The Saturn SL was a series of four-door sedans produced from 1990 to 2002, sold as 1991 to 2002 model years. It was part of Saturn's extensive S-Series lineup, also featuring the SC sports coupe and the SW station wagon.
Saturn's Beginnings and S-Series Development
Saturn's S-Series lineup might not be the most exciting list of vehicles when looking back, but they were an innovative offering and the first under the Saturn brand name. The idea for the brand was initially developed as a standalone, privately-owned carmaker by General Motors employees, but shortly after its founding in 1985, General Motors stepped in and absorbed the brand as a subsidiary. Nonetheless, Saturn remained fairly independent, with its own production facilities, components, and dealerships. The S-Series was Saturn's first vehicle and included the Saturn SL four-door sedan, the SC two and three-door sports coupe, and the SW five-door station wagon. The vehicles all used a similar body shape with a distinctive sharp front nose, thin headlights, and undersized grille. Saturn also used a "no-haggle" pricing strategy, aimed at alleviating consumer concerns about dealership markups and struggles. The Saturn SL was released in mid-1990 as a 1991 model year. The unique spaceframe design was paired with innovative plastic body panels that were dent-resistant and were used as one of the brand's primary advertising features. The four-door sedan was a relatively well-equipped model that also was value-oriented. Those who wanted high-performance machines would look elsewhere, but if you wanted a fuel efficient, reasonably-priced automobile with low-maintenance exterior and a unique look, the Saturn SL was a top choice.
Saturn SL Trim Levels and Engines
The first SLs were available in three trim levels, the base SL, mid-range SL1, and upper-level SL2. A variety of 1.9L inline-4 engines were available in the first generation, ranging from a less-powerful 85 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque LK0, to the mid-range L24 with 100 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, and the highest performance LL0 with a slightly more impressive 123 horsepower and 122 lb-ft of torque. The transmissions available included five-speed manual and four-speed automatic, with the manual found on most lower level models and the automatic used as a premium upgrade. The base Saturn SL was lightly equipped and lacked power windows or locks and cruise control, but an upgraded stereo and air conditioning system were available as add-ons. Bumping up to the mid-range SL1 included power steering, improved interior upholstery, and other optional upgrades like power locks and windows, the automatic transmission, and cruise control. The SL2 top-level trim used the 123-horsepower engine and added on color-matched bumpers, 15-inch wheels, and many options such as sunroof, anti-lock brakes, and leather seats.
Second and Third Generation Changes
The second generation Saturn SL came out in 1996 as a 1997 model year. The exterior was redesigned, although it retained much of the styling cues from the past generation with its distinctive front nose that was made slightly less sharp for this generation. The interior changes included a digital trip odometer to remove the noise from the past generations odometer, a surprising complaint that was relatively common. The 1.9L inline-4 engines remained largely unchanged, although in 1999 some updates to the piston, connecting rod, and crankshaft designs were implemented. The five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions remained as well. In 1999, the third generation Saturn SL was introduced as a 2000 model year. Once again, it was redesigned while retaining much of the same overall look. One of the biggest changes came to the lower body panels, which received a more modernized look, plus some improvements to the headlight and trunk design were added on. The interior dashboard and center console were also redesigned, now adding in a more comfortable armrest and center storage compartment. A powertrain control module worked in conjunction with the body control module for the first time on a Saturn. The engine and transmission options remained largely unchanged. In 2001, just one year before the Saturn SL and S-Series was discontinued, the Saturn SL2 10th Anniversary Edition was released, adding in more luxurious amenities such as side curtain airbags, leather interior appointments, more power options, and a rear spoiler.
Looking Back on the Saturn SL
While the Saturn SL in general was quite successful for a new economy-focused brand dishing out practical vehicles, the S-Series ended in 2002 to make way for the growing L-Series and other Saturn vehicles. The brand continued to expand its lineup in the mid-2000s, taking on the more usual GM subsidiary approached of using badge-engineered models that were nearly identical to other GM brands. But Saturn began to suffer and was unable to repeat the success of the S-Series with its later models, eventually ending the brand entirely in 2010.