In the mid 1980′s there was a fear of Japanese manufacturing. They seemed to be able to produce better cars, more efficiently at a lower cost then the United States could. General Motors felt like they were behind the eight ball, and an idea was circulated to try making a different type of car, with a different manufacturing and sales process. The result of that was Saturn.
Badge-engineering had reached it’s ultimate low in the 80s with the Cadillac Cimarron, which was essentially a fancy Chevrolet Cavalier. This method of production was ubiquitous throughout the GM line, and it was not uncommon for basically the same car to exist for 4 different name plates. Saturn was different. They shared no architecture with any GM cars, and were designed to compete with small Japanese cars by selling in volume and targeting budget minded small car drivers. And thus the S-Series was born.
The S-Series was much loved by people who had them, in fact many are still on the road today. They lived up to GMs expectations of being reliable, but were considered by many to be bottom of the barrel in terms of amenities. The plastic (no dent) body which was meant to decrease overall maintenance, ended up giving the car an even cheaper feel. Also, most buyers of Saturns were not converts from Japanese, but rather GM drivers who wanted something more reliable and economical. From a sales stand-point, Saturn to GM was a disappointment.
For used car buyers it’s a great opportunity though. 90s Saturns are readily available, cheap to repair and maintain, and are low in cost compared to a Japanese compact. A quick search finds many low mileage examples, which look great because their plastic panels are of course rust proof.
Stay away from 2000+ Saturns, especially the L-Series. Around 2000, GM forgot the original goal of Saturn, and started thinking “Let’s badge engineer some of these to cut costs”, and the L-Series was notoriously poor for reliability. After that, Saturn became just like every other badge engineered GM brand, and it was no surprise that by the end of the decade it faced the same fate as Buick and Oldsmobile. The rare light at the end of the tunnel was the Saturn Sky, which despite being completely uncharacteristic of the brand, I believe was the most beautiful and rare of the GM roadster platform (also shared by the Pontiac Solstice, Vauxhaul VX and Opel GT)