Compact car; Built in USA
  • 4-door sedan
  • 4-door wagon
  • transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive
Good condition price range: $1,400 – $3,300*

1996 Saturn SL2

1996 Saturn SW1

1997 Saturn SL2

1996 Saturn SL2 interior

1996 Saturn SL1

  • Acceleration (SL2/SW2)
  • Optional antilock brakes and traction control
  • Fuel economy
  • Acceleration (SL/SL1/SW1 w/auto)
  • Noise
  • Rear-seat comfort

Despite some real improvements, these sedans and wagons still lag behind such rivals as the Civic and Corolla.


Saturn sedans and station wagons got a fresh look for 1996. Coupes took another year to get their equivalent redesign. Front and rear styling on the sedan echoed Saturn’s initial themes, but the sedan got a more rounded roof, which created more head room for front and back seats. As before, all vertical panels (doors, fenders, and front/rear fascias) were made of plasticlike polymer material. The roof, hood, and trunk were made of steel. Lower-level models wore graphite-colored bumpers, whereas bumpers on upscale models were body-colored. Wheelbase of both the sedan and wagon was unchanged at 102.4 inches, but the new bodies were slightly longer and narrower. Doorways were enlarged. Dual airbags again were standard, and front seatbelts were now height-adjustable. Engines were carried over from the 1991-95 generation. A 100-horsepower, single-camshaft 1.9-liter 4-cylinder went into the SL and SL1 sedans and the SW1 wagon. A dual-overhead-cam version, rated at 124 horsepower, went into the SL2 sedan and SW2 wagon.Optional antilock brakes now included traction control, whether the car was equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission or the optional 4-speed automatic.

Yearly Updates

1997 Sedan/Wagon
Except for a few equipment changes, Saturn sedans and wagons were unchanged this season.
1998 Sedan/Wagon
Structural changes to engine blocks and transmission cases aimed to reduce noise and increase durability. Wheel covers were redesigned, and automatic-transmission settings revised.
1999 Sedan/Wagon
Rear drum brakes now went into SL2 models with antilock braking, rather than the prior disc units.
2000 Sedan/Wagon
Sedans and wagons earned a freshening, with new lower-body styling that added 1.2 inches to overall length. Inside was a new instrument cluster, and the console held redesigned cupholders. The horn now worked via the steering-wheel hub rather than spoke buttons, and cruise control relocated from the hub to the spokes. Front seats gained more travel, and rear child-safety seats got top-tether anchors.
2001 Sedan/Wagon
These models offered optional curtain side airbags for 2001. And base SL sedan added standard features such as body-colored bumpers, right-side rearview mirror, and power steering.
2002 Sedan
Saturn dropped the S-Series wagon body style for 2002. The S-Series would be replaced for 2003 by a redesigned model line called Ion.


transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive

Two 1.9-liter 4-cylinder engines were available under Saturn hoods. A single-overhead-cam version, rated at 100 horsepower, went into the SL and SL1 sedan and the SW1 wagon. The SL2 sedan and SW2 wagons got a dual-overhead-cam engine that made 124 horsepower. Any Saturn might have either a 5-speed manual transmission, or optional 4-speed automatic.

ohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches)1.9/116
Engine HP100
Engine Torque (lb-ft)114
Avail. Trans.EPA MPG (city/hwy)MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches)1.9/116
Engine HP124
Engine Torque (lb-ft)122
Avail. Trans.EPA MPG (city/hwy)MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic

Road Test

Engine and road noise were reduced with the 1996 redesign, but these cars still failed to head the subcompact class in terms of refinement. Both engines sound coarse and unrefined in hard acceleration. Engines did quiet down somewhat in 1998, but road noise remains considerable at highway speeds. The ’99 models appear quieter yet–markedly closer to the competition, finally.

Automatic-transmission operation also had been imperfect. Shift quality improved in this generation, and the 4-speed automatic is less harsh than before. This automatic transmission generally changes gears smoothly and downshifts promptly for passing.

Acceleration is lively with an SL2 sedan or SW2 wagon with either transmission. Other models rank as adequate with manual shift, and markedly more sluggish with automatic. We’ve averaged more than 30 mpg in an SL2 with the 5-speed. A 1998 SL1 with manual shift averaged 28.9 mpg. An SL2 with automatic averaged a bit above 25 mpg.

Different tires gave the SL2/SW2 models a more comfortable ride, with less impact harshness and thumping on rough pavement. These sedans and wagons corner with pleasing swiftness and control. Body lean in turns is less in the SL2 and SW2, and their tires hold out longer before squealing in protest when you try an overly quick corner. On all models, the suspension absorbs minor bumps well, but rough roads can cause abrupt, even harsh reaction, which are felt by occupants.

Front head and leg room is sufficient for taller folks, and firm seats provide good lateral support. Back seat room is adequate for people under 5-foot-10 or so, provided the front seats aren’t pushed back too far. The back seat is not particularly comfortable, and getting in and out is awkward because the door opening is narrow at the bottom. Dashboards flaunt large, clear gauges. Stereo and climate controls are mounted in a pod that protrudes from the dashboard, mounted too low for easiest access by the driver. Visibility is helped by the low dashboard and deep side windows, but the tail is too high to easily see straight rearward. Trunk space is adequate, and a low liftover eases the strain of loading/unloading luggage.


Model Tested: 1998 Saturn SL2

Ratings values are on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. With the exception of Value, these numbers reflect how the vehicle compares against the universe of vehicles, not just against rivals in its class.


Acceleration - 4
Fuel Economy - 6
Ride Quality - 4
Steering/Handling - 4
Quietness - 3


Controls/Materials - 4
Room/Comfort Front - 4
Room/Comfort Rear - 3
Cargo Room - 2


Value - 5

Total: 39


4-door sedan
Wheelbase (in.)Length (in.)Width (in.)Height (in.)Weight (lbs)
Cargo Volume (cu/ft)Payload Capacity (cu/ft)Fuel Capacity (gal.)Seating Capacity
4-door wagon
Wheelbase (in.)Length (in.)Width (in.)Height (in.)Weight (lbs)
Cargo Volume (cu/ft)Payload Capacity (cu/ft)Fuel Capacity (gal.)Seating Capacity
Safety Ratings

Model Tested: 1999 SL 4-door sedan


(5 is the highest rating)

Front Impact Test

Driver Injury - 5
Front Passenger Injury - 5

Side Impact Test

Driver Injury - 3
Rear Passenger Injury - 2


(A score of 100 is average. Lower is better)


Trouble Spots

Air conditioner
Description: The air conditioning may stop working when the car is driven for extended times on the highway because the evaporator freezes up. (1997-98)
Air conditioner
Description: A simple adjustment to compressor may prevent air conditioner evaporator freeze-up. (1996-2001)
Air conditioner
Description: Air conditioning stops blowing cold air after highway driving because evaporator freezes up requiring adjustment of compresses suction set point. (1996-97)
Automatic transmission
Description: Cars with automatic transmissions may leak fluid from the upper, left-hand corner where the case was not manufactured properly. (1997-98)
Coolant leak
Description: Coolant leaks into engine require new intake manifold gasket. (2000-01)
Engine misfire
Description: The engine may stall or quit running as if it has run out of gas even though the gauge shows 1/8-1/4 tank; caused by a plugged evaporative emissions canister vent. (1997)
Engine temperature
Description: Overheating and possible engine failure on 1.9-liter engine may be caused by coolant leaks past intake manifold gasket near cylinder #4. (2000-01)
Exhaust system
Description: Exhaust manifold bolts work loose causing noise that may be misdiagnosed as lifter tap. (2002)
Hard starting
Description: If a car with a manual transmission won’t start, the wiring harness was probably damaged by rubbing on the clutch-pedal pivot causing a short circuit. (1997-98)
Description: The side windows may not go up or down, or they may rattle because the glass comes loose from the regulator. (1997-98)
Electrical problem
Description: Electrical accessories may quit working. The lock will have to be repaired. On some models, the key won’t turn back to the lock position. (1997)
Electrical problem
Description: If rear wiper, speakers, fuel gauge stop working, wiring harness near left kick panel may be chafing on bracket. (1996-99)

Recall History

1996 SW1/SW2
Description: Welds between roof and reinforcement panels do not meet specifications; flange sides could partially separate in a crash.
1996 SL w/manual steering
Description: Pinion gear could disengage from steering rack under high steering-system load conditions, such as parking or low-speed maneuvers.
Description: Horn could become inoperable or activate without pressing button; heat could build up, leading to an underhood fire.
1996-97 SL w/manual steering
Description: Pinion-bearing cage in steering gear can separate, disengaging and causing loss of control.
Description: Ignition key can be removed while cylinder is in “run” position.
Description: Some seatbelt shoulder-guide anchor bolts were inadequately tightened at center pillar and could fall out.
Description: Some brake-pipe attachment nuts may have been improperly tightened; fluid leakage could occur.
Description: Some welds in instrument-panel carrier assembly were not strong enough; occupant, especially if unbelted, may have increased risk of injury in frontal crash.
Description: Some rear-bumper fasteners could be loose or missing; rear bumper may not absorb energy as designed, in a rear-end collision.
Description: The fuel-tank Over Pressure Relief valve can become stuck open in a frontal collision, creating a fire hazard.
Description: Armrest latch may open during a crash.
Description: An improperly adjusted automatic transaxle park-lock assembly could allow the vehicle to be shifted out of “Park” with the ignition key removed.
Description: An inadequate weld at the top of the fuel tank could allow fuel leakage in a rollover.
2002 sedan
Description: Welds between the door-striker and beltline do meet specifications. The seatbelt anchorage on the pillar could fail, increasing the risk of injury.

Equipment Lists

Equipment lists are only viewable on larger screen sizes.


Used-car pricing varies widely depending on local market conditions. Therefore, we recommend visiting websites that list used cars for sale to get a better idea of what a specific model is selling for in your area.

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