As General Motors Corp. nears a decision on whether to build a bigger Saturn, a major unanswered question is whether the new car would be a product of the much-touted "Saturn culture."
Saturn spokesman Greg Martin would not confirm or deny a USA Today report that GM's board will vote Aug. 6 on whether to proceed with building the mid-size car, code-named Innovate.
"Nothing's been approved; nothing's been announced," Martin said Friday.
The car, based on the Opel Vectra that GM's German unit builds and sells in Europe, has been in the planning stages for well more than a year. It would be built at a GM plant in Wilmington, Del., that had been targeted for closure.
GM started Saturn as an experiment in creating a new way to build and sell a top-quality American-made small car. Much of its success has been attributed to its marketing: Saturn cars are sold at fixed prices--dealers don't haggle.
In its folksy ad campaign, the company touts the fact that assembly line workers at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant have greater say in making the product and, according to the ads, greater pride in their work.
"If in fact the car is going to be built at Delaware, the issue the corporation has to face is if that plant is going to be operated like the Saturn factory," said James Hall, an industry analyst with AutoPacific Inc. in suburban Detroit. "I don't think anyone can know which way that's going to go."
Because much of Saturn's popularity is based on the way the cars are sold, the way the factory making a new model might operate might not make that much difference to car buyers, Hall said.
"If a Saturn is not built like a Saturn has been built, is the customer going to notice?" Hall asked. "Only if it's visible to the customer."
Although Saturns have a reputation for being reliable, they are not leaders by any measure, be it fuel economy, roominess, power or price, Hall said. "The retail experience can cover for a less-than-optimum product."