Commentary

Saturn execs these days can’t wipe the grins off their faces, and who could blame them – sales, they say, are off the charts.

After years of languishing without new products, Saturn now is flush. By the end of the year, General Motors’ rejuvenated brand will have brought five new models to market in just 20 months, reinventing its entire lineup.

As Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak points out at a recent media unveiling of the next-generation Vue, the oldest car in the current product portfolio is the Sky roadster, which, she says, sparked the brand’s revitalization.

“We started out a year ago (when the Sky was launched in March), sending a signal,” says Lajdziak. “Something, indeed, was changing in the marketplace.”

In rapid succession came the all-new Saturn Aura midsize sports sedan, offering European refinement, a choice of sophisticated powertrains and voted North American Car of the Year in 2007 by 49 journalists from Canada and the U.S.

The 8-passenger Saturn Outlook cross/utility vehicle drove up next, with a price range of about $27,000-$38,000. And the redesigned compact Vue CUV hits dealerships this month, to be followed by the all-new Astra hatchback in the year’s fourth quarter.

The Vue also offers a Green Line hybrid and Redline performance variant. The Green Line next year will get GM’s Two-Mode hybrid system, which will further improve fuel economy.

The bottom line, Lajdziak says, is that Saturn sales jumped 25% in the year’s first quarter and continue to rise in a down market.

While Saturn’s latest surge is remarkable, it arguably is benefiting more than any other of GM’s brands to date from the company’s latest product-development strategy of harnessing its worldwide design, engineering and manufacturing expertise.

The ’08 Vue, for example, rides on the auto maker’s Global Compact Crossover Architecture, was jointly developed with GM Daewoo in Korea, received engineering input from GM Holden in Australia and Adam Opel in Germany and is being built in Mexico.

Another plus are the synergies starting to be seen by consolidating Saturn and Opel brands to provide European-styled vehicles for consumers on both sides of the pond. The Sky, for instance, built in Wilmington, DE, is exported to Europe as the Opel GT.

The Vue also has an Opel twin – both premium models but offering different powertrains. The Antara went on sale in Europe at the end of 2006 and is built in Korea.

The Outlook, meanwhile, benefits from GM’s Global Midsize Crossover Architecture, which also underpins GMC’s new Acadia and Buick’s ’08 Enclave. All three vehicles are being assembled at the new Lansing (MI) Delta Township plant.

Yet, this is just the tip of the collaboration iceberg. GM has been consolidating its engineering operations since 1992 and now has 12 engineering centers, including Brazil, as well as new facilities in Bangladesh, India; and Shanghai and Seoul.

Perhaps the most noteworthy for the U.S., Australia’s GM Holden is responsible for the RWD architecture that will underpin the upcoming Pontiac G8, Chevy Camaro and maybe a new Impala.

With all this firepower, no telling what’s on tap for the reincarnated Saturn brand further on down the road.

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com