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From the Detroit Free Press:

Saturn puts more models on the floors

Foreign look-alike seeks revived sales

April 20, 2006



NEW YORK -- The folks at Saturn have been talking about the brand's renaissance for more than a year, and finally they have something to show for it.

Dealers this year will have three new models and a hybrid SUV to sell in addition to a minivan and the two- and four-door versions of the Ion small car. This from a brand that, for most of the 1990s, had only three iterations of the same sedan.

That expansion of the brand's offerings is extremely important. Saturn sales were up less than 1% last year and, at 213,600, off their peak of 286,000 in 1994. The brand accounts for about 1% of the marketplace and is similar in size to Mercury, Volkswagen and Acura.

But from its beginning in 1990, Saturn customers have been incredibly loyal. And top executives from owner General Motors acknowledge that many of them don't know their car is built by a domestic automaker. They think Saturn is an Asian brand.

That makes Saturn GM's best shot at stealing customers from Toyota and Honda. "Saturn has always been the one brand in the GM lineup suitable for attracting import-intenders," says Bob Lutz, vice chairman of global product development.

The automaker is relying on a close collaboration with its European brand, Opel, to help restyle Saturn.

New on the road this year from Saturn:

• Sky roadster. This two-seater started reaching showrooms in the last three weeks, but Lutz says dealers already have ordered as many as they can for this year. The head-turning car is based on the same platform as Pontiac Solstice. It starts at $23,690.

A pumped-up version of Sky, called Red Line, will hit the market this fall.

• Hybrid Vue SUV. Saturn hopes to attract hybrid customers by offering a cheaper electric option. While most gas-electric hybrid systems add $3,000 to the sticker price, GM says the hybrid Vue will be only $2,000 more than the gas-only version at about $23,000. It will get 20% better fuel economy.

• Aura sedan. Set to hit showrooms this fall, Aura looks a lot like the Opel Vectra sold in Europe. It's sleek on the outside, and customers will love or hate the dark brown, leather-heavy interior. But it's anything but boring.

• Outlook crossover. It's a latecomer to the crossover market, hitting showrooms at the tail end of 2006.

But Saturn hopes it has fixed some of the common complaints consumers have about crossovers, which are meant to satisfy those who want SUV-like capability and convenience with car-like drive and feel.

The three-row vehicle has easier access to the last row than most because the second-row seats slide forward to make ample room.
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