At $3,900, Is This 1997 Saturn SW1 a Good Deal?



Today’s Nice Price or No Dice Saturn is the antithesis of another GM brand, the recently resurrected Hummer. Let’s see if this plastic-bodied wagon’s price makes it synonymous with good value.

Watching the votes for yesterday’s $14,000 2011 Range Rover SC tally in real-time was fun as it jumped back and forth between those in its favor and those against. Half of you seemed to feel “that’s a lot of car for the money,” while the others countered that it was “a lot of future problems that would eventually cost a lot of money.” Ultimately, the dreamers held sway, with the Range Rover taking home a 53 percent Nice Price win.

That was a close one. Perhaps we’ve been setting our sights too high? Today let’s look at an older car that, while not truly a beater owing to its condition, is still something that shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to keep on the road. In fact, with its plastic body panels, five-speed manual, and fascinating corporate history, this 1997 Saturn SW1 might actually be a keeper.

General Motors debuted Saturn’s products—a coupe, sedan, and wagon—for the 1991 model year as its clean-sheet import-fighter brand. The new company nominally replaced GM’s moribund Geo brand of actual imports and was set up with a bespoke factory in Tennessee.

Those initial models were built with a spaceframe construction, to which metal and polymer body panels were fastened, a practice that GM had earlier pioneered with the Pontiac Fiero. The plastic side panels provided dent resistance but required significantly wider gaps between the panels to account for the material’s greater dimensional changes during temperature shifts. That led to a perception by some that the cars were of poor quality.

That wasn’t the only unique feature given to the cars. They also received a 1.9 liter alloy four in either SOHC or DOHC flavors and Saturn-only transmissions. The last big differentiator for the brand was a no-haggle pricing strategy for its dealers.

There aren’t any Saturn dealers around any longer, the brand having been killed off by GM in 2010. There still are plenty of the brand’s cars kicking around, however, as—especially the earliest models—proved fairly reliable and capable.

This second-generation wagon seems a fine example of those attributes. Being the SW1, it sports the SOHC edition of the 1.9 liter four, which in this model year made an honest 100 horsepower. Notably, that’s backed up by the MP2 five-speed manual which in the SW1 was geared to wring every last mile out of a gallon of gas. As fitted, this small wagon should be capable of giving 40 mpg on the highway.

Naturally, as a baseline model, there’s not much here. That means there’s not much to go wrong either. The windows are manual crank as are the door locks and mirrors. Boo-freaking-hoo to that. On the plus side, there’s oodles of utility in the back despite the rear wheel arches and suspension encroaching on the load area. The bench seat ahead of that has an asymmetrical split but doesn’t seem to be capable of having either side lowered independently. Still, fold them both down and the car offers an appreciatively flat load area.

The wagon has 131,324 miles showing and looks to be in very decent shape for those miles. The gold paint still holds a shine and there’s no scuffing on the wheel covers (don’t believe Facebook Marketplace, those aren’t alloys).

The cabin features cloth upholstery and plastics that, while chintzy as all get out, look to have held up admirably. The only element that really seems to show its age is the passenger-side airbag cover which looks wizened and out of place. I would touch that if I were you. An updated stereo unit holds court in the center stack above the climate controls. And yes, this car does have A/C.

According to the ad, the car is in great condition and is offered for sale due to the seller just having too damn-many cars. The title is clear and the asking price is $3,900.

Now, in the before times this Saturn would probably have gone for about half that. But that was then, and this is now, so save the indignation. Instead, channel it into a positive force, and let’s see if we think this SW1 is worth that $3,900 asking in today’s market.

What do you think, should the seller get nearly four grand for this basic but sensible wagon? Or, does that price put this Saturn in a totally different orbit?

You decide!

Facebook Marketplace out of Independence, Oregon, or go here if the ad disappears.

H/T to Jim H. for the hookup!

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