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AUSTIN, Texas — Maybe Austin’s hippie hangouts and late-night beer halls aren’t exactly the place you’d expect a car company to introduce its latest runner. But with thousands of college students in the area — it’s like New York, only here the rats are always late for a recitation — and plenty of wide open spaces, Austin in retrospect is an ideal place to get across the notion that this $11,995 compact is as youth-friendly and all-American as a plastic-bodied four-banger with design roots in Germany can be.
If you ever drove an S-Series Saturn coupe or sedan, you’ll be among the pleasantly surprised by the ION (though the all-caps name is as annoying as a CHAIN E-MAIL, we think). The S-Series lived too long — introed in 1990 and now just hitting retirement age — and it never seemed happy. The engine grouched at every prod of the pedal, the styling redefined dowdy, and handling was something you wished you could have paid extra for like you do at Amazon.com.
In contrast, the ION is a reasonably handsome car with terrific bones, a slick-revving engine and manual transmission, overly competitive transmissions, and for the most part, thoughtful interior spaces and decoration. And as it bases at $11,995, it’s a fair piece of evidence that the quality of food in GM’s parts trough is a lot tastier these days.
Saturn is taking aim at the ranks of Honda and Ford here, and though it’s fractionally longer in wheelbase and more powerful than the Civic and Focus (though nearly a foot longer than Ford, about ten inches on Honda), it’s really the Hyundai/Kia threat of decent cheap cars that’s made Saturn jump to the small-car task. Luckily, Saturn can rely on some high-quality GM technology and engineering and at this shallow end of the car-joy pool, the sophistication counts for plenty.
The ION’s architecture is based on GM’s new Delta small-car floorpan. It gets a space frame shell with polymer and sheetmetal panels like previous Saturns.
The basic goodness cooked into Delta seems evident: the body’s stiff, which makes good handling a lot easier to dial in. And the flexible platform allows the ION two body styles — a four-door sedan and an unconventional Quad Coupe four-door with two rear-hinged doors for backseat access. They’re called RADs for some painfully punning reason.
There’s an electrical architecture at work beneath the panels, too. An integrated wiring system makes it inexpensive to build every ION with standard electric power steering (no pump needed), daytime running lights, automatic headlights, an oil-life monitor, speed-sensitive wipers and accessory power after shutoff. Pretty upscale stuff.
GM’s Ecotec 2.2-liter four-cylinder is, for now, the sole ION engine. (A supercharged version of the Quad Coupe is winding through the system, says Saturn.) The twin-cam aluminum four has 140 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque, which should be enough, Saturn says, to put it at the head of the Civic/Focus pack, SVTs not included. The engine’s common to other Saturns and various GM products and meets LEV certification. For existing Saturn owners it’s bound to be a revelation: smooth, growly and powerful enough to keep a highway pace without fuss.
Available transmissions include a five-speed manual and a five-speed automatic. The five-speed manual is a keen unit, with short throws, nice clutch pedal feel and good shift-lever motions, and a synchro in the reverse gear. Too, the automatic is suitable creamy and at highway speeds, settles the ION into a lower rev range than you might expect in a four-speed-auto Civic or Focus. Saturn says the extra cog nets almost a full mile per gallon better fuel economy, too.
If belts and bands are more your thing, a version of Saturn’s VTi continuously variable transmission will be offered in the Quad Coupe in early 2003. In the VUE sport-ute, it’s an intriguing piece of technology that might make for more conversation than for huge leaps in fuel economy. Between the VTi and five-speeds, we’re betting the ION is an important variable in GM’s corporate fuel-economy calculations.
So how’s it drive?
Pretty well, thanks for asking. The benefits of well-tuned power steering, good brakes, and a buttoned-down suspension make the ION a decent road carver, one that feels ready to handle a V-6 or at least, a turbo.
The suspension components are pretty basic, but work in concert like bow and string. Up front the struts damp out lots of foul road surfaces; the washouts we ran through from Austin to Johnson City right after tropical rains came into the cabin mostly as noise, not as jiggly impacts. And the rear twist-beam axle sounds low-tech, but it’s been used on Golfs for years to good effect — and leaves plenty of room for trunk cargo.
Clean steering is a virtue in any car, and in the ION it relieves drivers at low speeds from having to muscle the car into a parking space. What’s better about the electric power steering is its appropriate weighting and response at middling speeds — say, through a neighborhood or threading through a parking garage. On interstates it’s precise as need be without getting the jitters.
It’s worth noting we only sampled the best wheels and tires available in the test group assembled in Austin. Base sedans get 14-inch wheels, mid-levels 15s and the best, the 16-inchers we tried. Quad Coupes start out with 15s and move up to 16s. Of course, your results may vary if you’re riding on the 15-inch or (gasp) 14-inch treads supplied on lesser IONs.
Trendy or Fendi?
On this first rung on the new-car ladder, styling sells. Ford’s Focus slashes its way into your mind, and the Dodge Neon used to cuddle up to buyers with an undeniable cuteness. The ION’s more technical and as a result, less warmly appealing. The innocuous four-door shape doesn’t really need the C-pillar vertical “shark fin” it’s been flagged with, though it disappears nicely in darker colors. The Quad Coupe seems more cohesive and more attractive.
The cockpit doesn’t need a visit from the Trading Spaces crew, but designers who insist on putting instruments on or in the center of the dash — as they’re located in the ION — should first try using a sink where the faucet’s to the right, or typing on a keyboard with all the letters a hand width too far to the left. Moving the instrument pod over the center stack may make for a more open environment, but it’s more distracting. It doesn’t work in the MINI, nor in the Echo, and it doesn’t work here.
A bigger qualm is the packaging, small-car tight in ways a Focus seems expansive. The wide center stack of gauges, climate controls and radio in the ION intrudes on leg room in the front tunnels. Leg room of any kind is tight in the back seat. Headroom is okay, but it’s obviously created at the expense of good support — with feet planted on the floor, tall folks will find their legs riding inches above the top of the seat cushion, and adult knees will poke in the backs of similarly sized front passengers.
To its benefit, the ION’s doors open so wide, and the seats flip down so flat, it’s possible for both the sedan and coupe to swallow impossible-looking meals, like a plastic kayak. A driver, passenger and lots of fun gear won’t notice the skimpy back-seat room.
Since style is so subjective, Saturn’s making plenty of fuss over the ION’s changeable exterior and interior trim pieces. Choose a pattern and it covers the A-pillars, key fob and center console. Four different textured looks will be offered at launch – a metallic brush, a leopard look, blue bubbles and carbon fiber lookalike. It can’t be long before the aftermarket comes up with its own patterns, but we’re curious to see how easy it will be to swap out the pieces. The model should be Nokia, not NOPI.
Entertainment is a must-have, and here GM’s parts bin wins again. OnStar is available on all IONs, and XM satellite radio (we’re converts) is in the offing; all IONs have an AM/FM/cassette stereo unit. The base unit actually sounded like it had bass, and the whole Motown lineup didn’t seem to be crowded into a narrow aural range. There may even have been room in the soundband for one more Temptation.
As for standard safety gear, the ION comes with dual front airbags and an engine immobilizer. Side curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes with traction control can be ordered on any of the three trim levels. A keyless entry/anti-theft system is standard on more expensive IONs and optional on the cheaper trims.
Pricing seems spot-on. The basic ION 1 ranges from $11,995 to $12,895 with an automatic; the ION 2, from $13,995 to $14,895 including air conditioning, power locks and AM/FM/CD stereo; and the ION 3 from $15,495 to $16,395, which adds to that remote keyless entry, power mirrors, and cruise control.
The Focus might have nine recalls under its belt, but there’s an undeniable verve at work under its skin that the Saturn doesn’t quite match. Honda has the tuner crowd locked in its gaze. Meanwhile, J.D. Power says Saturn’s the best in customer service, and quality of its previous compacts got pretty high rankings. We see the ION four-door making plenty of bonds with the commuter crowd, leaving plenty of space for the Quad Coupe to take on the SEMA acolytes. Whether it can take on the SVTs and Sis of the asphalt world is an open question, though.
2003 Saturn ION
Base price: $11,995
Engine: 2.2-liter in-line four, 140 hp/145 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 184.5 x 67.2 x 57.4
Wheelbase: 103.2 in
Curb weight: 2692-2769 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 26/33 mpg (manual); 24/32 (automatic)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, daytime running lights
Major standard equipment:AM/FM cassette stereo, engine immobilizer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles