Saturn Corp. blames its poor sales this year on the slow production start of its 2000 models, the new L series and restyled S series.
The launch of the L-series sedan and wagon has been delayed by production problems at Saturn's Wilmington, Del., assembly plant, Saturn spokesman Tom Wilkinson said. He would not discuss the nature of the problems.
As for the 2000 S series, Saturn's bread-and-butter car, Saturn has deliberately kept supplies low to give dealers a chance to clear out the 1999s.
The result through October of this year is that U.S. sales for the S series dropped 8.5 percent to 182,165 units.
Also through October, Saturn sold 14,164 L-series vehicles, its first new model since the Saturn launched the S series in 1990.
'I think we lost a little momentum there,' Wilkinson said.
With the 2000 S series, which Saturn began assembling in July, Saturn redesigned the interior and its in-body electrical components, adding such features as a theft-deterrent system.
But clearing out the 1999 models can be difficult for Saturn because of its no-haggle pricing philosophy. Instead of offering big factory incentives on the 1999 models, Saturn has tried to find the right balance between inventories of the 1999 S series and the new 2000 models, Wilkinson said.
Marcy Maguire, co-owner of two Saturn dealerships in New Jersey, said: 'They will never have a customer in June feel like he missed something when they roll out a new car in September.'
Saturn dealers are more interested in getting the L series on their lots.
Although there was a big national ad push for the L series early on, inventories have remained low as Saturn increases production at its assembly plant in Wilmington. Saturn only recently boosted advertising on the regional and local level as dealers get more vehicles.
In October, the Wilmington plant assembled about 12,300 L series vehicles, according to Automotive News estimates. The plant has the capacity to assemble 200,000 units per year, or 16,700 per month.
'We had such good momentum. But we got the inventory late,' Maguire said.
Saturn had a lot of growing pains this year, Maguire said. 'I hope the settling period is behind us,' she said.
FOUR YEARS LATE?
Jim Butler, who owns two Saturn dealerships in St. Louis and one in Carbondale, Ill., said the success of the L series wouldn't be determined until after the first quarter of 2000.
'What we hope is people will be upgrading to the L series' from the S series, Butler said.
Before, those customers went over to the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. 'We needed the L series four years ago,' he said.
Saturn is trying to drum up more sales by offering a competitive lease plan on both of its cars, Wilkinson said. Saturn's Web site, saturn.com, also is offering $25 gift certificates - for Lands' End, Borders Books & Music and local movie theaters - to people who test-drive its cars.
At auto shows next year, Saturn will try to attract attention with its first concept car.