Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Indestructible Plastic Car

At around 5:00 on the afternoon of September 9, 2010, the odometer on my shitbox 1996 Saturn SC2 reached 290,000 miles. Where I live, there’s a law against sending or reading text messages while driving, but to my knowledge there’s no law against taking cell-phone pictures, so I took a picture of it.1

When I bought the car it had been driven 36,000 miles, and usually got around 41 to 42 miles per gallon. Now, a dozen years, 254,000 miles, and some 6 to 8 oil changes later, this little car, battered and bruised by the equivalent of almost twelve trips around the Earth,2 struggles to get more than about 38 mpg. For a bit of perspective, the average fuel efficiency for a mid-sized car, for the mix of highway and city driving I do, would probably be around 24 mpg.

With the exception of one very expensive accident that occurred before I’d even made a payment on the damned thing, the most significant repairs this car has needed are (1) a new driver’s-side chair, (2) a jury-rigged trunk latch,3 (3) a new clutch cable, the loss of which apparently limits you to 10 mph in first gear on the interstate, and (4) several new headlight bulbs, which apparently burn out abnormally often in cars that have been mangled and then not-quite-totally straightened out, and thus tend to rattle a lot at high (and sometimes low) speeds.

If you don’t count gas, oil, seat covers, or the mild-to-moderate repairs listed above—or the rather hefty price tag of straightening out a car almost all the way after t-boning a Chevy Malibu at around 45 miles per hour—I’ve gotten about 22 miles per dollar out of this car so far. To put that in perspective, you’d need to get around 2.7 million miles out of your 2007 Porsche 911 to get the same value out of it.4 That’s not a typo: 2.7 million miles.6

For more than two decades, the brain trust at General Motors (Saturn’s parent company) couldn’t figure out a way to sell a fuel-efficient, dirt-cheap, incredibly durable, low-maintenance, consumer-friendly American car to the millions of Americans7 who were looking to buy fuel-efficient, durable, inexpensive American cars.

This is, as you may know, the same General Motors that, after spending much of the last hundred years as a hugely successful company, recently took the biggest, stinkiest, steamingest financial shit in the history of the auto industry, eventually needing $57.6 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. government intervention merely to continue to exist.

Granted, the Saturn is not without its problems. They might have sold better if they didn’t look like they were made of plastic—which they are—and it’s possible that some potential customers were turned off by the notion that Saturn dealerships were honest enough to sell the cars for the price listed on the sticker rather than some arbitrary number that you’d have to beat out of them. But I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some connection between GM’s inability to make money off of well-made, well-priced little plastic workhorse cars and the fact that the company now owes you and me just shy of sixty billion dollars.

1. And just in case there is, I pulled over to the side of the road and took the picture while revving my engine up to 60 miles per hour. Honest.
2. That’s twelve trips around the Earth at the equator, of course. It’d be just under 46,179 trips around the Earth if I were circling the South Pole from a mile away.
3. Fixed at home by Dr. Brainsmart for the lofty price of one (1) six-pack of tasty beer.
4. Not counting, of course, how many times that Porsche would get you laid, which probably adds something to its value. I don’t have any way of calculating this number, but I’m sure it’s a lot higher than the number of times a Saturn will get you laid.5
5. Zero.
6. That’s 430,542 trips around the Earth!
7. Or Canadians. We can’t forget about our lovely and loyal Canadian readers, with their beady little eyes and flapping heads.


  1. I have spent many hours in this car. It is a complete mystery how it has lasted this long. First of all, Some Guy is not a "car maintenance" sort of guy. This is evidenced (if you can use "hugely," I can use "evidenced") by his claim that he "revved the engine up to 60 mph." This car nudging 300k miles under Dan's care is the equivalent of giving an infant to a bunch of retarded monkeys and having it turn out to be a cancer-curing doctor 20 years later.

    Second, this car is seriously like the most flimsy, crappily made car I have ever seen. I have heard it called the "American Honda" but it's more like the American Yugo. I once broke something off it trying to fasten the seat belt. I'm surprised stuff didn't start falling off it the second it was driven off the lot, a Benjamin Button Bluesmobile. It is like riding around in a Happy Meal prize. Yet it keeps on running, while more expensive, "well-built" cars -- cars which have more metal in them than my computer desk, for instance -- have long since found the scrapyard. Well done, Dan's little Saturn. Well done.

  2. Mt favorite part of the car might be the optimistic little "110" on the far-right end of the speedometer, as if the builders genuinely believed, even when the car was brand new and full of piss and vinegar, had the slightest chance of getting up to 110 miles per hour. At this point, this car couldn't break triple-digit speeds if you dropped it from orbit.