NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Saturn Corp.'s vague notion of a sport-utility is coming into focus.
Saturn CEO Don Hudler said last week that parent company General Motors could approve the project within a year, which could put the new vehicle in Saturn dealerships as soon as 2002.
'It's a GM board decision,' Hudler commented after speaking at the Automotive News Southeast Conference. 'I would hope that it would be in the next 12 months.'
The new vehicle could be a whole new vehicle, or spun off the existing Saturn wagon, making it a sport wagon.
Saturn had confirmed that it was considering adding a sport-utility to its lineup. But officials have played down the idea as an uncertainty - at best several years away.
But Hudler and other sources now suggest that GM is much more serious about moving the project forward.
A Saturn source says the proposed sport-utility will appear as a 2002 model, with a twin version created for another GM brand, probably Pontiac.
The new vehicle will be based on GM's upcoming Delta global small-car platform. That platform will eventually yield the next Pontiac Sunfire, Chevrolet Cavalier and Saturn, as well as a European version produced by Adam Opel AG.
WHERE TO BUILD IT
The key question for GM appears to be where to build the vehicle.
Saturn's Spring Hill, Tenn., plant has the available capacity. Due to the small-car sales slump, Saturn has cut production. Two years ago, the plant was headed for an output of 325,000 cars a year. Now it plans about 270,000 a year, with no expectations to return to previous levels.
But according to the Saturn source, GM wants to build the vehicle at the small Lansing Craft Centre in Lansing, Mich. - at least initially. That plant built the now-discontinued Buick Reatta and now produces the low-volume GM EV1 electric car. The EV1 is leased through Saturn stores in the Southwest.
Hudler has said Saturn plans to move cautiously into new products in order to avoid muddling its brand identity. It will bring out its first mid-sized car next year, built in Wilmington, Del. That car, to be called the Innovate, is based on the Opel Vectra.
PLASTIC BODY PANELS
Yet the small-car line is being jostled by the market's shift toward light trucks and sport-utilities - of which Saturn has neither.
Also unanswered are questions about the design of the vehicle. Saturn insists on plastic body panels. That issue was a sticking point in the creation of the Innovate, which came from the traditional steel-paneled Opel Vectra. It is likely that a sport-utility would have to meet the same Saturn requirement.
Asked whether the sport-utility might compete with other GM products, Hudler said, 'Any car in the market competes with someone. But our track record for eight years now has been 75 to 80 percent plus business for General Motors. We feel we can do that with the mid-size as well as any other products that are developed.'