CHICAGO – Saturn Corp. is launching a new marketing program that will attempt to counter perceptions that the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are better than anything domestic auto makers have to offer by making the competitive cars available for test drives at Saturn dealerships.

The program, to be announced Monday, June 10, is called the “Side-by-Side-by-Side Test Drive” and will run at least through July 31. It coincides with a new ad campaign that will tout the fact the midsize Aura sedan – not the Camry or Accord – was named North American Car of the Year by a panel of journalists in January.

“Those with preconceived notions about domestic cars, who wouldn’t even stop by a dealer to shop, are the people with a mindset we’re going after,” Saturn National Sales Manager Chuck Thomson says. “Rather than default to Camry or Accord, we’re saying we have a shot if you stop in and drive all three.

“When we get people in the seats, we’re very successful, even among people who’d never think about shopping a Saturn.”

Thomson says Saturn dealers close a sale 40% of the time when consumers test drive one of their vehicles.

Of course, by making the competition available to drive, Saturn runs the risk of shoppers favoring the competition.

“It’s a risk we’re willing to take,” Thomson says. “We don’t think it will happen.”

Sixty-percent of Saturn purchasers are coming out of non-GM vehicles.

Chevrolet has been weighing a similar program in which it would make available a Camry for prospective Malibu buyers at its dealerships, but Chevy says its program is not a done deal. A revamped Malibu, which shares its underpinnings with the Aura, is due in showrooms this fall.

Saturn began an at-home test-drive program in March. Shoppers can request a vehicle be brought to their home, workplace or other location by their local Saturn store for a test drive.

That offer has resulted in more than 1,000 test drives to date and now will include a chance to get into a Camry or Accord along with the Aura for comparison purposes, Thomson says. He does not say how many of those test drives have resulted in sales.

In a conference call with journalists earlier this month to discuss May sales, GM’s top market analyst Paul Ballew noted Saturn has had some difficulty in getting consumers to take notice of its new product direction, which includes the all-new Outlook and revamped Vue cross/utility vehicles.

“It’s going to take time to expand Saturn in the minds of consumers,” he says. “But we’re getting a strong retail mix. We’re making some headway. Saturn is the fastest-growing brand in the industry.”

Through May, Saturn has sold 22,535 Auras, named a Ward’s Interior of the Year winner earlier this week. Total Saturn sales of 103,935 in the first five months of 2007 are up 30.5% from year-ago.

– with David E. Zoia