Saturn dealer John Bergstrom is facing an unexpected dilemma. Weeks before the Sky roadster hits the showroom, it is generating so much buzz that he has started a waiting list at all six of his stores.
"Sky is just a flat-out home run," said Bergstrom, chairman of Bergstrom Automotive in Neenah, Wis. "I've never had that before. They've never even considered a Saturn."
Waiting lists are unfamiliar for Saturn, sometimes dubbed the brand for people who don't like cars.
General Motors is pouring money into the 16-year-old marque, hoping that a new arsenal of Euro-look vehicles will help Saturn steal buyers from the imports. The Sky debuts in the spring, followed by the Aura mid-sized sedan and the Outlook eight-passenger wagon.
But nagging questions remain: Will sales rise enough to justify Saturn's fatter marketing budget at a time when Pontiac and Buick must trim their own ad campaigns? And is Chevrolet, GM's strongest and biggest mass-market brand, actually a better candidate to battle the imports?
Chevy dealers say they could easily fit mid-priced vehicles like the Outlook and Aura into their lineups. They also note that GM is promoting Chevrolet as its mass-market global brand.
However, Saturn does have two big factors working in its favor: a group
of dealers who enjoy bulletproof
customer satisfaction ratings and some ability to attract America's import owners.
In the 2005 model year, 6.8 percent of Saturn sales were import conquests, according to R.L. Polk & Co. of Southfield, Mich. Polk defines a conquest as a customer who replaces or supplements an import with a newly purchased Saturn.
By contrast, import owners accounted for 13.6 percent of Hummer sales and 20.0 percent of Saab sales. But those are low-volume products.
It makes more sense to compare Saturn with Chevrolet. According to Polk, import owners accounted for 4.3 percent of Chevrolet's sales.
That's a fair number of vehicles but cold comfort to Chevrolet dealers who have complained quietly for years that an unprofitable Saturn sucked resources away from their brand.
If Saturn "is not making money, it shouldn't be anointed with such wonderful product," said Gordon Stewart, president of Stewart Management Group in Harper Woods, Mich., which has GM stores in Michigan and Florida. "Why does it continue to be fed at the expense of the other divisions?"
GM does not disclose the financial performance of individual brands.
Mike Maher, owner of Maher Chevrolet in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that if GM were to take what it spends on Saturn and put it into Chevrolet products, "you probably would have sold twice as many. If you take it away from a very strong division and give it to a weak division, you've likely diluted your outcome."