Is Saturn Really a Success Story?

When GM sends out their press release each month with the prior month’s sales results, they (like other automakers) try to spin the positive and downplay the negative (“our sales were down 12%, but we’re working toward reducing fleet sales,” etc.). For example, here’s the most recent one:

“The product renaissance at Saturn continued to accelerate with total sales increasing almost 69 percent compared with a year ago, highlighting the tremendous public acceptance of the new lineup of Saturn vehicles including SKY, AURA and AURA Hybrid, OUTLOOK, VUE and VUE Hybrid. Saturn’s ION small car is soon to be replaced with the popular ASTRA. Saturn is the fastest growing brand in the industry this year.”

According to Automotive News, Saturn’s sales are up 75.3% in May 2007 compared to May 2006 (must be a different way of counting, versus the press release). Year to date through the first five months of 2007, sales are up 30.5%. Sounds good, right?

Well, before we declare victory too early, let’s look at what makes up those numbers. The lineup in May 2006 was:

Ion
Sky
Relay
Vue
The lineup in May 2007 is:

Aura
Ion
Sky
Relay
Vue
Outlook
Granted, the Relay is on its way out the door (don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out), but its insignificant sales in May 2007 (235 units) is not far from its slightly less-insignificant sales in May 2006 (460 units) as the model is phased out and replaced by the Outlook. Also, Saturn’s website still promotes the Relay, so I consider it a legitimate member of the May 2007 lineup.

So, the number of vehicles in the lineup went from four to six – or an increase of (ahem) 67%, or about the same percentage that Saturn’s sales went up in May 2007. When you look at each model’s individual sales, however, it shows that most of the sales increase is coming from the newly launched models and not from the old stalwarts.

Ion and Relay sales are down (but those two models are on the way out later this year) and Sky sales are way up YTD – but the Sky was barely available in the early part of 2006 as its production ramped up. For the Sky, we’re comparing an established model to its launch period.

The Aura was not sold in May 2006, nor was the Outlook, but after Aura sales began in August 2006, sales (excluding the first two months) have been about 4,500 sales per month, give or take a few hundred. There’s no sign that the Aura will suddenly sell at Camry, or even Malibu volumes.

Vue sales look great YTD and for May, but May was the first month of wide availability of the new model…as of April, the figures told a different story, when Vue sales were down for the month and YTD.

Basically, we’re in the absolute sweetest part of Saturn’s lineup life cycle (the upcoming Astra will only sell about 30,000 units per year maximum, less than the Ion’s worst year, because GM can only afford to lose enough money on the Astra to sell that many with their plan to import cars from Europe in the current weak dollar environment). It won’t get any better from here, folks, without increasing incentive spending, increasing the marketing budget, and continually improving the models they have now. They’re not going to go from six to ten models in May 2008 (in fact, next year at this time, the Ion and Relay will be mostly a bad memories), so the lineup will be five models. The Vue, Outlook, Aura, and Sky will be a year older, and the Aura’s sales have already leveled off months ago. We won’t be seeing near triple-digit sales increases; in fact, I predict that Saturn’s sales will be nearly flat in May 2008, especially as internal competition from the new 2008 Chevy Malibu starts biting into Aura sales. Outlook sales may continue to improve, but the Astra won’t reach Ion sales volumes.

Still, launching new models and increasing sales is the name of the game, right? Well, Saturn has sold almost 104,000 vehicles through 5/12ths of 2007, in spite of a 75% sales increase this year, but those seven models combined don’t make as many sales as the following individual model cars: Chevy Impala, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Toyota Corolla. Even Kia (with a similar truck-free lineup, but more focused on higher volume smaller cars) outsold Saturn!

So, while Saturn is doing what it should in expanding its lineup, sales increases through lineup expansion can only go so far. Next comes the hard part of building those models’ sales figures without adding more products. It is possible – Saturn’s competitors do it all the time. For now, though, being outsold by the Impala or Kia does not make what I’d call a successful brand, nor the savior of GM. They need to keep plugging away if they even want to beat little Kia and redouble their efforts after that if they plan to start throwing victory parties.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. Staurn has some great product on the way, and as the public gradually figures out what they have now is good, and what they going to have later is good, they’ll do OK. Saturn suffered from neglect for the past 15 years and it won’t be turned around overnight.

  2. If Saturn could have gotten more Honda engines in their cars and SUV’s, that would have been a pretty good combination. The Honda V6 in the Saturn Vue is very sweet.

  3. wellwisher, the Honda V6 was definitely a shot in the arm for Vue sales. I have a 3.0 liter version of that engine in my 2004 Honda Accord and it’s a great engine. The GM purists were appalled with the concept of having a Honda heart inside a GM vehicle, and the 2008 Vue gets the GM corporate 3.6 liter high feature V6. Output is similar, and the GM HF V6 is also an excellent engine, but the Honda V6s are gems.

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