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One can make a strong argument that Saturn proves you don't need to make the best car to have some of the happiest customers in the land.

If you want to be honest about it, it is unlikely that Toyota is shipping Saturns back to Japan to copy.To some automotive critics, Saturn never made the proverbial quantum leap in small cars. It's more like a me-too hop.

Saturn has just a tad too many rough edges. A little coarseness here and there, such as the powertrain, means it falls short of the refined nature of the best Japanese products.

Nevertheless, Saturn is thoroughly pummeling the competition - including the Japanese - when it comes to overall customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power & Associates.

During the most recent survey of 1993-model owners who had their vehicles for a year, Saturn was tops among domestic nameplates. Saturn was also third overall, beaten only by the Japanese marques of Lexus, in first place, and Infiniti.

What appears to be going on is that an excellent dealer network is more than making up for some little lapses in the car itself.

A closer look at the Power survey shows that Saturn's biggest strength is, indeed, on the "customer-handling side," said Gun Dukes, a group director in the research department at J.D. Power.

Saturn was rated fourth best in the section of the survey that asks about the dealership experience, which includes buying the car as well as service, said Dukes.

When it came to playing up to their customers, Saturn was beaten only by Lexus, Infiniti and Jaguar, in descending order.

Saturn President Richard "Skip" Le Fauve agrees that dealers have played a key part in Saturn's success. "They couldn't do it without us, and we couldn't do it without them," he said.

It is no coincidence that Saturn, Lexus and Infiniti are all at the top of the customer-satisfaction list. All three automakers had the advantage of hand-picking the dealers who would sell their cars.

The idea when Saturn was being formed was to find dealers and corporate employees who would treat people with "dignity and respect," said Le Fauve.

That doesn't mean that the idea at other automakers is to treat people like scum.

But Le Fauve said special training and special emphasis went into customer handling. That included some brilliant concepts such as noticing that women don't appreciate salespeople addressing them as "honey" or ignoring them when "the man of the house" is in the room.

Treating the customer with "dignity and respect" may not sound like rocket science, but J.D. Power's data shows a surprising number of automakers do not have ignition, much less launch, when it comes to civility and catering.

In particular, J.D. Power data shows some dealerships selling Japanese cars are still trapped in the 1980s, when demand for their products was so high that salespeople could be nothing more than order-takers, Dukes said.

To succeed now, that has to change - because as all cars get better and better, treatment at the dealership becomes more critical, Dukes said.

"People are assuming they are going to get a car that will serve them well from a technical point of view," said Dukes.

It is special treatment at the dealership that provides the "little extra icing on the cake," she said.

Le Fauve said it's just common sense that the treatment at the dealership will also have an effect on how people like their cars.

"We see in our studies, if they are able to launch you well, those marques have an advantage," Dukes said.

Dukes said Saturn also seems to have been very successful at conveying the idea that it is some kind of big family. So, even when there is a problem with a car, "it is hard to get mad at your family," she said.

Saturn's score for treatment at the dealership is higher than its score on the portion of the survey that dealt with "quality and reliability" of the car itself, said Dukes.

But Saturn's quality-and-reliability score was still quite good. In descending order, Saturn was beat only by Lexus, Infiniti, a tie between Acura and Honda, and finally Toyota.