Saturn's strength has always been its dealers. It's Saturn's car that haven't always measured up, particularly in comfort and refinement. GM's youngest car division is working to remedy this, so while the Saturn dealership experience remains as good as it ever was, Saturn's cars are now better than they ever have been.
The Saturn Ion is a good example of that. When it appeared in 2003, the Ion represented a major improvement over the old Saturn S-series. Yet our impressions of it were negative. We found the seats uncomfortable and its levels of refinement were average at best. However, Saturn has continued to update and refine the Ion over the past three model years, and we came away with positive impressions of the current models. Most of the things we complained about have been changed and refinement has been improved overall.
The most substantial changes came for 2005: Larger and more supportive seats have replaced the barstools used previously, and a larger steering wheel provides a more comfortable grip. Suspension tweaks have resulted in a smoother and quieter car that's more pleasant in everyday use. At the same time, the handling is sharper, making it more fun to drive. A new four-speed automatic built by GM replaces outsourced transmissions that proved problematic. And the appearance of the sedan was greatly improved with a new grille.
The improvements continued for 2006: Saturn has reconfigured the center dash to provide more room for storage and to enhance legroom. OnStar is now standard on all Ions. A larger, more powerful engine is available. Saturn has dropped the base-level sedan with its narrow seats, and a new Enhanced Performance Package has been added to bridge the gap between the base-engine/base suspension models and the Ion Red Line sport compact. Prices have been reduced, especially at the lower end of the line, where an 2006 Ion 2 sedan lists for $2,455 less than a comparable '05 model.
Meanwhile, all of the Ion's best features remain unchanged. The sedan offers plenty of interior and luggage room for a reasonable price. The Quad Coupe features innovative dual rear-access doors, like those on an extended-cab pickup, that make it easy to load and unload cargo. We found we could stuff large objects into the back seat of a Saturn that would not go into a traditional two-door coupe.
The Red Line coupe features a 205-horsepower supercharged engine good for 0-60 mph in about 6.3 seconds. We found it fun to drive, with strong throttle response and a sporty exhaust note. It comes with Recaro seats that provide comfortable support in corners.
And then, of course, there's that Saturn dealership experience. Surveys show that Saturn buyers tend to be more satisfied with their dealers in terms of the sales and service experience than buyers of other brands. Saturn tends to be the top-scoring non-luxury brand in these types of surveys.
Ion 2 sedan ($11,925); Ion 3 sedan ($14,325); Ion 2 Quad Coupe ($12,925); Ion 3 Quad Coupe ($15,625); Ion Red Line coupe ($19,425)
The Saturn Ion sedan is stylish and draws favorable comments on the street. The bright metal grille with the Saturn logo front-and-center that were added for 2005 give the Ion a more conventional look, but it's less polarizing (and better looking) than the previous design with its heavy bright bar over a blacked-out slot just above the bumper.
The windshield slopes dramatically, helping the relatively tall Ion look sleek. And the Ion does stand tall, at 57.4 inches. The sedan's roof curves heavily down to the high trunk line, almost giving it the appearance of a hatchback rather than a traditional sedan. We found the Ion's small, lever-style door handles relatively hard to grasp.
The Quad Coupe breathes through a blacked-out slot above the bumper and a larger rectangular scoop below, but it looks simple, functional, and attractive. Red Line models have three big openings below the bumper.
The Quad Coupe gets its name from a pair of mini-doors behind the main portals that open on rear-mounted hinges, in much the same way as the auxiliary doors on an extended-cab pickup. The rear doors have no exterior handles to compromise the coupe's sporty styling; and when they are open, there's no B-pillar in the opening, which makes access to the rear seat very easy for such a small car. It's an innovative design that enhances the practicality of this sport coupe. The front passenger seat folds flat, improving utility further. Saturn likes to demonstrate that it's possible to stuff a nine-foot kayak into the coupe through its doors, a feat that would be plenty tough for many SUVs, let alone other compact coupes. You may not find the need to stuff a kayak in your car, but you may occasionally need to haul something big and the Quad Coupe's rear access doors will be helpful.
Ion continues the Saturn tradition of attaching composite polymer body panels to a substantial steel space-frame. The polymer panels can't rust and, because they are slightly resilient, they resist the minor impacts that leave small dents and dings in sheet metal. Another benefit of the composite panels is that they are relatively easy to replace. Saturn has exploited this advantage on the Ion by offering alternatively colored roof rails that owners can easily install to customize their car's appearance. Nickel-Silver roof rails are available for the coupe and sedan, and Charcoal rails are available for the sedan only. The downside is that the composite panels look thicker than steel panels, and gaps between body parts have to be greater to allow for expansion and contraction in hot and cold weather.
Ion's interior looks stylish and youthful, with a design theme that features interlocking half circles and an assortment of textures. We weren't happy with the comfort nor the quality of the Ion interior when the model first appeared in 2003, but Saturn has made significant changes since then.
The biggest of these changes came for 2005, when larger and more substantial seats replaced the original flat and skimpy perches. This represented a vast improvement, though we'd still like more side support. However, they do feature a height adjustment via a mechanical jacking system something like Volkswagen's. The Red Line coupe comes with excellent Recaro seats, but they are best suited for drivers with narrow hips.
Textures and materials were upgraded for 2005 and the overall effect is nice. Chrome rings adorn the instruments and vents. The four-spoke steering wheel feels nice to the touch and is larger in diameter than previously, making it more comfortable to hold. The shifter and cruise controls were improved as well.
For 2006, Saturn has addressed the center stack and console, adding storage space above the radio while increasing inboard clearance for knees. The standard fabric in Ion 3 has been upgraded for 2006 as well.
The Ion sedan is a good choice for tall drivers as it offers lots of headroom, a benefit of its high roofline. The front seats have longer-than-normal adjustment rails as well. A short front-seat passenger can slide way forward to allow more legroom for someone in back, while a tall front passenger can take advantage of expansive leg room when no one is sitting behind. Rear passengers enjoy good headroom and the rear seats are mounted two inches higher than the front seats, giving them a better view out front. Rear-seat legroom is adequate for a compact.
The first thing you'll notice when climbing in the Ion is the center-mounted instrument cluster. The advantage of this, says Saturn, is that the instruments can be set at the same level as the outside mirrors, so there's no need to look down, only across. Tall drivers find it convenient, but short drivers who sit closer to the steering wheel have to swivel their heads farther to look across at the speedometer. We're traditionalists in this regard, preferring to have our gauges hidden behind the steering wheel, but the Ion's open dash design does give the cockpit an airy feel.
Forward visibility is good, though inhibited toward the corners by thick windshield pillars. The view over the right shoulder is hindered by wide C-pillars. We found the electric window switches hard to locate in the dark, as they are not illuminated and are located rearward of where we expected them. At least they are mounted on the door and not on the center console.
Big trunks add to the practicality of the coupe and the sedan. With a capacity of nearly 15 cubic feet and a practical shape with a flat floor, the sedan's trunk is big for a compact and is as big as those in many mid-size cars. Remarkably, the coupe's trunk is only half a cubic foot smaller. Among sport coupes, the Ion Quad Coupe is a real cargo hauler.
OnStar, GM's security and information service, is now standard in all Saturns. It can be quite useful. Unlike a navigation system, there's nothing to program. Simply press the OnStar button and a human operator responds to provide directions or whatever assistance you may need to make life more wonderful. OnStar operators can quickly pinpoint the exact location of your vehicle. Just ask and they'll give you directions to the nearest gas station, ATM, or Mexican restaurant. OnStar operators will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls and rescue crews will be dispatched to the scene. Or you can press the Emergency button and they'll send out the troops. If you lock the keys inside, call OnStar and they will magically unlock them for you. If
The Saturn Ion is a lot of fun on a winding road. It handles well and the engine pulls nicely. Brake for the corners, turn in, and roll onto the gas. It's also smooth and quiet, something that hasn't always been the case.
Saturn has improved the Ion each year since its introduction as a 2003 model. The steering is much better, thanks to recalibrated steering, though it still seems sensitive at high speeds. The variable-ratio steering is electrically assisted, a technology General Motors developed first for its luxury cars. It makes the steering boost more effective at slow speed and improves fuel economy as power is not sapped from the engine by a hydraulic pump. The downside is that there is little feedback through the wheel, making it difficult to know how much traction the front tires have in cornering. We do like the sedan's small turning radius, which is a couple of feet tighter than that of a Dodge Neon or Ford Focus. That's useful when making U-turns.
Ride and handling are about average for the class. The Ion seems to be free of squeaks and rattles, especially since additional sound deadening material was added for '05. GM's Quiet Steel is used in the firewall between the engine compartment and passenger area. (Two pieces of steel sandwich a layer of asphalt, which absorbs vibration much better than traditional materials.) A noise-absorbing cover over the engine cuts sound from that source. Overall, the latest Ion seems more refined than it used to be. Noise and vibration are now about average for a compact car.
The front suspension has struts while the rear uses a torsion-beam axle to provide more interior space in the trunk. Again, major improvements were made last year, with new hydraulic suspension bushings in the rear and recalibrated solid bushings up front. Front and rear stabilizer bars on all models reduce lean in the corners. The Ion handles well on winding roads, tending toward understeer when driven very hard. The suspension feels a little squishy at high speeds, however. The ride is nicely damped on rough roads.
The ABS option comes with traction control and dynamic rear brake proportioning. The latter adjusts brake pressure according the load on the rear wheels. It sends more brake pressure rearward when the back seat and trunk are full. Under hard braking, it shifts brake pressure from the rear wheels to the front as the car's weight shifts forward, reducing rear-wheel lockup, for better, more stable braking.
The Ion's 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine develops 140 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 145 pound-feet of torque at 4400. This twin-cam engines gives the Ion good performance for the class. Sound deadening added for 2005 reduces filters out engine noise. Ions sold with this engine in California are certified as Super Low Emissions Vehicles (SULEV).
A new 2.4-liter twin-cam engine with variable valve timing has been added to the lineup for 2006. Like the 2.2, it's part of GM's Ecotec engine family, designed for low mass and compact dimensions. Twin balance shafts counteract engine vibration, and direct mounting of all accessories helps further reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. Optional on Ion 3 as part of the Enhanced Performance Package, the 2.4-liter develops 170 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 162 pound-feet of torque at 5000, numbers normally associated with midsize cars. The performance package includes stiffer shock valving and thicker anti-roll bars, front and rear.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard with either engine. It works well, though the shifter is positioned slightly rearward from the ideal position.
The four-speed automatic, optional with either engine above, is a smooth-shifting unit that responds quickly to the throttle and doesn't hunt excessively between gears. Built by GM and designated Hydramatic 4T45-E, it represents a major improvement over automatics installed in 2003-04 Ions, which were built by outside suppl
The Saturn Ion is a stylish compact with innovative features. It drives nicely and its base engine offers adequate performance. Ion delivers good value and lots of interior space for people and cargo. Saturn buyers report happier experiences when buying and servicing than with other brands. Dent-deflecting and rust-resistant plastic body panels add to the Ion's appeal.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Detroit and Los Angeles.