Saturn stands at the crossroads. Sales of its aged S series were down 10 percent last year in the biggest new-vehicle market in history. Its new mid-sized L series has stumbled. Sales are about one-third of the projected total, and production has been slashed.
Saturn bills itself as 'a different kind of company' with a different approach to the auto business: No rebates. One-price selling. Sales at or near the sticker price. No price advertising.
The Saturn me-thod doesn't seem to be working too well these days.
The key question is this: Did the L series falter because the styl-ing is dull or because the Saturn philosophy is outdated?
Clearly, it's the hardware. Saturn should not abandon its successful selling niche because one car is having trouble.
In the meantime, Saturn needs to bend its rules a tad to jump-start L-series sales.
The car has a decided price advantage over such rivals as Camry, Accord, Malibu and Taurus. But how many prospects know it? How about a price advertising blitz?
The L series is playing in the most competitive segment of the auto market. If you're not named 'Camry' or 'Accord,' you have to be sensational to grab sales from the established brands. That was part of Saturn's mission.
The L series is not sensational. It's a plain-Jane four-door sedan and wagon.
General Motors must shoulder much of the blame for Saturn's predicament. GM has starved Saturn on the product side. Plymouth, too, has been starved by its parent, and Saturn shouldn't follow Plymouth's road to extinction.
The S series accounts for 70 percent of Saturn's sales, and the S series is virtually the same S series that Saturn introduced in November 1990. GM boasts of its many new products and of many more that are in the pipeline. But when it did give Saturn something new, it was an undistinguished sedan and wagon in a market that is screaming for pickups and sport-utilities.
There is a sport-utility in Saturn's future, but not for 18 to 24 months. It had better be sensational.
Saturn must learn that while its respectful selling style is great, it is no longer enough to overcome me-too product.