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‘94 SATURN WAGON SEEMS TO RISE FAR ABOVE THE SUM OF ITS PARTS

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My first ever test drive of a Saturn was in March 1991, a dealer car believed to be the first of the new marque in Utah.

I gave that car a very positive review, partly because it deserved it and partly because, like most Americans, I wanted General Motors to succeed in its nine-year, $5 billion gamble that it could make just as good a Civic or Corolla as Honda and Toyota and that Americans would buy it.I didn't test another Saturn until June 1992. By that time, the success of Saturn was a done deal and the automotive press had taken the gloves off, complaining about engine noise, dated styling and price hikes that were not only keeping up with inflation but leaving it in the dust.

Now it's May 1994, and I have been driving another Saturn for the past week, a '94 station wagon with the SW2 options package and painted a very attractive shade of blue-green (the favored color of the '90s) that several people liked enough to comment on it.

In fact, the Saturn garnered a good deal of praise during my week in the saddle. Considering that I have had a run of pricey luxury cars to test lately, I was surprised when every member of my family made unsolicited comments to the effect, "I really like this car."

There was nothing that stood out for them. They just felt good about the Saturn. There are any number of cars that do everything the Saturn does - and some do them better and for less money - but the Saturn wagon seems to rise above the sum of its parts. It won't make you the envy (or the enemy) of your friends and neighbors, but you will find it easy to live with.

As noted above, the Saturn coupe and sedan are starting to look dated, mainly because of their swoopy, boy-racer design, a look that tends to age more quickly than a no-nonsense econobox design - Honda Civic and Mazda Protege come to mind, or even the new Dodge/Plymouth Neon (although the Neon's cute little headlights may soon wear out their welcome.)

But if dated looks are a problem for the Saturn sedan and coupe, not so the wagon. Station wagons have all shared the same basic design going back to the "woodies" of the '40s, and the Saturn is no exception. Give it a face lift and it will be good for another five years.

Even if styling is in the eye of the beholder, quality is not, and the Saturn's assembly quality was up to the best small Japanese cars, long the standard for fit and finish.

Early Saturns were criticized for having too much engine noise - that first Saturn I drove in 1991 roared like a lawn mower. But the folks at Spring Hill, Tenn., have quieted things down a lot. Now, the only time the Saturn's 1.9 liter DOHC 16-valve four banger intrudes on the cabin is in heavy acceleration situations, such as passing, and that's not hard to take.

The wagon's price may not go down so easily. I have driven so many expensive luxury cars over the past year that the Saturn's bottom line of $16,295 gave me no sticker shock at all.

But maybe it should have. I haven't been out shopping for small, entry-level cars lately, but if I had, I think I would have a lot of choices in the Saturn's class for considerably less money, especially with the Saturn coupe and sedan.

Admittedly, the number of players in the small wagon segment drops off dramatically. There are a lot of small hatchbacks out there that kind of play the role of a station wagon, but not many are true wagons. But at near the price of the Saturn wagon, the larger, faster, 4-wheel-drive Subaru Legacy is a formidable competitor that comes to mind.

Base price of the Saturn wagon is $13,395. On my test car, the $1,765 SW2 package included power locks, power windows and a power right-side mirror (the left is manual). Air conditioning (ozone safe) and cruise control completed the package.

Alloy wheels added another $300, fog lamps another $150 and an AM/FM cassette boosted it another $355. With $330 transportation charges, the bottom line was the aforementioned $16,295.

But whether Knudson thinks that figure a bit high doesn't matter one whit to the half-million Saturn faithful. The company says it is able to sell every car it makes - up to 322,000 a year, which is the Spring Hill plant's capacity - and many of them are being sold at full price. Many Saturn dealers have adopted the "no-dicker sticker," which has apparently been embraced by buyers tired of haggling over prices.

Response from the wagon's 85 horsepower engine is good, particularly off the line up to about 30 mph. The computer-controlled, four-speed automatic is quite smooth, at least until you switch into the "performance" mode. A button on the console allows the driver to choose between "performance" and "normal" driving. In the performance mode, shifts are delayed slightly while the engine goes for higher revs.

On the inside, the Saturn is comfortable and well finished. All the controls seemed crisp and well placed with the exception of the heater/AC fan switch, an odd, ribbed rotary gizmo, and the cruise control, buried under the steering wheel in a hard-to-reach position.

The seats were heavily bolstered on the bottom and sides, something you usually see only on sports cars - the idea is to hold the driver in the seat while he or she is smoking through the turns.

But I don't think anyone is going to do much hard driving in a Saturn wagon so the seats end up being merely tight rather than supportive. I imagine someone bigger than my five-eleven, 175-pounds would be squeezed pretty good.

Dropping the rear seatbacks down for full cargo capacity was wonderfully easy - many hatchbacks and wagons require you to wrestle with the seats and their seat belts, but the Saturn does not.

The '94 wagon had a driver's side airbag (but no passenger's) and it seemed to have been added on to a steering wheel not designed for it. The color of the airbag cover didn't quite match the rest of the wheel, and it bulged out in an odd way I've not encountered before.

The wagon also had a motorized mouse for the chest seat belt, suggesting it was left over from the car's previous "passive restraint" system. The lap belt is attached separately.

Next year's Saturn is scheduled for an interior redo and dual airbags. Presumably, the motorized belts will be replaced with standard, three-point belts with a single buckle. The rear seats in the '94 wagon already have them.

The EPA rates fuel mileage for the wagon at 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, not bad but nothing to brag about for a small car with a four-cylinder engine. I didn't even do that well, although car reviewers are not noted for economical driving.