Saturn renames S series as Ion, prices the Vue

General Motors' Saturn division said Monday it will rename its S-series entry-level cars in the 2003 model year. The new name will be Ion.

The Ion name will debut with an entirely redesigned line of entry-level vehicles slated to hit the market in the fourth quarter 2002. The Ion coupe will hit the market first and a sedan will follow closely thereafter, according to a company press release.

The replacement for the S series will be the first U.S. vehicle built on GM's front-wheel-drive Delta platform, which is being developed in Europe by GM's Adam Opel AG subsidiary.

Also on Monday, Saturn said its compact sport-utility, the Vue, will carry a sticker price of $16,835 for the base, front-wheel-drive manual model. The top-of-the-line all-wheel-drive V-6 will carry a base sticker price of $ 23,085. Prices include a $510 destination charge. The Vue is Saturn's first venture into the sport-utility market.

Saturn's $16,835 base price on the Vue undercuts its U.S. competition. The 2002 Jeep Liberty, DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Cherokee replacement, which went on sale earlier this year, has a base price of $17,035, and the Ford Escape has a base price of $18,535.

Just as Saturn hopes that the Vue will boost its overall sales, it hopes the Ion name and entry-level vehicle redesign will "re-energize" the entry-level segment, according to a company press release. The new name is expected to appeal to younger buyers and be associated closely with the Vue, the press release said.

Saturn spokesman Mike Gardner said the Ion vehicle line will offer customers more "customization and flexibility" than currently available. He would not reveal specific changes that will be made to the vehicle line to facilitate more customization and flexibility, but the company has said the vehicles will have a larger exterior and more interior space.

Saturn's strategy with its small cars comes at a critical time for the division as sales have slipped below last year's numbers. During the first nine months of 2001, sales of the S series fell by 16,538 units, or 12 percent, over the same period a year ago. The S series is pulling Saturn sales down as the company's bigger car line, the L series, is on par with last year's figures.

The company's decline in the entry-level market follows an overall GM trend. Sales of other GM entry-level vehicles, Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, are down 6.5 percent and 14 percent over the first nine months of 2001 as compared with 2000.

DaimlerChrylser also is having a difficult time pushing sales of its entry-level Neon cars to equal 2000's sales pace. Last year, the automaker sold 132,668 Plymouth- and Dodge-badged Neons in the first nine months. Neon sales are off pace by nearly 18,000 units, or 13.5 percent, over the same period this year.

Even though DaimlerChrysler killed the Plymouth division this year, the company expected Dodge and Chrysler to sweep up the remnants of Plymouth's customer base, boosting sales of products that were similar to those in the brand's portfolio. It hasn't happened with Neon.

In the first nine months of 2001, Dodge has sold 6,418 fewer Neons than it did in 2000, and Plymouth has sold 11,307 fewer Neons over the same period last year.

Ford Motor Co. has seen a similar downturn with the entry-level Focus, with sales down nearly 25,000 units, or 11 percent, through the first nine months of 2001 as compared with 2000.

Still, there is no indication that the U.S. market is cooling to entry-level sedans altogether through the first nine months of 2001 as compared with last year.

Sales of the Nissan Sentra, which was redesigned for the 2001 model year, are up more than 9,500 units, or 12 percent. The segment-leading Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla are performing near-even with last year's sales pace through the first nine months, with both trailing last year's figures by less than 1 percent.

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