MILFORD, MICH., OCT. 8 -- After nearly eight years of planning and plodding, General Motors Corp. will roll its long-awaited Saturn cars into show rooms this week, the culmination of an ambitious $3.5 billion effort to make a small car better than the Japanese.
But journalists test driving the car here today were not overwhelmed. They gave the car high marks for basic manufacturing quality and road performance, but did not view it as the automotive blockbuster GM hopes it will be.
GM and Saturn officials have long contended that the purpose of the Saturn project was to leapfrog the competition and outdo the Japanese at what they do best -- make small cars that people buy.
The problem is that Saturn only meets the competition, it doesn't beat it, according to a consensus of journalists, industry analysts and others who have seen and test-driven the new car.
Even officials of Saturn Corp. admit that their cars have no overall superiority to the products of Honda, Nissan and Toyota.
"Honda is a very difficult target to hit," said John Jay Wetzel III, Saturn's vice president of engineering, when asked if he thought that Saturn had achieved its original goal. "We are not there yet, but we are competitive," Wetzel said during an informal question-and-answer period in the middle of a three-hour test drive of Saturn cars here today.
Test drivers generally gave the car high marks on its handling, the way it held the road in taking curves, for instance. They also praised the car's seats, which were found to be comfortable and supportive. Saturn's arrangement of under-hood components for easy servicing also won applause.
But the base 1.9-liter, four-cylinder engine in the Saturn SL sedan seemed sluggish and noisy; and all of the cars tested drew negative comments for wind noise at highway speeds.
Saturn officials called the complaints justified, and said that the company was working to correct them. But after all the effort and expense that went into Saturn, there should not have been any problems to correct, said auto industry analyst Mary Ann Keller.
"Is it worth eight years and a $3.5 billion investment to come out with a product that is just as good as your competitors? I think that the answer is 'No,' " said Mary Ann Keller, an analyst with Furman, Selz, Dietz and Birney in New York.
"If I spend that much time and money, I should have a product that is superior to those of my competitors on every measure. There should be no transmission shifting, no wind noise, none of that." However, Keller and other analysts praised Saturn officials for adopting "an aggressive pricing strategy" that could help Saturn sell cars in increasingly tough economic times.
Saturn's prices range from $7,995 for the basic Saturn SL sedan to $11,775 for the top-line Saturn SC coupe. Prices on comparable Hondas and Toyotas range from $9,000 to $13,000.
Saturn will barely turn a profit at those prices; but those prices will help to make the cars attractive, especially now that political unrest in the Persian Gulf is redirecting Americans' attention toward small, fuel-efficient cars, said Harvey Heinbach, an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York.
The timing of the Saturn introduction "may be fortuitous," Heinbach said. "If these cars had been come out when gasoline was $1 a gallon, there would not have been as much interest in them," Heinbach said.
Initially, the front-wheel-drive Saturn subcompacts will come out at a trickle, for three reasons:
Of the 115 dealers who have signed up for the Saturn franchise, 30 are set to open their doors. Saturn officials expect to have 130 dealers, four of them in the Washington-Baltimore area, in operation by the end of calendar 1991.
Tearing a page from Japanese automaking practices, Saturn officials deliberately are slowing the production rate of their cars in an attempt to eliminate any quality problems before going to a full production run of 240,000 cars annually by the end of 1991.
There is a maxim in the auto business that winter in the Northeast is the worst time and place to introduce a new car. Accordingly, Saturns this year will first go on sale on the West Coast and in the Southeast -- and in Tennessee, where the cars are being built.
Saturn officials acknowledge that theirs is a risky venture, but said that they expect to do well even though their early boasts about the project might have created too-high expectations.
"We're in some sense happy with the comments that we've caught up with the Japanese," said Joseph Kennedy, Saturn's director of product marketing. "But I think that we're being sold short when people say that we haven't passed the competition in many respects."
The Saturn cars have a better paint job than any of their competitors, Kennedy said, and the use of plastic body panels makes it more resistant to dents and rust than those of competitors, he said.
Because the car is the product of a massive overhaul of GM's system for building and selling cars, it has a higher degree of quality and reliability than many cars on the market, Kennedy said.
Those kinds of improvements, combined with Saturn's competitiveness in the crowded small-car segment of the U.S. market, might help Saturn, Heinbach said.
"Did they need eight years and $3 billion to do this? That's pretty hard to say," said Heinbach. "But that these cars do pretty much measure up to the Japanese marks tremendous progress for General Motors. What these cars don't answer is whether or not GM will be able to keep up with a rapidly moving target."