WHEELS: Solar Power

In 1983, when the Saturn project was first announced, the American auto industry was in the doldrums, with all the innovation coming from Europe and Japan. But the creative short circuit that caused veteran journalist Brock Yates to write a book called The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry was about to be dramatically repaired. A few years later, along came the Ford Taurus, an epoch-making car.The General Motors chairman who introduced the Saturn to the world was Roger Smith, whose most enduring legacy, chronicled in Michael Moore's Roger and Me is a massive relocation of labor from heartland places like Detroit and Flint, Michigan to Mexico and other points south. But from the beginning Saturn was something quite different, a partnership between two usual antagonists, management and labor. Part of the launch was creation of a GM-United Auto Workers (UAW) Study Center, and the factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee gives far more autonomy to line workers than is customary in the industry. Employees are called "members," a bit of public relations silliness that nonetheless conveys some worker management. A recent UAW referendum on the way Saturn is run resulted in a 2-1 approval of the company's management structure.Saturn's story is, however, not a simple fairy tale pointing up the value of good works. There's still worker-management conflict there, and sales of the car itself are flat, reflecting America's disdain for small cars in an era of cheap gas. (Saturn is considering building a sport-utility vehicle, which seems an abrogation of their self-described environmental mission.) Though President Don Hudler denies it, citing a four- to five-year product cycle, Saturn models seem to stay on the vine long after the bloom has worn off. Styling appears to change only incrementally.And so it was intriguing to see the new Saturn three-door coupe. Yes, that's not a misprint. The car has three doors, plus the trunk. Was the world waiting for a quirky vehicle like this? It's hard to say, but I for one found it quite convenient, and no great blow to the car's appearance.People who value symmetry in automotive design might be thrown off by the inescapable fact that the left side of the car is different from the right. Let's face it, consumers buy coupes because they like the way they look. But the only styling compromise is some extra body seams. The third door, which is on the left, furthers a concept seen on some contemporary pickups. Open the driver's door, then use the internal handle to pop the smaller rear door to an almost-90-degree angle, giving dignified access to the back compartment.It's excellent for families with small children, giving unparalleled access to rear-mounted car seats. My kids hate two-door cars, but they were right in line with this new concept. The third door is great for loading groceries, too. Saturn also had the disabled community in mind, and will reimburse buyers up to $1,000 for the installation of wheelchair equipment. All 1999 SC1 and SC2 coupes have the third door as a standard feature. The Saturn remains an affordable car as price inflation continues. The base model starts at $12,445 in manual transmission mode, and the SC2 at $15,005.I wish I could say I love everything about the three-door Saturn. But the interior is a little plain. And the 1.9-liter engine, while quieter (responding to consumer complaints about buzziness) is not the smoothest power plant around. The Saturn wins points for fuel economy, if anyone cares anymore. It achieves 40 miles per gallon on the highway, which is excellent performance.John Z. DeLorean used to talk about building an "ethical car." He didn't, but Saturn does. Consumers with a conscience should respond accordingly.

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