My confusion quotient, which remains at relatively high levels most of the time, escalates into the danger zone every time I hear something about the Saturn project. The Saturn project I'm thinking of has nothing to do with solar system exploration or new Pentagon fantasies; it's the latest General Motors scheme to drive the Japanese and other assorted automobile manufacturers back across the Pacific.

Saturn is a machination of GM Chairman Roger Smith, a man who has marshalled the world's largest corporation to the position of losing business at a more alarming rate than a shipwrecked supertanker spilling crude oil. His notion behind Saturn was simple: an all-new, wholly owned subsidiary to design, manufacture and sell state-of- the-art, small, inexpensive cars. This venture is intended not only to produce massive revenues for GM, but to prove that the old boys who run the corporation from the hushed confines of the 14th floor of the GM Building in Detroit need brook no nonsense from the upstarts in the Orient.

Unfortunately, this is the same company that has blessed its customers with the fabled wonders of the Corvair, not to mention the much-loved, and often overheated, Vega, or the "I-think-the-brakes-are-working" X cars. At least the idea with Saturn was not to repeat past start-up mistakes; it was given a "clean sheet of paper" mandate. When the Saturn project was announced in November 1983, chambers of commerce in every little corner of the union fell into swoons over the notion that their town could be the site of a $5 billion plant employing thousands.

Hundreds of state and local agencies wooed GM for 18 months, dangling all manner of carrots in the form of tax incentives. In the end, Spring Hill, Tenn., 35 miles southwest of Nashville, was anointed. Headquarters for the operation would remain in Troy, Mich., as a sop to the state that considers itself the center of all things automotive.

The theme of the Saturn project was bold from the start: a whole new car to be built with space-age materials and put together with 21st-century robotics. Added features included avant-garde labor-management relations (read: defanging the militant United Auto Workers) and revolutionary retailing strategies.

Although work has begun on the vast, 2,450-acre Spring Hill plant, the concept has changed radically since Smith's creative juices first bubbled with the notion.

GM, in its present bloated condition, cannot begin to compete at the low end of the car business with even the Japanese, not to mention the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, the Malaysians, the Mexicans or the Brazilians, all of whom are building cars destined for this market. Saturn prices have been adjusted upward. Before the first computer simulations were completed, GM announced that the Saturn would become "an upscale economy car" costing not $5,000 but a hefty $9,000. Enter the first hints of confusion.

Then came word that the Saturn would be produced in quantities of 200,000 per year, rather than the originally planned 500,000, when it is introduced in 1990. Worse yet, only 3,000 workers, not 6,000 as announced, would be employed in the new plant. More confusion. The United Auto Workers smelled trouble. Tennessee is a right-to-work state, a euphemism for being against unions, and the UAW had visions of another Marysville, Ohio, where Honda operates a wildly successful and productive assembly plant without the union. Threats of labor trouble throughout the rest of the General Motors empire were voiced.

GM responded by assuring the UAW that laid-off workers from other plants would be given preferential hiring treatment. The UAW became the exclusive bargaining agent for the Saturn work force, which prompted a lawsuit by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. What all this means to potential Saturn customers is the possibility of more of the same shoddily built cars those strange bedfellows, GM and the UAW, have cranked out for years. The more things change at Saturn, the more they seem to be the same.

Saturn President R.G. (Skip) LeFauve insists things will be different. Initially, 100 Saturn dealers around the nation will operate under a system called "Market Area Approach." This divides the nation into giant territories. Each dealer will be responsible for a territory in which, in LeFauve's words, "Instead of having the traditional single full-service dealer point, each dealer will tailor their sales and service facilities to handle the various ways car buyers go about selecting cars, purchasing them and having them serviced."

Sounds exciting, right? Now Don Hudler, Saturn's vice president of marketing sales and service, reveals that the new tactics will involve video displays in "non-traditional" locations, such as shopping centers and office complexes. Moreover, new Saturn dealerships will be open on "some evenings and weekends."

What a breakthrough! Is this the Saturn revolution? Is this yet another compact car from the corporation that has failed for 25 years to build a decent, competitive subcompact car? Is this confusing, or what? Is it, worse yet, the same old boilerplate from a corporation farther down the road to ruin than anyone dares imagine?

Would someone please tell me what terrible curse lies upon the Detroit auto moguls that prevents them from competing in the arena of small, efficient automobiles? I understand the handicaps of labor costs, and all the other arguments, but the problem seems more complex, embodying a malaise of creativity and technological adventurism that has forced America into the role of second-rate copycat. Is the challenge of building a small car of such magnitude that it demands production be more than halved and price almost doubled? ::