Car for the Times: The Nearly Extinct Saturn SC1

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With the economy the way it is these days and no relief in sight at the gas pump; many Americans are turning to a time-honored tradition. They are buying themselves a beater.

A beater is that car that you wake up 3 a.m. in the morning to do your grocery shopping in. It has the sex appeal of Dick Cheney, but it is also a guilty pleasure. Why, you might ask? Because a good beater is there to do just one thing, save your wallet. They typically have good gas mileage, are pretty reliable and are cheap to fix when the odd piece falls off. And the best part of all, they are dirt cheap to buy.

First, let’s set the ground rules. When we talk cheap to buy, we mean CHEAP. Like two grand or less cheap. A beater should be so cheap that you only bother with liability insurance on it. If you ever break down, you should have the debate in your head as to whether it would be cheaper to just to leave it there to rust and buy a new one or to have it towed and fixed.

A 2002 Accord? No, that’s just a used car. A 1992 Accord? Now that is a beater. Extra points if it has mismatched color trim on it.

But, what if you don’t want something that was built when you couldn’t tell if the lead singer of your favorite band was a boy or a girl? There might be a solution for you. Enter a company that billed themselves as "A Different Kind of Car Company." Yep, you guessed it, Saturn. And they were a different type of car company. They combined Japanese reliability with, well, American build quality. And apparently American design aesthetics to boot (man were the ugly).

But you aren’t looking for the prom queen when you are buying a beater. You are looking for that edgy girl that used to smoke behind the gym after school and had questionable ethics. You want something that can do what you want it to do right now and not without having to lump out a ton of your hard earned money on it.

Like an AA meeting, it’s time for me to stand up and introduce myself. My name in Neal, and I have a beater problem. I used to own a 1995 Mazda RX-7 and it was a wonderful car. It was faster than stink and made me feel like a child on Christmas morning every time I drove it. But it drank more than an Irishman on St. Patty’s day and was about as reliable as an airline's timetable.

Being that I needed to do such trivial things as eat and get to work, I needed something to fill the gap. Out came the used car circular from my local supermarket. I searched for the usual suspects of efficiency and reliability. The Accords, Camrys and such. The sad part was, they were either too expensive, had too many miles on them or looked like Billy found a stash of controlled substances and decided to have some fun with an Erector Set.

And then I saw it. It was only 3 years old, had less than 75,000 miles on it and cost less than people were paying for their HDTVs. It was a Saturn SC1.

Sure, the engine was borrowed from an RC car and the interior would make a trailer park seem classy, but I didn’t care about that. I t was dirt cheap, got over 30 mpg and a leading consumer magazine rated it one of the most reliable cars around. So dug around my couch cushions for the appropriate change and sauntered on down to pick it up. For the price of a four-night Caribbean vacation I got a car that lasted me five years, 90,000 miles and the only thing I ever had to replace was the clutch. Value for money, it made an Accord look like an Italian supercar.

I will always look back with fond memories of my Rotary Rocket. But when I think back about the best purchase I have ever made, it will be that little Saturn.

So, if you are feeling the pinch of the economy these days, make sure nobody is looking and sneak out your back door and down to a used car dealer to pick up yourself a wonderful beater. And why not consider something that has a common trait with a Tyrannosaurus Rex?

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