Now, Saturn has come up with an ingenious combination of coupe, sedan, and extended-cab pickup called the three-door coupe.
Last month, Saturn began building all its coupe models with a back door on the driver's side. This door is hinged at the back, so that it swings backward when opened like the rear doors on extended-cab pickups. Its opener is located on the front edge of the door, which serves as the jamb for the driver's door. Thus, the front door has to be open to open the back door.
That the front of the rear door serves as the back jamb for the front door means there is no pillar between the two. This pillarless construction makes it easier to get folks and gear in and out of the back seat, and is particularly convenient for the driver who must stow a wheelchair in the back.
The pillarless, backward-opening design also serves an aesthetic purpose. Because there is no pillar and no exterior handle for the rear door, the only visual evidence of its existence is the body margin between it and the rear-quarter panel.
While I was duly impressed with this clever effort to marry a coupe's clean, sporty lines to a sedan's practicality, I also had my head turned by the relative quietude I found inside the bottom-of-the-line SC1 model that I tested.
The Saturn's four-cylinder engine, particularly the 100-horsepower rendition used in the base cars, had been a bit noisy and buzzy, partly because the automaker chooses to use a durable steel timing chain instead of the limited-life composition belts employed in most small cars. Saturn addressed this noise problem for 1999 with a number of engine modifications, including a new timing chain and cover, a new crankshaft with more counterweights, and redesigned pistons.
The result is a quieter, more pleasant engine that makes an already delightful driver even more pleasant.
In addition to quieting the engine down, the designers also made it more economical. When buttoned to the five-speed manual gearbox, the 100-horse, single overhead cam version of Saturn's 1.9-liter four picks up a mile per gallon in its EPA city and highway mileage ratings (now 29 city and 40 highway). The thirstier dual overhead cam, 124-horse version of that engine, used in the more upscale models, gets an extra 1 m.p.g. city and 2 m.p.g. highway with the manual (to 27 and 38).
The only sour note on the list of 1999 modifications was the decision to pull a Honda Civic and save manufacturing money by eliminating rear disc brakes on the up-market models.
But if that's the worst thing that happens to Saturn's pleasurable band of high-quality coupes, sedans and wagons, I don't think we can get too bent out of shape.
The Saturn really is an exceptionally satisfying small car, whether you're examining the fit and finish on its rustproof plastic body, or pushing it through a corner near the limits of tire adhesion. I was reminded of this during a week with the tester, which had a base price of $12,445.
The sporty little coupe was good-looking and nicely assembled inside and out. The car felt solid, and proved quiet and comfortable by small-car standards. The handling and steering were good enough to make you a little sad when that fast turn became a straightaway.
The 100-horsepower SC1 test car got from 0 to 60 in 10.5 seconds, which is a full 1.5 seconds slower than the 124-horse SC2. That's hardly a fast ride to 60, but getting there was still fun, thanks to the slick-shifting transmission and the engine's willingness.
Base vehicle: Front-drive, 1.9-liter engine, five-speed manual gearbox, power steering, power disc/drum brakes, 14-inch steel wheels, P175/70R14 all-season radials, fully independent suspension, dual air bags, daytime running lamps, 5 m.p.h. bumpers, fold-down rear seat, stereo, clock, rear-window defogger, intermittent wipers, remote deck-lid and fuel-door releases.
Test model: Antilock braking system, power door locks, keyless entry, power windows, power right-side outside mirror, cruise control, air conditioning, floor mats, stereo/cassette with upgraded speaker system.
Base price: $12,445
Test model: $15,960 (inc. shipping)
EPA city rating: 29
Test mileage: 30.5
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.