Pros: Most dependable car ever owned, safe, fuel efficient, and fun to drive, cheap to maintain
Cons: Interior showing its age with some rattles
I am now the second member of our family to drive the 1993 Saturn SL 1 that my mom purchased new. Ten years and 170,000 (mostly highway) miles later, I was given this for my 16th birthday. Because I knew its history, I knew that this was a great car. In the past five years, I've put an additional 50,000 (60% highway, 40% city) miles on the odometer which now reads 219,893.
What I find most remarkable about this car is that never once has it left me or anyone else stranded anywhere. The only repairs to it are simply normal-wear items; I'd say that after 200,000+ miles if this is the only sort of work that has been done, I have absolutely no reason to complain. Regular preventative maintenance (basically just fluid and filter changes) is key to keeping the engine running like new. Since my family has owned the vehicle for all of its 15-year life, I can provide very detailed service records, because I have done almost all of the work myself.
*Unless specified, the work was done by me.
Under warranty, the upper weather seal on the driver's side door was replaced because it would leak in the rain.
65,000: HVAC position damper stuck in defrost position, mechanic replaced slider arm, $150
75,000: Front and rear brake pads and rotors were replaced (disc brakes on all four corners) by a mechanic. ~$225
85,000: New Tires, ~$225
90,000: Passenger side axle seal replaced (by dealer) $400
100,000: Changed Fuel Filter, $50
2003 170,000: I begin driving the vehicle
172,000: Rear brake rotors and pads changed, $100
175,000: Replaced OE alternator, $130
180,000: Front brake rotors and pads changed, $130
187,000: Replaced spark plugs and wires, $50
192,000: Mechanic Replaced leaking O-Ring in A/C system and recharged refrigerant, blows frigidly cold now, $110
195,000: Replaced muffler, $110
199,000: New tires (P175-70R14), $230
200,000: Mechanic replaced noisy passenger-side front wheel bearing, $180
202,000: Front suspension work including: new struts (replacing the originals), stiffer sway-bar bushings (highly recommended), lower control arm bushings, ~$400, then taken to tire shop for alignment that also replaced the driver's side tie-rod end ($90)
210,000: Replaced faulty alternator while still under warranty
210,000: Mechanic diagnosed whining from belt area as belt tensioner, so he replaced for $70
212,000: Replaced passenger-side parking brake cable, $18
2008: No service as of Jan. 30, 219,893 miles
Oil changes every 3,000 miles @ $12 ea.=$876
5 air filters @ $10= $50
Coolant flushes 3 @ 8= $24
Transaxle fluid changes= $10
Wiper blade changes 7 @ $12= $84
Total maintenance costs over 15 year period: $3,712
Maintenance costs/year: $247.50
I will say it again, I have nothing to complain about with this car because nearly all of the work I did is typical of a vehicle with 170,000+ miles on it. Certain items wear down with every mile driven, and among those items, many lasted longer than anyone would have expected. (Notice the original alternator lasted 175,000 mi. and the OE struts made it 200,000 while the muffler lasted 195,000 mi. in the Chicago area!) I can attribute this to a well-built, mildly driven AMERICAN car, but also to the fact that I listen and feel for things that are showing wear and replace them as soon as I can afford to. The repair costs have been minimal when compared with nearly any other vehicle on the road of similar age. As I mentioned earlier, this car has never left anyone stranded, and the engine still performs beautifully. Both drivers have gone easy on the clutch, so it still grips tightly when upshifting or downshifting.
Perhaps most amazing is how rust and oil free the underside of the vehicle is. A combination of many wax, plastic, or rubber-coated parts, and rust-proof polymer side panels seem to all but eliminate rust problems, so much so that the muffler lasted almost 200,000 mi. Also the good condition of the gaskets and seals on the engine/transaxle is proved by the absence of leaking or seeping oil.
To top it off, I feel that this car is styled far better than most of the now rustbuckets of the day with its sleek, clean lines and lack of side trim strips or panels that are prone to cracking and falling off. The interior is simple and not busy, but also quite roomy and comfortable even for moderately long drives. The cassette stereo system is also quite impressive for a base setup.
I would recommend these cars to anyone. Perhaps the key to our success, besides good upkeep, was the decision to stay away from such failure-prone frills like power windows, locks, and mirrors, although this car does have ABS and A/C, which has been trouble free. Also, the small SOHC 1.9L 4-cylinder, while peppy, is definitely not built for racing as evidenced by problems known to occur with blown head gaskets, or worse, cracked cylinder heads on 1990's models.
With an EPA rating of 36 MPG city/39 highway, this car is a great gas-miser. Depending on the type of driving, I average 30-33 MPG. This is quite good considering that on the highway, I prefer to push the speed limit by 10-15 MPH (~80), and by no means do I lag behind traffic in town. Once, I achieved 40.5 MPG when trying to see just how good this car could do. With the A/C on, however, mileage drops to 27.5 (worst ever observed)-30 MPG. My mom, a more feather-footed driver than me, usually got about 36-38 MPG mixed.
No surprise, when my younger brother needed his first car, we tracked down a clean 1999 SL1 with the 4 sp. auto and only 87,000 mi. Though Saturn's S-series was significantly upgraded twice throughout its 1991-2002 model life, I feel that mine is more attractive both inside and out than his, although the interiors did become quieter on later models to keep up with consumer demand. The auto in his has a reputation for being extremely reliable, but it does produce rather harsh shifts. Also worth noting, the newer models went to rear drum brakes, which, in my experience, generate significantly more noise, and require more pedal effort when stopping. The engines, though quieter on newer models, seem to have an unrefined "buzzing" quality, attributable possibly to different emissions components, not found on the smoother and quieter '93. Mileage in the higher-horsepower 1999 drops significantly to an average of 27-30 MPG. Running the A/C brings it even lower to about 24-27 MPG. Also, while both cars are rather grippy in corners considering their skinny tires, the '99 leads you to believe it's sportier than it really is because the heavily-weighted steering when pushed causes the tires to squeal in turns. Lighter steering on the '93 tends to inspire less driver confidence, but I've never squealed tires on a curve in this car. Both cars perform reliably in the snow, but the manual transmission in the '93 allows the driver more control than the auto in the'99 despite its having traction control. Be prepared, however, to make very long stops on icy roads as the ABS programming simply does not allow the brakes to lock up long enough to do you any good. At least directional control is well-maintained should any evasive maneuvers be required in a sticky situation.
Another underestimated benefit of these cars is the plastic polymer body panels (except hood and trunk top). The paint on my car still looks brand new. Despite being in no major accidents, my mom showed this car its share of fender-benders (though I have not gotten in any!). Two involved our pickup, stationary, in our driveway. Once, she backed into it at a very shallow angle and left a 4 foot dent in the driver's door rendering it almost useless. The car just has a slight abrasion on the black plastic bumper and some loss of paint on the passenger-side rear quarter panel. Another time, she backed the truck into the car, ironically in the same manner and again, just chipped the paint a little. After both of these incidences, a tiny can of touch-up paint made these marks all but invisible. Once an SUV backed into the driver's side front quarter panel in the winter cracking the panel. This was the only time the car visited a body shop. The most serious occurrence involved her spinning out on the highway and striking a guard rail on the driver's side with the rear bumper. She said that after the car bounced off the guard rail and came to a stop, she could hear the bumper pop back out. The only evidence of this is a very small crease.
The only complaint I have about my 1993 Saturn is the noticeable creaks in the hard plastic interior when driving on bad roads. Potholes generate significant noise from the dashboard panel while the front doors' paneling rattles a little while idling. These problems are most noticeable during winter months when the materials contract loosening the grips of the fasteners. Though the '99 interior is much less attractive, this problem has been alleviated.
For my money, I would recommend finding a gently-driven, clean early-mid 1990's model with about 120-160,000 miles on it. Even at this mileage, you're likely to get at least 100,000 miles out of it, and pay under $2,500. I'd say you would more than pay for this little car in this time if your daily driver is currently a pickup or SUV, or even a large car. Interestingly, it bests every car sold in America today on mileage except the SMART ForTwo microcar and Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrids, plus you don't have to buy a brand new car to achieve this savings. Even Saturn's current compact, the Astra, only gets 24/32 MPG, no doubt because of its almost 50% gain in horsepower. If you're looking to cut down on your expenses, a little car like this is probably the best option available today due to its reliability, safety, rust-free body, low cost of ownership and purchase price. Think twice before believing all the current hybrid hype!