Last year, the all-new ION arrived to replace the long-outdated SL-Series Saturns that made their debut back in 1990 along with the Saturn brand. Available both as a normal four-door sedan and as a quirky new Quad Coupe design — with two half-size rear doors that are hinged at the back — the ION aims to recapture Saturn’s target small-car buyers.
At first glance, the ION is roomier and more substantial in nearly every way than the SL it replaces, and it’s much more competitive with the current competition than its predecessor ever was. Dimensionally, the changes are just an inch or two for wheelbase, width, and height, with more length due to overhang, and the cabin is correspondingly just a bit larger. The ION is a few hundred pounds heavier, too.
All IONs are powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, termed Ecotec. For those repeat Saturn buyers — and there are a lot of them — it’s a big improvement over both versions of the noisy, peaky 1.9-liter engine in the former Saturn SL1 and SL2. The aluminum powerplant has a modern design, with double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, plus roller cam followers and two balance shafts for smooth operation. It makes a healthy 140 hp, with peak torque of 145 lb-ft made at 4400 rpm.
Power is sent to the front wheels through either a rather ordinary five-speed manual gearbox or a relatively unusual continuously variable transmission (CVT), which Saturn terms the VTi. The VTi is the only automatic transmission available on the coupe, whereas the sedan is offered with a conventional five-speed automatic instead of the VTi. Our test car came equipped with the VTi.
Over the past few years, CVTs have gone from engineering oddity to a mainstream offering now in several vehicles. Since they don’t have defined ratios, some claim that they lack the level of drivability or control that conventional automatics can permit, even though CVTs do offer improved acceleration times. If you haven’t experienced a CVT before, take it for an extended test drive. At first you might feel that the powertrain’s response feels unnatural or rubber band-like, but after a while most people will like how the gearbox just does its job in a more subtle way than any conventional automatic could.