Cynthia Trudell, president of Saturn Corp., has run an assembly plant and helped design new vehicles. But now, armed with ambitious sales goals for Saturn, she will need the nerves of a riverboat gambler.
With a new mid-sized sedan and wagon, Trudell is betting that she can double Saturn's sales to about 500,000 units within a couple of years. That is a lofty goal for a company that has suffered declining sales for the past five years.
The good news is that sales of the mid-range segment, as defined by the Automotive News Data Center, rose 6.1 percent in 1998 over 1997. The segment has 23 cars, including the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Malibu and Honda Accord.
'We are not just bringing out a new vehicle,' Trudell said. 'We are doubling the size of the company, and our dealers will grow as we grow.'
70 MORE STORES
Trudell's strategy depends heavily on the enthusiasm - and bank accounts - of Saturn's dealers. To handle the expected business, Saturn is adding 70 dealerships nationwide, almost all of them built by existing dealers who are expanding their territories.
Saturn started selling the S series in the fall of 1990, leaving dealers with some of the oldest products in the small-car segment. Yet, Saturn's customer satisfaction ratings remain high, a testament to Saturn's trademark, superior dealer service.
Now, Saturn dealers will have an expanded product lineup. The new items on Saturn's menu are the LS sedan and LW wagon, both based on the Opel Vectra from Europe.
Scheduled for introduction this summer, the cars will feature a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine - the first edition of General Motors' new world engine, the L850 - and a 3.0-liter V-6. Both engines feature four valves per cylinder and double overhead camshafts. The new Saturns will be assembled in Wilmington, Del.
With a length of 190 inches, the two Saturns will be comparable in size to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Unlike the Vectra, the LS and LW Saturns feature ding-resistant plastic door panels.
Antilock brakes and traction control are available on all models. Both cars are equipped with low-power airbags.
Trudell predicts about 60 percent of buyers will be owners of non-GM vehicles. That conquest rate is slightly lower than the 75 percent rate for Saturn's smaller S-series cars.
But it indicates that Saturn believes it will maintain its status as GM's chief import fighter. With that in mind, Trudell hinted that Saturn might promote the new models' European performance and handling.
All this sounded encouraging to two dealers who attended Saturn's New York press briefing last week. Mike Lazarus - owner of three dealerships on Long Island - is adding two stores over the next year.
With those new locations, he expects to double last year's sales of 3,000 new cars.
Stuart Lasser, president of Saturn of Morristown, N.J., is enlarging two stores and building a service center. Eventually, he expects to sell about 2,400 new cars annually, up from 1,400 last year.
Lasser compared a Saturn dealership's one-model lineup to a McDonald's stand that has only one item on the menu.
'We've been selling hamburgers for eight years,' he said. 'We haven't had fries and Coke. Under the circumstances, Saturn has held up incredibly well.'