SPRING HILL, Tenn. - Saturn Corp. is still looking for outside inspiration to build better cars.
When the General Motors venture was formed in the mid-1980s, it looked closely at Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp. - the Japanese carmakers it wanted to challenge.
Today, said Jim Ulrich, Saturn's vice president of engineering, Saturn still is studying Honda and Toyota. But it also is taking notes outside the auto industry, he said - specifically at the Gap retail chain and at Ritz-Carlton hotels.
And he doesn't mean looking at them for marketing inspiration: He means looking at them for ideas about building cars.
'I really don't think the Gap sews any of its own clothes,' Ulrich acknowledged. 'But when it puts the Gap label on those clothes, they suddenly become the Gap brand. Maybe there is something there for us to learn about how you develop new products.'
From a retailer of sweatshirts and baggy pants?
'We can look at the Gap and say, `They're successful. What can we pick up from them to use in our operations?' I believe that allows us to work better with Opel and Saab and other car companies to get what we want to serve Saturn customers.'
Ulrich and his team have just delivered Saturn's first mid-sized cars - the L-series sedan and wagon. Unlike the first uniquely Saturn cars, the new L cars have several influences from elsewhere in GM. They are based on the German-designed Opel Vectra platform, incorporate GM family engines and a Saab manual transmission, and use suppliers from Europe and North America.
IT'S THE RITZ
What did a luxury hotel chain have to do with all that?
'The Ritz stops at nothing to give its customers something extra,' said the engineering executive. 'It doesn't matter whether you're selling hotel space or cars or clothes. It's all about meeting the customer's expectations.'
Ulrich said Saturn had that in mind when it omitted side airbags from the new models. 'We weren't satisfied with what the industry had to offer in side airbags,' Ulrich said. 'So we're not going to give customers less than they should have.'
Saturn engineers are working on roof-mounted bags to appear later.
'We will pick and choose any technology from any company in the world if it's in the best interest of Saturn customers,' Ulrich vowed. 'We're not bound by whether or not we invented it here. We're not bound by whether it comes from General Motors.'
The company also has been listening closely to what its Japanese customers say about its products. That is unusual, since Saturn's Japanese sales to date have been insignificant. Last year, the company sold fewer than 2,000 cars in Japan.
'But the Japanese tend to be tougher on some things than U.S. customers,' Ulrich said. 'On fit-and-finish, for example. The Japanese market expects things to be exactly right. Even though they represent a very small part of our overall sales right now, we can still learn things from them that improve the product in the North American market.'
A LITTLE LESS NOISE
Input from Japan caused the company to go back and take noise out of the car that had not been a problem in the United States, Ulrich said.
'We can't create a different car for Japan, but we can incorporate ideas into the vehicles we sell everywhere,' Ulrich explained.
That, he said, is a Gap idea: incorporating different influences to make the overall brand better.