Saturn looks past the Sky
The cars are getting sleek and edgy, but Saturn swears it'll stay warm and fuzzy.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Motors' Saturn brand has always been known for a friendly no-haggle dealership experience that won't raise your blood pressure and for cars that wouldn't budge anyone's pulse rate.
Now Saturn is looking to shake things up.
The brand remains vital to GM - about three-quarters of Saturn customers have never purchased a GM car before, said Alex Rosten, an analyst for Edmunds.com. For most GM brands, it's about a third.
So Saturn represents GM's best opportunity to get car buyers to give them a shot.
The problem has been getting customers into showrooms where they can experience Saturn's gentle sales touch. "The Saturn experience has always been the buying experience," said Rosten, "It hasn't been the product."
Indeed, Saturn has consistently topped every other non-luxury brand in J.D. Power and Associates surveys of how much people liked their car dealerships.
The new Sky sports car is GM's double-take inducing introduction to the new Saturn. No more Mister Nice Car.
The two-seat sports car has plenty of sharp edges, big swaths of chrome and air vents that are more than a bit reminiscent of a Corvette.
"I've not seen demand for anything quite like that car," said Tom Carpenter, who owns several Saturn dealerships in the Columbus, Ohio, area. "People just fall in love with it"
(Reports in the industry newspaper Automotive News indicate that some dealers are taking advantage of the Sky's popularity to raise its cost to customers. For more on Saturn's pricing policies and how they really work, read Secrets of the no-haggle price.)
Designs for the Sky, the Aura sedan - just entering dealerships now - and upcoming Saturn SUV and car models were created primarily in Europe by designers working with GM's Opel brand.
A car virtually identical to the high-performance Saturn Sky Red Line - and produced on the same Delaware assembly line - will be sold in Europe as the new Opel GT
The most important thing about the Sky isn't the car itself, said Carpenter. It's the customers it's attracting into his showroom.
"For a while there our floor traffic was a big concern," he said
But not everyone can buy an open-top two-seater, so the next step is to get products that will appeal to a broader audience into showrooms next to the Sky.
The Aura, just entering showrooms now with prices starting at about $20,000, is not quite as head-turning as the Sky. After all, a midsize four-door sedan just isn't going to have the sizzle of a sports car. Still, it has lots of sharp edges, jewel-like headlights and taillamps and Saturn's new signature, a thick chrome bar across the grille.
With the Aura, the real difference is on the inside with optional handcrafted-looking two tone leather, rich-looking faux wood trim and soft amber ambient lighting. This is no plain-vanilla family car.
Saturn is going after a more sophisticated customer now, said Bryan Nesbitt, who heads GM's European design studios, in an interview at the New York Auto Show in April. The new Saturn is for a stylish customer who wants to stand out.
But sharp, edgy cars might attract a sharper, edgier customer to Saturn dealerships.
Saturn has always appealed to people that Tom Gauer of J.D. Power and Associates defines as "dealer-phobes." Those are people who cower at the idea of dealing with a pushy, confrontational car salesman.
Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak bristles at any suggestion that Saturn is a brand for wimps.
"We've always appealed to that person that has a progressive mindset," she said.
Saturn customers appreciate purchasing a car in a way that breaks with tradition.
At a Saturn dealership, with negotiation over price rendered a non-issue, the salesperson can concentrate on a gentle, product-focused pitch. He can't ask "What do I need to do to sell you a car today?" because there really isn't much he can do. You either like the car, or you don't.
Since the Saturn way is so different from how cars are usually sold, most Saturn salespeople aren't experienced in automotive retailing.
"Our normal person we hire as a sales consultant does not have previous auto sales experience," said Carpenter.
About 20 percent of his sales staff are actually former customers, he said.
But can all this friendliness co-exist with hot, edgy cars? Already, there are reports of some dealers fudging on the "no-hassle, no-haggle" pricing policy for the Saturn Sky. (GM. is having "long talks" with dealers who risk the brand's reputation that way, said Saturn spokesman Kyle Johnson.)
"No-hassle, no-haggle" is here to stay, Lajdziak insists. Getting sophisticated, she promises, will not mean getting snooty.
Related: Saturn's Sky has its limits