G. Chambers Williams III: Saturn aims high with Sky
Web Posted: 02/26/2006 12:00 AM CST
G. Chambers Williams III
Express-News automotive writer
Excitement is building at your local Saturn dealership.
And for a car brand that has never attempted to sell itself as exciting, that's a whole new concept.
The reason for all the buzz? Saturn, the small-car company General Motors Corp. created in 1990 to fight the imports, is about to get its first sexy vehicle, and people are already lined up to get one.
It's the all-new Sky roadster, a little two-seater that will sell for under $24,000, but looks like a car that might cost twice that much.
Production of the Sky has begun at the General Motors plant in Wilmington, Del., and the cars will begin arriving at dealerships in late March, but in very limited numbers.
The Sky represents the beginning of a major renaissance for Saturn, whose sales have been lagging as its products have failed to keep up with the needs of today's consumers.
The 2007 Saturn Sky already has people lined up, though it's not due at dealerships for another month.
And that's despite the brand's great success at winning customers through its fixed-price, no-haggle sales policy and award-winning customer service. Saturn, which sells only affordable vehicles, consistently ranks with the luxury brands in measures of customer satisfaction.
Adding a vehicle such as the Sky to the Saturn lineup is a way to expand the brand's appeal, said Dave Smidebush, Saturn's director of marketing.
"We certainly have built our reputation in the marketplace on our customer service," he said. "Our customers want high-quality, reliable vehicles. But they also want vehicles with more style."
The Sky "signals for Saturn a revitalization of the brand where you have our traditional service and reliability, combined with a higher degree of style, driving dynamics and interior refinement. You will see more and more of that from us," he said.
At Saturn of San Antonio, about 20 sold orders are already in hand, but it may be months before all of those orders are filled, said dealership President Rick Cavender. Each of the dealership's two San Antonio locations has taken about 10 orders, he said.
"We're actually being careful what we promise our customers because we know we're only going to be able to deliver about 15 per store this year," Cavender said. "It's not even out yet and it's already extremely popular, as I knew it would be."
The excitement for dealers such as Cavender, who has endured slow sales at his Saturn stores in recent years, is that the brand finally has a vehicle coming that will attract people who get emotional about cars.
That's a switch. Saturn traditionally has appealed to customers who view cars as something of a necessary evil, and are looking for sensible, practical transportation appliances, not a fashion statement.
"We've always needed something to halo the brand, and I think we've found it with the Sky," Cavender said. "Saturn has always been depicted as having efficient, safe cars, but the 'wow' factor has been missing.
"But the Sky is loaded with 'wow.' It's such a beautiful car, and it's going to bring people into our showrooms who would never have considered a Saturn in the past."
There is good reason to believe that, considering the success of the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, a similar two-seat roadster introduced this past fall.
It's built on the same architecture as the Sky, in the same factory, and since its rollout dealers have been unable to keep up with consumer demand.
At Cavender Buick-Pontiac-GMC in San Antonio, which is owned by a different branch of the Cavender family, there are about 20 customers on the waiting list for a Solstice, sales manager John Novak said.
"We got our first one right about Christmas, and we've only been able to deliver about 10 so far," he said. "The availability just isn't there yet, which helps make the car enticing for customers."
Other dealers report similar experiences with the Solstice.
"We sell every one we get, and we still have 40 or 50 people on a waiting list," said Russell Fox, general manager at Red McCombs Superior Pontiac-GMC-Hyundai.
"People love it, but we just can't get enough of them."
Ditto for Gunn Pontiac-GMC, where new-car manager Russell Fox said the cars are "flying out of here as quickly as we can get them."
But GM has no desire to increase Solstice production above the planned 20,000 units annually, Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson said.
"We're never going to go to 40,000 or 50,000 cars a year, even though we could sell that many right now. We're looking for a sustainable number over the long term, and the total market for two-seat roadsters is just 100,000 a year."
GM has the same strategy planned for the Sky; it will not flood the market with it or the Solstice..
"Solstice has been big-time for us," Hopson said. "We sold the first 1,000 of them in 41 minutes. Over a 10-day early-order period, we sold 7,116. And at the time, no one had driven one, and most of the customers had never even seen one in person."
By the end of this month, he said, Pontiac will have delivered 10,000 Solstices since they began arriving at dealerships early in the fall.
And in the last three months of 2005, GM sold 6,754 Solstices, outselling the completely redesigned Mazda MX-5 Miata — the main competitor — by 1,815 vehicles, Hopson said.
"I have never seen a car that spurs such an emotional connection to people as the Solstice," he said.
Pontiac isn't worried about competition from the Sky, either, Hopson said. "People seem to like one style or the other; there isn't a lot of cross-shopping.
"Like the Solstice, the Sky is not the most practical means of transportation," he said. "But both of these are cars that are connected to the driver in a physical and emotional way. They are cars that make you feel good."
Pontiac dealers say most Solstice customers have been married couples in their 40s and 50s who were buying a third vehicle.
But the car also is attracting young, first-time new-car buyers who "don't need to haul kids around or have a lot of trunk space," Hopson said. With the top down, the Solstice and Sky have very little room left in their trunks.
Unlike the situation at Saturn, for Pontiac dealers the Solstice was not such a big surprise.
"The brand has always positioned itself as sporty, and the Solstice fits right in with that," Superior Pontiac's Fowler said.
At Saturn, though, the Sky marks a whole new direction for the brand, Cavender said.
"There is a lot of reinvestment in Saturn," he said. "GM is growing the brand into new segments, and taking it upscale. Because we're so strong on sales and service, the company is letting us do this with new products. It's an exciting time for Saturn."
The Sky is just the beginning, Cavender said.
"We have the all-new midsize Aura sedan coming this summer, followed by the eight-passenger Outlook crossover in the fall," he said.
"The Aura is simply stunning. And this summer we're also getting the Vue Green Line hybrid SUV, which will sell for under $23,000. Things are certainly looking up for us."
Now, Saturn dealers have three lines — the compact Ion sedan and coupe, the Vue compact sport utility, and the Relay, a sport van similar to the Chevrolet Uplander.
"With the new products, we will be doubling our product portfolio in one calendar year," Cavender said. "That's just phenomenal."
As for the Sky, it will come in just one model, at least for now, with a price of $23,690 (including freight), Saturn spokesman Randy Fox said.
"They will start arriving in retailers very shortly, and the start-up is going extremely well," he said. "We know that the supply is going to be short for a while, but we're going to do everything we can to meet demand."
Under the hood will be a 2.4-liter, 170-horsepower Ecotec four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing, connected to a five-speed Aisin manual transmission or an optional five-speed automatic.
Like the Solstice, which starts at just under $20,000, the Sky will have a manually operated soft top that folds completely into the trunk, leaving a clean exterior when the top is down.
The Sky is quite similar to the Solstice in most other ways, as well.
The biggest difference is the exterior styling, which is unique to the Sky and features the new "face" of Saturn on the front end, the company said. The same look will be used on other new Saturns as well.