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What To Expect As Saturn Shuts Down

Posted: Oct 01, 2009 10:54 a.m.

The Saturn car company will be gone by year's end. Parent company General Motors announced its intention to shut down the brand yesterday, after negotiations with a potential buyer broke down.

So what's next for Saturn owners? And is it worth buying one of the last Saturns sitting at the local dealership lot, or is it too risky?

First of all, don't hope for a stay of execution. In a press release announcing its intentions for the brand, GM wrote, "We will be winding down the Saturn brand and dealership network, in accordance with the wind-down agreements that Saturn dealers recently signed with GM." When GM shut down its Oldsmobile unit in the early 1990s, it faced protracted litigation on the part of dealerships that lost their franchises. This time, the General has apparently planned ahead, and believes it has managed that possibility through dealership agreements, and can safely begin closing Saturn's operations. It's likely that at least a few of Saturn's roughly 350 dealers will fight closure, but GM is apparently better prepared for that eventuality with Saturn than it was with Oldsmobile - and the company successfully closed the Olds brand.

Carroll Smith, a board member of the National Automobile Dealers Association, told the Houston Chronicle that all of the existing Saturn dealerships "will either shutter or transition into used car dealers. It's been difficult to be a Saturn dealer ever since GM announced it would either sell or close the brand," he added. "The public reacts to that. Most Saturn dealers I know have attempted to hang on waiting for this Penske deal. Most Saturn dealers I know are selling hardly any new cars. They're selling mostly used and doing service work."

The loss of about 350 Saturn dealerships is expected to threaten 13,000 jobs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

If you already own a Saturn, your warranty will still be honored and GM will continue to provide service. Motor Trend reports, "Current Saturn customers will be able to continue to have their vehicles serviced by GM service centers after the Saturn wind-down is completed." In its press release, GM explains, "We will be communicating with our customers very soon to explain the next steps in this process." Saturn owners may be directed to a specific Chevrolet or Buick dealership in their area for future service, but most GM dealers can easily service and repair most GM products regardless of brand.

Most Saturn products, we should note, share almost all of their parts with products sold by other GM divisions. The Outlook SUV, for instance, is built on the same platform as the Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia. The four vehicles share the same chassis, engine, transmission and suspension parts. The differences between the four are mostly design elements - exterior body panels and interior trim. Every Saturn product is in a similar situation, sharing most of its design with other General Motors cars.

Even the unique parts will most likely remain easy to find for some time - GM continues to pay a handful of third-party companies to build a small number of replacement parts for some vehicles it hasn't built in twenty years so that a ready supply exists for repairs.

And what of the last Saturns on the lots of doomed dealerships? For the most part, what's already on the lot is all there will ever be. Production of the Sky roadster and Astra small car ended in early 2009. Edmunds Straightline Blog reports, "Aura production has already stopped and will not restart, and company spokesman John McDonald said that Outlook and Vue production will wind down ‘as quickly as possible.'"

So if you don't see the car you want on your dealer's lot, you probably can't order it. Saturn dealers can buy vehicles from one another, so a local dealership may be able to obtain a vehicle it doesn't currently have in stock. However, moving it to your local dealership will add to the cost, so shoppers might want to search dealer inventories online and be prepared to travel to a far away dealer to buy the right car.

The price of a Saturn may decline heavily as the end of the year approaches, but that proposition is far from certain. GM announced plans to shutter its Pontiac division months ago, and so far, we've seen few reports of ridiculously low prices at doomed Pontiac dealerships. We will bring you reports of any fire-sale prices at closing Saturn dealers, but for now, we remain skeptical that we'll see them - General Motors has already stopped production of most Saturn products, and may not have a glut of Saturn inventory to eliminate.

If you're in the market for a new car, check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars as well as this month's best car deals.