announced that it was closing its Saturn operation -- something I learned when I came home from trading in my 2003 Saturn Vue for a new, spiffy 2010 SUV with an Asian nameplate.

However, my decision to abandon GM had been made months earlier, after GM made it clear that it was going to drop Saturn. That meant GM was abandoning me and other Saturn owners by sticking us with "orphans" whose resale and trade-in values were greatly diminished.

My wife and I bought five Saturns from 1992 through 2003, turning three of them over to our children, one of whom still drives hers. I liked the Saturns' reasonable price and being able to buy them -- even our Vue SUV -- with manual transmissions. I especially liked Saturn's famous no-price-haggling policy. I didn't have to worry about finding that I had overpaid and feeling stupid.

But when my wife and I decided to depart from our customary "a-car-is-only-transportation" frugality and buy an upscale SUV, which Saturn doesn't offer, we didn't consider buying a GM vehicle. Why? Because even though as a numbers-oriented business writer I totally understand why GM abandoned Saturn (and Pontiac and Hummer and Saab and Oldsmobile), as a customer, I'm furious. The old expression goes: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. GM has already fooled me once.

My loyalty to Saturn lasted as long as it did in part because my wife and I have a visceral affection for companies based in the Detroit area, where we lived from 1972 to 1979 when I worked at the Free Press. In addition, we believe in buying American products when we can.

When someone like me, who's bought U.S.-brand cars all his life (except for one Renault), won't even consider a GM product, the company's got a serious problem. It's not a problem that can be solved by TV commercials featuring GM's government-appointed auto-industry-newbie chairman, former AT&T chief executive Ed Whitacre, telling us how much he loves GM. The company has got to earn back our trust, and I'm not sure it can. I hope GM succeeds, but it will have to do it without me as a customer anytime soon.

Given my U.S. preferences, why did I buy an Asian brand rather than a Chrysler or a Ford? Because I don't want to be orphaned by Chrysler, which is even less financially viable than GM, and because my wife had a horrible experience with a Ford, her first car.

On paper, Saturn seemed like a great idea -- and my five purchases, including a 2001 SL2 that I plan to run until it dies, generally performed well. I liked the idea of an import-fighting "different kind of car company," as Saturn called itself, and loved the idea of treating buyers like customers rather than suckers. But as we know, Saturn was a financial disaster, losing about $20 billion over its 20-year life.

Jeannine Fallon of the car-maven-oriented Edmunds.com, who once helped market Saturns, says the brand trapped itself in a low-end niche. "It was aimed at people who didn't know much about cars and didn't want to learn," Fallon says, describing me perfectly. But instead of building Saturn's market by frequently updating its offerings, she told me, GM "rode that horse until it died."

Leaving Saturn meant that for the first time since the 1980s, I found myself bargaining with a car dealer. The Internet was helpful, and I don't think I was suckered too badly. But I still hated the process.

What I liked, though, was that the sticker on my SUV said it had been assembled in Canada and its engine had been made in the United States. That means that while I bought an Asian name, it is largely an American car. So what was good for America wasn't good for General Motors. And that's the bottom line.

Allan Sloan is Fortune magazine's senior editor at large. His e-mail address is asloan@fortunemail.com.

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