SPRING HILL, Tenn. -- After six years, 6 million miles and a $6 billion investment, General Motors Corp. finally unwrapped its import-fighting Saturn line of small cars yesterday.
In an early-morning ceremony attended by politicians, journalists and union officials, Saturn spokesman Bruce McDonald said, "I think it's safe to say we have liftoff." A group of Saturn assembly-line workers then removed cloth covers from three of the plastic-bodied cars.
A few minutes later, Saturn officials drove the cars out of the factory and loaded them onto a truck bound for Southern California, where import cars account for nearly half off all new cars sold.
The first Saturns will arrive in Maryland in February at dealerships in Glen Burnie, Owings Mills and Gaithersburg, a Saturn spokeswoman said yesterday. Customers can call (800) 522-5000 for information.
The small, sporty-looking, fuel-efficient cars, which come in two- and four-door styles, have base prices from $7,995 to $11,775. The cars are built in a brand-new factory using state-of-the-art technology.
The Saturn plant is an expensive gamble for GM, but a necessary one, to draw U.S. drivers to U.S.-made small vehicles.
Since September 1984, when GM built the first Saturn demonstration vehicle, billions of dollars have been spent perfecting production techniques and laying the groundwork for building a line of subcompact cars that GM hopes will steer car buyers away from Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans and other Japanese cars.
With a long history of building problem-plagued small cars such as the Chevrolet Corvair, Vega and Citation, GM has nearly locked itself out of the compact-car market.
To help ensure that the Saturn line is as trouble-free as imports, engineers test drove prototypes more than 6 million miles in a variety of weather conditions and types of terrain.
GM is depending on Saturn to win back much of the market it has lost to imports and revamp GM's poor image for quality.
GM's share of the new-car market has dwindled from 45 percent in 1980 to about 35 percent last year.
The loss of a single percentage point costs carmakers millions of dollars.
"This automobile, for the most part, is designed to compete with foreign imports," said Bobby Lee Thompson of United Auto Workers Region 8. "It is my belief that we will surpass the imports."
Right from the start of the Saturn project, GM has not conducted business as usual.
Instead of building the car in an existing factory, GM set up a new division and built a plant far away from other GM factories.
Instead of haggling between labor unions and management, GM sought to make the UAW a partner in Saturn.
Saturn officials also said they found the best car dealers in the country to sell the car, listened to customers' requirements before the car was designed, and trained every person in every dealership to ensure that they make customer satisfaction a top priority.
If the car is successful -- and early reviews in the automotive press have been positive -- it may change the way the Big Three do business.
"The way management and labor have worked together on Saturn could be the beginning of a basic transformation in the design, building and marketing of automobiles," said David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "It could be a gigantic leap forward."
Saturn President Richard Le Fauve said Saturn proves that Americans can build a small car that is competitive in price and quality with the best cars in the world.
For now, Saturn officials are not making any sales predictions. In addition to Southern California, Florida and other Southeast states will begin receiving cars before the rest of the nation's dealers.
Because of some quality snags, production has gotten off to a slow start, but it is picking up daily.
About 1,000 cars will be in dealerships or on their way when Saturn officially goes on sale Oct. 25 at 30 dealerships.