Saturday, October 3, 2009

R.I.P. Saturn

Saturn is dead, but in truth the lineup has been in God's waiting room for quite some time because of its lousy lineup of warmed over Opels and other GM vehicles.

The concept was good, just poorly executed. Saturn sold cars at a fixed price and provided a superior ownership experience. The company was constantly rated at the top in consumer satisfaction and brand loyalty. But loyalty will only get you so far if you're not profitable or can't offer a consistently good product. Just ask Saab.

When Roger Penske stepped in, I hoped he would find a way to turn the company around. But it was not to be. In what was perhaps his most savvy display of business acumen, Penske pulled the plug on the deal this week. Both on and off the racetrack, Penske has proven to be a shrewd business operator. Knowing a deal is sour and walking away takes more guts than standing pat or pushing a bad position.

Sadly this lack of guts sealed the fate of Saturn. GM could never seem to find a way to consistently position the brand. Or follow through on the execution. Saturn started out a niche brand but GM wanted to morph it into a replacement for Oldsmobile. I never understood why Saturn didn't offer the Vibe instead of Pontiac, or even the Geo lineup before it was killed off a few years back. Both the Vibe and the Prizm were made in a joint venture between Toyota and GM at their NUMMI plant in California and were good cars.

Like everything else, GM pushed volume over profitability. Saturn was treated as an afterthought, a factory outlet store built outside city limits to peddle imperfect merchandise or last year's fashions. Rumor has it the late Roger Smith championed Saturn to "get even" with the UAW, Japan and just about everyone else. The rumor is plausible. Smith was vindictive on a level that makes Richard Nixon look like Will Smith.

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