The Curse of the Opel

Chatterbox is glad the UAW workers at General Motors’ Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee voted to retain their innovative labor contract, with its stress on teamwork over bureaucratic work rules. But Saturn workers have every right to be angry. They took a risk, moved to Tennessee, and managed to build about the only small car made by Detroit’s Big Three that matches the Japanese in reliability–in the 1997 Consumer Reports ratings it’s right up there with the Honda Civic. So what reward do the Saturn workers get? The other divisions of General Motors gang up to deny Saturn the capital it needs to add a midsize sedan or a sport-utility vehicle to its line. There is also the sneaking suspicion that UAW workers at plants covered by the old-style UAW work rules aren’t exactly happy to be shown up by their brethren in Tennessee. When Saturn finally got permission to sell a midsize car, GM decreed that it would be built, not in Spring Hill, but at an ancient GM factory in Wilmington Delaware, which will not be covered by the Saturn labor agreement.

All these insults have been covered in the press. What hasn’t been emphasized enough–the blow that will probably seal Saturn’s fate for good–is the precise nature of the car that will be assembled in Wilmington: It’s a reworked version of the Vectra sedan made by GM’s German subsidiary, Opel. To say that the record of Opel-designed cars on American highways has been disappointing would be an understatement. For example, the current Saab 900–designed after GM bought a chunk of the Swedish automaker–is also based on an Opel Vectra chassis. In the 1997 Consumer Reports reliability charts, the 900 ranks a distant last in reliability out of 31 midsize cars listed, with a rating of 60 percent worse than average. (The next worst car, the Dodge Stratus, is only 40 percent worse than average.) GM’s expensive Cadillac Catera is also a reworked Opel design, and it too is proving unreliable, according to Automobile magazine. The magazine reports that “while climbing a two-mile-long grade in second gear at about 4500 rpm, the smell of burning oil wafted into the car. When we pulled over, a small bluish cloud enveloped the engine bay.” After this and other experiences Automobile said it had “no choice but to question [the Catera’s] reliability.” Chatterbox will be very surprised if GM’s attempt to pass off yet another warmed-over Opel as a reliable, Spring Hill-style Saturn is anything other than a disaster that kills off the Saturn name for good. Maybe that’s the whole plan…