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Cruel twist of fate

Today, General Motors added insult to injury. After groveling for another gazillion-dollar "bailout," they announce that they're phasing out Saturn.

We are taking this very hard. There has been a Saturn parked in the driveway of the CrazyStable since 1996, the year after the Child was born, when we'd had enough of psychopathic used cars that conspired to strand us, conk out in front of oncoming Mack trucks, or simply incinerate themselves. Our marriage had been marked by a long succession of dysfunctional cars inherited or gifted from other people. (As beggars, we were not choosers.) We began with my dad's gigantic Delta 88 (or, as we liked to say, "This is your father's Oldsmobile"). This car, the Blue Shark, mourned my father by demanding a rebuilt transmission every other year, and eventually expired on the BQE.

Next came my deceased uncle's Cutlass Ciera ("This is...your uncle's Oldsmobile!"), a comfortable, but moody and evil, beige sedan we named The Manatee, because it was too slow-witted to elude predators. (It routinely fainted in the middle of left turns.) Briefly, the Manatee was joined by The Blue Whale, a Ford LTD owned in turn by several friends; this was a car so ponderously long and heavy that you could see the fear in the eyes of other drivers, especially those behind you as you climbed a hill. (The thing would start to roll backwards from its own weight before roaring into forward motion.) It had a trunk large enough for several dead mobsters. Its engine ignited in our driveway, and our local fire company ("Da Pride a Flatbush") tore open the hood and flung the air filter, like a flaming Frisbee, into the street with a crowbar. The Whale's blackened corpse was hoisted onto a car-squashing hauler and borne away for charity.

When we ran out of free cars, we did everything you were supposed to do in shopping for a used one, but still ran afoul of a Ford Taurus dubbed The Red Menace. This car got sideswiped the first time I drove it away from the curb, an ill omen followed by countless futile attempts to diagnose the engine's habit of broiling like a self-cleaning oven after an hour or more of highway driving. Who knew there were so many mechanics honest enough to admit they could not, for the life of them, figure out what the hell was wrong? During the last Taurus Barbecue Stunt, as we clutched our baby on the shoulder of the LIE and waited yet again for a tow truck, we swore: No more used cars.

Car-shopping in Brooklyn showrooms, however, was like a cross between a David Mamet play and a Mad TV skit. "Lemme talk to my boss and put ya together a package," said a Ford salesman who was a dead ringer for Andrew Dice Clay. We fled.

And then we remembered all the cute ads for Saturn, with folks dancing around proclaiming, "I love my Saturn!" We were especially drawn to their "haggle-free pricing" policy. The cars were just okay, but the showroom was paradise for a pair of auto-buying naifs. The nice people showed you the sticker price, answered your questions, gave you a test drive, and then gathered together for an embarrassing yet oddly touching rah-rah ritual before you drove away with your new baby. And we discovered something better yet: If we leased instead of bought, we could afford to drive a new, non-murderous car and then unload it in three years when it started to go sour.

Thus began our happy years with Saturn, the little plastic-covered car that could. First came little green "Zippy" (the "Z" line), then the heroic "El Zippo" (the "L" series), which was totalled in a two-sided collision but protected the Child and me with its stout steel frame. (Our dealer looked at pictures of Child standing outside the crumpled hulk and got tears in his eyes.) The least successful of the bunch was Legolas, an elfin green sedan with a mildly epileptic electrical system, but it was about this time that GM started hanging the whole Saturn line out to dry. (It was also during the time when you couldn't lease in New York, so we actually had to buy the damn thing. Used.)

But in 2007, the dealer joyfully introduced us to the Saturn Aura. What we could afford to lease was an Ion (a car so cheaply made that I swear the dashboard had stick-on decals). But what we got was a golden Aura, which we named Floradora. That's her in the picture up top, nosing out onto the scenic roads of Maine almost two years ago. She's no powerhouse, but she's a good, steady ride and we love her. None of the Saturns had a hell of a lot of personality, but frankly, we'd had plenty of that during the cars-of-the-dead phase. Driving Saturns felt like dating an accountant after a ditching a cocaine-snorting rock drummer; dull can be sort of nice.

Saturns inspired some crazy loyalty, especially early on. We were never goofballs who drove to Spring Hill, Tennessee for factory "reunions" or other such nonsense. But we liked the simplicity of knowing that we'd trade in one Saturn for another, and no one would try to sell us a "package." Last year, our Bay Ridge dealer folded his tents, and now GM is giving this once-visionary brand the shaft as part of their recession bloodletting. GM chief Rick Wagoner told the New York Times, "It is unfortunate and it seems like a cruel twist of fate at a time when Saturn is loaded up with a fantastic product portfolio.”

It was supposed to be "a different kind of car," made by spunky profit-sharing Americans and sold by kind, courteous non-weasels. Now it's one more stick on GM's bonfire of the vanities. In a year, when our lease is up, I wonder what we'll drive next. Maybe (shudder) we'll just take the bus and subway for awhile.

Posted on Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 12:25AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments4 Comments

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Reader Comments (4)

A honda!
February 18, 2009 at 06:52AM | Unregistered CommenterDee
I have an original Saturn that I bought from my mother-in-law. You've nailed the personality, so I won't go into that. I also love that I get something like 38 mpg on the highway and the parts are really, really cheap. I had the transmission and engine replaced and various parts repaired for less than the average used car. The body has 308,000 miles on it. The original guts didn't wear out until 283,000. Great, albeit a boring, car. Really, there is something to be said for it.

Honda is good, but Hyundai is really good too. Relatively inexpensive ($15,000 for a new Elantra), solid, and a lot more comfortable than a Saturn.
February 18, 2009 at 03:46PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn
The thing I liked about our old Saturn was the impossibility of getting a speeding ticket.
February 23, 2009 at 07:52PM | Unregistered Commenterralphbon
Our '95 SL2 was very dependable, though it leaked/burned oil like a sieve, had a bad transmission shudder and the dealership didn't fulfil their end of the warranty. Yeah- the rah-rah thing was truly painful.
March 8, 2009 at 08:56PM | Unregistered CommenterLenise

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