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1993 Saturn SL2


Today's Car Disgust is a car that I loathe out of personal experience--the 1993 Saturn SL2.

From its inception, Saturn has enjoyed a mystical halo--a reputation of kindness, decency, and the ability to inspire cultish devotion among its customers. Part of it, I think, was the much-hyped Saturn no-haggle price policy, which in my opinion was breathtaking in its cynicism. There's actually no need to dicker on the price of any car--just offer to pay full price, and you'll have a grinning salesperson ready to sign you up without negotiation. Negotiation is good for the customer because it will get you a lower price.

But, whatever the motivation, Saturn has enjoyed one of the most passionate and fervently joyful owner bases in autodom. What really confuses me about this is that until the last year or two, when they increasingly became rebadged Opels, the cars weren't great.

My wife and I purchased a six-year-old '93 Saturn SL2 from some Saturn-loving friends of ours. The idea of owning a Saturn didn't especially excite me, but we needed a second car and a Saturn seemed a harmless if boring choice. The SL2 at least had a twin-cam engine and a five-speed, so I thought it might be at least mildly interesting to drive.

Not so. The interior was strictly econobox-class, with abrasive, cheap plastics, poor design and layout, unsupportive seats, and shoddy construction standards. The exterior design was uninspired and cheap-looking.

Things were vastly worse on the mechanical front--and I can only think that the problems we had with our Saturn were part of General Motors' highly successful campaign to drive away a loyal customer base during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It certainly had that effect on me.

In our first weekend of ownership, the Saturn sprang a coolant leak that left the car smelling vaguely of antifreeze for the rest of our time together. After the leak and a near-overheat situation, there emerged a curious squawk from the engine that sounded like a leaky hose or a bad seal. The shop, of course, couldn't find a problem.
Since there were no cupholders, we used to rest our drinks in a convenient divot in the center console; unfortunately, the collected condensation from our drinks worked its way down through the plastic and shorted out the whole electrical system. The clutch had to be replaced and the gearbox rebuilt. There were also random but seemingly impossible-to-find oil leaks that left the underside of the hood soaked in oil.
I suppose I can't blame this on the car, but two tires (both with good tread life, at good pressures) blew up massively on the freeway, one cutting the wires to the fuel pump and leaving my wife and I stranded on the freeway on our way to a vacation for our first wedding anniversary. I still have a photo of my wife sitting despondently on the hood of the Saturn that day, grim and depressed. Happy Anniversary, honey!

The Saturn was supposed to be our nice newer car; it was pampered by the first owners, was only six years old, and only had about 70,000 miles on it. Instead, it was thoroughly outclassed in every way by our much older 250,000-mile Volvo 240. When I subsequently bought my beater 1983 Chevy Malibu Wagon, I was struck by how markedly superior the decade-older Malibu was in every respect.

But the Saturn's real crime against humanity was sucking out part of my enjoyment of driving. Before the Saturn, I trusted and enjoyed my cars, pushing them to their limits, confident that the machinery would do its part. But the Saturn destroyed my psyche; the effect is not unlike that of a betrayal by a loved one--regaining the ability to trust takes time, and I am only slowly recovering from that damage.

Now, when I'm driving any car, even a nice new one, I'm always on edge waiting for impending cataclysmic failure. I find myself wondering:

Does the idle seem a bit uneven?
That subtle feeling in the steering wheel--is that a change in the pavement, or is a tire about to go?
Does the engine sound a little rougher than usual at higher revs? I hope the engine's not being starved for oil!
The brakes feel a little spongy--I hope I'm not causing rotor damage!

These thoughts now torment me, and for that reason I will hate our old Saturn forever.
As an addendum, the Saturn-loving friends from whom we bought the car were horrified at our problems. They loved it when they owned it, and have owned several more Saturns and couldn't be happier. I suppose that just goes to show you that Car Disgust is a highly personal thing.
These photos are not of our Saturn, but by the end, this is what I would have done to it.

--Chris H.


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I have the same year / model car and my experience has been the opposite of your. I have had it since 1995 and its still going strong. Excluding damage from hitting a massive sink hole and normal wear items (brake pads, mufflers, etc), I have had to replace one alternator, a brake caliper, and the clutch gave out (after 9 years of heavy city driving). It has been a rock solid economy car that gives me over 35 mpg on the highway (during the winter).

i own a 95 SL2 and my car is excellent, yes saturns leak oil, its a fact of life, we saturn enthusiasts know and accept the fact, but aside from that my car is highly reliable and about pushing cars to theyre limits? just because the speedometer says "130" doesnt mean that it can go "130" without consequence, this much is true for all cars. it just means they can do that....once....maybe.

Loyal Saturn Fan

I'm with you saturns suck I have the same year and model. I got mine 2 years ago as my first ever car and its been hell so far I've had it in the shop three times for tranny problems (not my fault) the ac went out, a motor mount went bad, I had to replace both front wheel bearings, the electronics in the steering went out (No horn or cruise) and the radiator is leaking now the motor seems like its getting a little sluggish too. I hate this car but can't get rid of it because i can't afford anything else.

Misery loves company, which is why I read these things and laugh, even when the people who like the car, list things that have gone wrong with htiers that only a fool wouldn't realize makes their "car" a Super Lemon...
there is a certian Garage in Manhatten that I am particualrly fond of. The place caught fire when my beloved Saturn was parked inside of it and their insurance company actally paid me the book value on a car I would have sold to my worst enemy!!! These things Suck!!!My advise to anyone who owns one is be Brave, cut t your losses and just junk it... the years of agravation owning this thing will cause you, will take years off of your life... REALLY, REALLY, BAD CAR!!! I'll forsake all the little repair details and just ask any sane operson to listen to what I've just written... Get rid of that Shit Box!!!there is no need to repair anything on it, just junk it and cut your losses... Fixing it, only means it will get you stuck in another week or two anyway...

I think Saturn's ultimate indignity to mankind was their "Daytime Running Lamps" system starting in 1994. The headlights were too close together which made them brighter, and they used 80% of their high beams to blind all oncoming drivers. Even up in a pickup truck the lights were painful, and the Saturn drivers were mostly oblivious to the danger they caused innocent people. Those were the cars in good condition... misaimed headlamps were even more potent.

One could disable the DRLs by applying the parking brake a click or two and drive with a red BRAKE warning light. Oh, and at night, it was easy to think you had your lights on because you could already see where you were going, but none of your side, rear, or license plate lamps were on. Now that's quality engineering!

Sorry, but you are wrong. by far. every car company has cars that decide to go bad. there is nothing you can do here. i have driven my saturn for three years now and have only replaced brakes on it.My brother commented on this page already. As stated already, our whole family drives cars from the Saturn company. This is the second saturn i have owned two and never had trouble

Speaking of Volvo 240s and Saturns, I worked for an independent Volvo specialist in 1995. I will never forget when a couple came in with their 1995 Saturn with 3k miles on it. They traded it for a 1989 Volvo 244 with 88k miles on it that we had on the lot. I always asked myself---Why?? Of the Saturns I have worked on in my personal shop now, I will say I am not impressed!

I don't how hard you like to drive cars or what you imagine "to the limits" means on such a cheap economy car ...but either you were way too enthusiastic or you were just unlucky enough to be stuck with one of those bogeys that rolls off any production line once in a while.

Im driving a 16 year old Saturn Coupe with no major problems, have had for 5 years now. We've had a couple in the family and two of my ex-coworkers have had fairly easy and inexpensive ownership experiences with both SOHC & DOHC models.

I agree the interior wansn't too good and the car can be a symphony of rattles when cold. Cup holders I don't - car is no place for food & drink IMO, but that's a different coversation.

Yeah most of the external seals & gaskets leak some and you have to keep an eye on fluid levels ... but I (and other people of limited means) find this small amount of mental effort a fair trade of for the low pice and simplicity of the car.

People who are getting buy don;t need to pay thousands of dollars extra for "buttery smooth shifts" or "sophisticted purr" form the engine or geeky gadgets that cost an arm & aa leg to service.

It was what it was, an inxpensive low-brow economy car that benefited from an engaged and attentive owner. THe Twin Cam versions with the rear sway bar were quicker and better handling than other small econoboxes sold in the North American market.

Buying a 6 year old car and expecting it to run like new is a misconception. I am sure a 1993 VW Golf would have had lots of issues too. [And that recently bought $2000 1986 Audi will probably cost a lot to keep running, also]

But, I agree that compacts last longer these days, and the early 90's Civics/Corollas lasted. The first Saturns had 'new car quality', but not long term.

I just got a 93 Saturn myself. Its in the shop right now seeing just how well this things working under the hood. All of my friends who are good with cars say that the thing is fine except one who said its falling apart, so to sum it all up this car probobly hits the board all over the place. It just depends on what kind of car your really looking for, as for my opinion, it cheap and gets great gas milage thats what matters most for a kid with a part time job in high school.

WOW have we had different experiences!

I've bough my 1997 Saturn SL2 new in July of '97 and put just shy of 180,000 miles on it - and counting. I still get nearly 40MPG on the highway (going 55; closer to 35MPG at 70+MPH). It was rear-ended once in Tucson and the car that hit me (a Ford) had the front end and engine drop into the street while my Saturn suffered two small dents in the bumper fascia from her license plate bolts.

It's fun to drive, sporty, quick, good handling and I'll get in it right now and drive across the country without batting an eye. In the 13 years I've driven it I've had exactly 2 major repairs - a water pump and a fuel-pump relay. I find it to be incredibly comfortable to drive no matter how long I'm in the seat.

I've still got the original clutch and the original brakes.


I don't know what to make of the Saturn.

I always thought they had good handling (but nothing like the unimpeachable Neon), excellent mileage and automatic transmission was class leading, as was the twin cam's power. I even thought they were fresh looking, with a hint of futuristic whimsy in the headlights, wraparound rear window and logo.

Of course everything else was a let down. Some aspect more so than others. There's the motor, which got good mileage and had surprising power with 16 valves, but which leaked oil and had only 4 counterweights. Even the last versions which had tackled this issue (in from ~2001 until the execrable Ion) still sounded like garbage. Perhaps it's the spiritual successor to the Vega engine. Abrasive is also a great word to describe the plastics in the interior. Perhaps the worst aspect of these cars were the seats. At a very trim 5'7", the seats lacked support for me. The driving position was incredibly poorly thought out; it is like sitting in a bathtub, and for those who are tall enough to not have that problem, the seats lack of support would be an even greater issue.

Compared to Chrysler's Neon (which lacked the Saturn's relative reliability and excellent 4-speed auto), the shortcomings of the Saturn are painfully clear. Ford's 323 based Escort, despite a sub par motor and tame chassis tuning, was also a measurably better car in most every way, with a quality feel neither car can match. GM's over duplicated investment in compact cars mimics an Eastern bloc country's investment in factories. Too many, built and designed with primarily political objectives, and all flawed. Just as I wish I could go back in time and steer Tito away from making drastic mistakes which would bankrupt his country, I wish I could tell GM to take the most expedient path to designing a compact car, instead of a Corolla clone, a J-body orgy, a couple Suzuki clones, an Isuzu clone, and the Saturn. This could've taken shape in many forms: a localized, rebodied, US built Astra, co-engineered with Isuzu (a better interpretation of Ford's original Escort and a corporate successor to the Buick Opel) or a buyout of the NUMMI contract (another unnecessary investment!), with a compact based on the Toyota AE82 chassis, but enlarged, stiffened and with a fully developed motor for the late '80s (similarly conceived as the Mazda 323 based Ford compacts).

One thing that I like from this 93 Saturn SL2 is that it is a great car for someone who needs reliability and economy. Actually, I would have to say this car has been about the most reliable one I have owned.

I had a '93 SL2 new. At first I loved it, but tired rather quickly. It came with sporty Firestones, great in summer climes, but I bought this car in Wisconsin. Nearly died before buying all weathers, and even then it was never great in the snow; I don't know why. Turning radius always seemed huge. Had continual problems with the brakes and at about 25K, a motormount broke. That shouldn't happen

Wow! Not my experience. I'm so fond of my 94 Saturn SL with 232K miles on it that I'm buying a 93 SL2 to replace it.
My family has owned this car since we were "launched" by the dealer in 94. My daughters were 9 and 7 then. My wife used this car to ferry them around for the next 8 years putting on over 150K miles before she ran it out of oil. I pulled the engine, got the rings un-stuck and put it back on the road. It burned a bit more oil but ran fine otherwise. At that point the oldest daughter inherited it, using it to learn how to drive a "stick". A year later she drove it under a Ford Explorer causing a lot of damage to the hood and radiator support. This was fixed with vice grips, a hammer and a pry bar. It was pretty ugly the next year when the younger daughter inherited it, also learning to drive on a "stick". That led to the explosion of the hydraulic clutch. Adding a bit of fluid and putting it back together got her back on the road until she ran over a rock the size of a water melon one night. That destroyed one wheel and bent the engine cradle enough that the right front tire almost touched the fender well. $500 spent at a frame shop and we were on the road again - now with the steering wheel at a 45 degree angle.
At 175K miles I inherited the car in 2006 when both girls had gone off to college. Since, I've put another 56K miles on it while still getting over 40 mpg. It has never once let me down anywhere for any reason. (Well, a rear brake line did burst a few years ago, but that was just an inconvenience.) After 17 years, still on the original clutch, the New England winters have finally eaten away so much of the engine cradle and roof around the windshield I can't believe it's still holding together. It's still a great reliable little car though.

I have bought a 93 Saturn sl2 5 speed ,, I honestly can say out of all the cars I've had I love it just as much as the other.. I've owned for about two years now, bought it with 190,xxx miles, it has 363,xxx miles on it. Had to replace brakes, tires, valve cover gasket, belt and water pump once since I've owned it. Great mpg quite and has a little bit a pick up for what it is. I'd like to express that I put this car threw its pases. Had it top out at 110 mph and the motor shuts off till cursing speed gets back down to 60 so the 130 you see isn't what the car can do it's just a margin of forgiveness I'd like to believe I'm depending what your doing with the car, it handles turns like a track car for 65 mph threw a 15 mph hair pin turn has good center gravity and just corners like a dream, high speed on the high way isn't that great it becomes unstable and unpredictable when you run threw I gust of cross wind. I've purposely spun it out and smashed it into a median at 70 mpg, I feel like its one of the safest cars someone can own unless our trying to destroy it like in my case ,, I like a car that can prove its self to me and I also like pushing them to their limits, and past them, I never put money into it other the regular maintenance it, besides road rash from the wall not a damn thing wrong with it and still runs like a tank and drives like a dream , I'd recommend it to a new driver, being that its governed down , who wants their kids going 110 ESP in a car that seems like it can do no harm to you and sneak up you

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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