DETROIT — First Cadillac, then Chevrolet, now Saturn.
After spending billions to revamp two of its most storied brands, General Motors Corp. has turned its attention to one of its newer makes — an estimated $3 billion effort to inject some excitement in the Saturn lineup and create a portfolio that appeals to a broader audience.
Saturn's newest addition, a sporty roadster called the Sky, will make its debut at next week's media preview for the North American International Auto Show at downtown's Cobo Center.
The car is scheduled for production in 2006 and is expected to carry a price tag under $25,000. It will be built at GM's Wilmington, Del., assembly plant.
Besides the Sky, Saturn plans to add a new mid-size car and a larger sport utility vehicle by the end of 2006, doubling the size of its portfolio. Saturn also is set to show a concept vehicle called the Aura at next week's show that company officials say provides a sneak peak of its upcoming mid-size sedan.
"This is an aggressive move and growth strategy we're putting behind the brand," said Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak. "What people want from us is a growing portfolio and a dynamic design."
Saturn's current lineup consists of three models: The Vue SUV, the Ion compact sedan and coupe and the Relay minivan. GM decided last year to stop production of Saturn's L-300 mid-size car.
To appeal to performance-focused drivers, Saturn created the more powerful, sportier Red Line series for the Vue and Ion models. The Ion Red Line boasts 205 horsepower, the Vue Red Line 250 horsepower.
The brand, once billed as "a different kind of company" making "a different kind of car," could use a boost. U.S. sales for 2004 were off 22 percent from a year ago, though Lajdziak said the company projected a decline after it decided to end production of the L-Series and stop selling vehicles to commercial fleets and rental companies. In 2003, overall volume was down 3.2 percent.
In August, Saturn said it would voluntarily recall nearly 247,000 Vues in North America because its rear suspension failed during two government rollover tests. Sales of the Vue, however, rose 5.8 percent in 2004.
Saturn was launched in 1990 to compete with low-cost imports such as Toyota Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Initially, all cars were built in the small town of Spring Hill, Tenn., and Saturn maintained its own, very distinct identity.
At dealerships, Saturn's no-haggle pricing was intended to eliminate what many buyers find to be a stressful experience.
In recent years, Saturn has adopted many of GM's common practices for design, production and labor — a change analysts say was inevitable as the brand seeks to become more competitive.
A good example is the European influence in the design of both the Sky and Aura.
The Sky was created at GM's Advanced Design Studio in Birmingham, England, signaling the adoption of an international design cue for Saturn. GM says the Sky's look will influence Saturn's entire future lineup.
"You're going to see a real design consistency among our products," Lajdziak said.
The Sky's wide stance is enhanced by 18-inch wheels pushed to the corners of the vehicle. The convertible top folds completely into the rear compartment and the clamshell hood reinforces its "sports car" image.
Joe Barker, manager of North American sales analysis for the forecasting firm CSM Worldwide, said Saturn certainly was due for a makeover, but whether it has the same success as Cadillac and Chevrolet depends on a couple of key factors. After an estimated $4 billion retooling at Cadillac in the past several years, the luxury brand's sales rose 8 percent in 2004, its best showing since 1990.
Chevy sales rose 3.6 percent last year, that brand's best performance since 1988.
When Cadillac unveiled the new 2005 STS performance sedan last year, it became the luxury brand's eighth new vehicle since 2001. Chevy also has a much-enhanced lineup, with new cars such as the Cobalt, which replaced the high-volume Cavalier.
"There has to be a draw to the Saturn brand," Barker said. "There has to be a reason for car buyers to go to a Saturn dealership and look at a Saturn product. If they execute these vehicles well and reshape the brand's image, there's no reason they can't be successful."
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.