SCOTTSDALE, AZ - For nine years now, Saturn Corp. has been producing essentially the same underpowered 4-cyl. subcompact.

The marketing's been great; the cars, so far, not earth-shattering. But they've sold 2 million of these plastic-paneled icons and in the process have taught General Motors Corp. and its fellow automakers around the world a thing or two about manufacturing processes, worker and customer relations and the sales experience.

But nine years is a long time to ride the same horse. Can Saturn be more than a one-trick pony?

We'll find out soon enough as the boys and girls from Spring Hill begin to expand their empire by offering a new, larger sedan. Engines from England and New York will mate up with plastic body panels made at Spring Hill, TN. They'll roll down the line at what easily could have been a shuttered 52-year-old, 3 million-sq.-ft. (279,000 sq.-m) assembly plant in Wilmington, DE, that boasts it has built at least one car from every GM brand.

Enter the L-Series from Saturn. This time Saturn folks aren't just rolling around in the shallow end of the shark pool with a diminutive econobox. They're taking off with a full-fledged midsizer - the "L" in L-Series stands for larger - to compete squarely with the likes of Honda Accord and Toyota Camry (and throw in Volkswagen Passat and Volvo wagons, too).

From its conception in 1982, Saturn was a learning lab. Its successes so far include:

n A clean-sheet-of-paper approach with an all-new plant in an out-of-the-way location that made use of innovative assembly techniques including a space-frame unibody, plastic vertical body panels and lost-foam cast engines.

n A modern operating agreement with organized labor that still holds great potential for redefining labor/management relations.

n An innovative franchise agreement with its retailers and a set of customer relations procedures that's full of warm, fuzzy feelings - and measurable buyer loyalty - that makes even the most cynical offer more than grudging kudos.

But can Saturn operate outside its Spring Hill cocoon? Can it handle the complications of bringing engines in from across the Atlantic and become a real car company? It's put up or shut up time.

Can this sometimes quirky venture funded by the world's largest automaker really do battle with the big boys?

They think so in Spring Hill and Wilmington.

"The L-Series will give (customers) a logical step up from their current Saturns," says Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's vice president of sales, service and marketing.

No doubt the cry from Saturn retailers to offer something more to sell than just one size of vehicle was also a motivating factor.

Adds Saturn President Cynthia Trudell: "Midsize cars account for 24% of the car market in the U.S., so the L-Series more than doubles our market potential. When you add the redesigned S-Series (due this fall), which are in the small and sporty segment, Saturn will compete in 41% of the market - with brand-new products."

Saturn boasts one of the highest brand loyalties around and it intends to capitalize on it, says Gene Stefanyshyn, Saturn Vehicle Line Executive. "But we lose 50% of the people, (and) 50% of these people either go into a midsize car - typically Asian - or they go into an SUV (sport/utility vehicle). So there'sa huge amount of people who say I want a bigger car, but you don't have one. That's why we think we can conquest from Asians. Saturn people go to Asians because they really don't have an alternative. But what we're gonna do, is we're gonna keep 'em."

What likely sets this new Saturn midsizer apart from its truly innovative smaller sibling is that it is not quite as unique in its pedigree. There was no clean sheet of paper here from top to bottom. Plenty of borrowing went on inside GM - the Saturn team likes to call it leveraging - to get the L-Series project on stream.

The L-Series is a pair of midsizers - a sedan and a wagon - with a couple of engine choices. The entry level LS, LS1 and LW1 get an all-new 2.2L designed by Saturn engineers and built at the revamped Tonawanda, NY, engine plant. Saturn retains the lost-foam casting manufacturing technique for this aluminum powerplant. This "world engine" is unique to Saturn for now, but it will see life in plenty of other GM and Opel models in the future.

The uplevel 3L powerplant in the LS2 and LW2 is borrowed. It comes from Ellesmere Port, England, and currently is used in the Opel Omega, Cadillac Catera and Saab 9-5.

Transmissions also come from other GM applications. The 5-speed manual for the 2.2L comes from Saab. The 4-speed 4T40E electronically controlled automatic in the 2.2L began life in GM's Cavalier, Sunfire, Malibu, Grand Am, Alero and Cutlass. And the 4-speed automatic 4T45E in the 3L is in use on Cavalier, Sunfire, Grand Am and Alero. Both automatics are built in Windsor, Ont.

The original platform, conceptually, for this big Saturn also is borrowed. It comes from the Opel Vectra. But Saturn team members are quick to point out that this is not a rebadged Vectra. Vehicle Chief Engineer Grant Carithers explains that early discussions on adding a larger Saturn led to talks with the folks at GM of Europe's Adam Opel AG. "But the intent was never that this car would be a rebadged Opel. The Vectra doesn't use either of the powertrains we use on this, nor do they use the same transaxles."

Not to mention that the Saturn uses plastic body panels on a space frame. And it's also longer and wider than the current Vectra and comes with 15-in. (38-cm) wheels vs. the Vectra's 14-inchers (36-cm).

Styling on the L-Series, both inside and out, is uniquely Saturn. Dealers have begged GM for something more to offer their loyal customers. But you don't want to mess with a good thing. So the intent here clearly was to reach for family styling cues with the current S-Series. Brand identity is critical. But the European GM look also seeps through, especially in the LS sedans, with vague similarities to Catera or the old Saab 9000.

The LW wagon styling is clean and distinct from the sedan - unlike competitors Accord and Camry with roof and rear door lines that look like an afterthought. The L-Series wagon offers a solid, serious European estate image - dare we say Volvo-like - which will not hinder its curb appeal

What are they offering on Saturn's new midsize sedan and wagon?

The base 2.2L DOHC on the entry-level LS, LS1 and LW1 puts out 137 hp at 5,800 rpm and 135 lb.-ft. (183 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm. That's clearly competitive with the Accord's 2.3L with 135 hp and the Camry's 133 hp from its 2.2L.

Saturn's planning initially to build about 50% of the L-Series with the 4-cyl., but that will likely climb, says Mr. Stefanyshyn. "Next year we're looking at a 70%/30% (4-cyl. vs. 6-cyl.) mix. If you look at the way the Japanese run Camry and Accord, they run about 15% V-6s. If you look at the way the domestics sell, it's completely the opposite - you know, 20% to 25% 4-cyls., the rest V-6s.

"We clearly think it's gonna sell more like an Asian car, but the way we're set up (on price), I think we're going to be able to sell more V-6s. If you want to go from a base Accord to a V-6, you've gotta move up $4,500 in price. I think that they (Camry and Accord) sell so many 4-cyls. because they really price you out of the V-6s."

The uplevel 3L in the LS2 and LW2 puts out 182 hp. That's a bit under the Camry's 200 hp and Accord's 194 hp in their 3L offerings.

Handling on both models is nice and taut, as promised by Saturn engineers who said they spent a good bit of time collecting suspension and handling tips from their fellow GM engineers at Opel.

Driving the 4-cyl. with the automatic is like driving a 4-cyl. It gets you down the road, but whines and strains as expected when climbing a grade or on hard acceleration. The 5-speed adds a bit of zip to the cruise and makes driving significantly more enjoyable.

The 3L could be the real key for Saturn to capture those customers who take their driving a bit more seriously. We aren't talking a screamer here, but it has enough power to provide adequate reassurance for those who do a significant share of their driving on freeways.

With options structured like their prime competitors, the L-Series offers a 4-wheel independent suspension with 4-link rear suspension. Brakes are discs in front and drums at the rear in the base models and discs all around in the upscale offerings. Unlike their competiton, though, they won't offer a manual transmission with the 3L engine.

Other goodies on the L-Series include reduced force air bags, optional antilock brakes and traction control, and an oil change monitor that claims to eliminate unnecessary and wasteful oil changes.

Other items worth a mention include operating fluids that are engineered for life, a standard pollen filter in the climate control system and a 17.5-cu.-ft. (496L) trunk that's 25% bigger than what Accord and Camry offer.

But the L-Series will retain a lot of what makes a Saturn a Saturn. Front fenders, doors and fascia are thermoplastic. The liftgate on the wagons is SMC.

For structural reasons, however, the L-Series uses a lot more steel. Like the smaller S-Series, steel is used on the hood, roof and decklid, but unlike its sibling the L-Series uses steel on the rear quarter panels.

Capitalizing on the knowledge base at Spring Hill, the dent-resistant thermplastic body panels will be molded in Spring Hill and sent to Wilmington.

But in a move that innovatively out-Saturns the Spring Hill plant, the plastic panels and steel body parts will move along the same paint line at Wilmington. "At Spring Hill, we paint the metal going through, and then we paint the polymer elsewhere, and the polymer has to sit in this storage. Then you pull the red ones and put them on the red car. At Wilmington, we can send the metal, and the polymer panels ride on the buck with it," explains Ken Wasmer, co-chairman of the Saturn development team.

Saturn was holding the sticker price numbers for the L-Series close to its vest at press time, but did say that they would be "competitive with Camry and Accord." Toyota prices the 1999 4-cyl. Camry from $17,098 to $22,818 and the V-6s from $21,948 to $25,058. Honda's Accord goes from $15,200 to $20,900 for the 4-cyls. and from $21,700 to $24,300 for the V-6s.

By the numbers, initial output at Wilmington is pegged at about 200,000 units annually, with a comfortable starting line rate of 52 units an hour, says Mr. Wasmer. With added manning, the top end is "probably 300,000 cars." And the initial mix of sedans and wagons will be 85% sedans, he adds.

Another Saturn plus has been its good labor relations. While hourly workers at the Wilmington plant will not work under Saturn's innovative Modern Operating Agreement, they do appear to be embracing the Saturn team concept.

"From the beginning we've had 60 hourly people who had been on this project and had been going to Germany and have been with us the whole time. And they know this car inside out. We must have had 40 or 50 skilled trade guys at the body shop construction location going through making sure all the maintenance was right," Mr. Wasmer boasts.

And union leadership at Wilmington has been involved in the entire project. An enthusiastic UAW Local 435 President Joe Brennan even joined the Saturn team for this press introduction, talking up the product and the process and the men and women who will put the new Saturns together.