So you want to make a Saturn S-Series fast?

Date: Nov 4, 2007
Author: Jonathan Swain (PurdueGuy)
So you want to make a Saturn S-Series fast?

This article exists to help set some expectations for the new Saturn enthusiast who wants to go fast. Doing this with a Saturn is, well, different. People will probably tease you about it, and it won’t be easy or cheap, but if there is one thing the owner of a fast Saturn can enjoy, it’s the look of shock on the competition’s face when you leave them behind.

Still, rule #1 for the Saturn tuner is: have a sense of humor. You will probably never be the fastest, and even if you are, some people will still say “it’s just a Saturn.” Laugh and move on, you’ll be happier.

Why you should be proud to have an S-Series:

This is by far the most common Saturn being modified, basically because they are cheap and plentiful. That’s not to say there aren’t other things to love about them. For one, they’re very very light weight. As a general estimation, they weigh about 2,400 pounds without driver. Individuals who have gotten serious about weight reduction have gotten under 2,000 pounds. While the best stock S-Series motor only puts out 124 horsepower, it may surprise you just how potent that horsepower is in such a light car. A twin cam S-Series in good running condition with good driver will run a mid to upper 15 second quarter mile.

Another great characteristic of the S-Series is the suspension. With a rear independent suspension, and a rear swaybar in the DOHC models, the S-Series performs very respectably in autocross events. This is probably where the S-Series shines most, in fact.

While the cars can put out good power if built and boosted (pushing near, or maybe even over 400 horsepower in more extreme builds), controlling that much power can be a real issue in drag racing. The light weight of the car can actually work against the car, leaving the tires spinning. As I write this, the top drag speed in’s “Top 5 and 10 list” is a high 11 second quarter mile run. Still, this is plenty fast enough to drop some jaws, and get plenty of comments about how surprised people are that a Saturn is fast.

These can definitely be fun street cars. Good torque makes them quick off the line, and they love the twisties. Even a stock twin cam can embarrass many Civics and other common tuner cars out there. Don’t get cocky, though – those other cars usually have a better aftermarket than you, and if the owner knows what they’re doing, you could get smoked. At any rate, these make fun daily drivers to get a little zippy with. Please take racing to the track, though. It’s safer and will mean more when you win.

Now, the whole “making it fast” part:

If you want to be fast, you will want a manual transmission. There are swap guides online that will show you how to do it step-by-step, with torque specs and pictures. For more info on transmission options, check out the guides on The automatic will take at least a second off of drag times, and want to shift at all the wrong times in autocross. Some people still prefer the automatic, and that’s fine, but there is no debating that the manual is faster.

Nitrous is the easiest and cheapest way to make your car fast. Depending on how you use it, it may not stay the cheapest, as you’ll have to keep refilling that bottle. Also keep in mind that it’s not street legal. There are a lot of misconceptions about nitrous, how it works, how it’s used, etc. Read and understand what you are doing before you buy the first part. While nitrous can be a safe and reliable source of extra power, there can be a relatively small margin of error. An improper tune, a misaimed fogger, poorly controlled spray – all these things create a serious risk to your car’s health.

Forced induction is the most potent way to make your car fast. The S-Series has been turbocharged and supercharged before, so this is not some unexplored wilderness. If you’re willing to spend the time (both reading and building) and money, you can build a reliable, powerful boosted S-Series.

Single Cam:

For those of you with a single cam S-Series, let me say a few words to you. Everyone will tell you to swap to the dual cam engine. Even among Saturn enthusiasts, there will be those that look down on you and probably make insulting comments. You have some choices: you can listen to them and do the swap, or you can roll your eyes at them and decide to see what you can do with that single cam. Before you decide, you need to know this – if you decide to be “different” and modify the single cam engine, you will not be the first. Many people have done this, spending gobs of money on nitrous and turbocharging. The result? They were just a little faster than a twin cam Saturn… stock. Thousands of dollars spent trying to make a single cam fast will result in it being simply less slow.

That said, if you want to make a fast S-Series, your choice engine is the twin cam. With a few bolt-ons, you will be as fast as a single cam with thousands invested. Those who came before you that decided to go against the grain and turbo their single cam? They eventually swapped, regretting they ever bothered with the single cam. If you don’t feel you are ready to do a twin cam swap, then either find some help, or wait. Choose mods that will still work after the swap. For a naturally aspirated setup, this could mean exhaust (except header, which will not swap), intake, tuning stuff, and suspension work.

You may also choose to stick with the single cam in spite of the above. If so, I wish you better luck than others have had in the past. You will need to decide to be thick-skinned, and be ready to ignore what other people say. Just be sure it’s what you really want, and not a bull-headed way of covering up a fear of doing an intimidating engine swap. The swap isn’t really that difficult, and there are plenty of people in the online Saturn enthusiast community willing to help you.

Those of you with other Saturn models, I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about your car to tell you a whole lot. I will try to find someone who can give you some advice and ask them to write a similar article for you.

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