Last year, the all-new ION arrived to replace the long-outdated SL-Series Saturns that made their debut back in 1990 along with the Saturn brand.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.
2004 Saturn Ion
The ION’s VTi is a good choice, though people who like more control while they’re driving will still appreciate the manual. The CVT changes ratios smoothly and imperceptibly, with improved drivability compared to our last experience in a CVT-equipped VUE, where the transmission seemed to change ratios in small, jittery jumps at a moderate throttle. It’s smooth, always choosing the best ratio for the throttle position and speed, and it has great launch characteristics, too, with enough torque to chirp the wheels from a standing start. The traction control in our test car (included only with ABS) seemed unnecessary in most cases and rather useless when we needed it, allowing a surprising amount of wheel spin on an unpaved, uphill driveway before interceding.
We noticed — as a pleasant surprise — that the transmission detects grades and adjusts accordingly. On a long downgrade, the CVT held 3500 rpm or so to help maintain speed, without having to downshift to the low gear setting.
Gusto got; quiet wanted
In normal driving, the 2.2-liter has plenty of power to move the 2800-pound ION with gusto, but isn’t particularly smooth or quiet. It stays reasonably composed as long as the revs are down, but it becomes very loud and coarse in the higher rev range. And the body’s exemplary stiffness seems to amplify the engine’s boominess when the revs are high. But the VTi transmission keeps revs low (well below 3000 rpm) at Interstate speeds if you’re not accelerating.
While the powertrain is innovative, everything else about the ION is pretty standard for this class of car. Brakes are discs in front and drums in the back, and stops were confident in our test car, which had the optional ($400) anti-lock system. The suspension employs struts in front and a semi-independent torsion-beam setup in back.
2004 Saturn Ion
The ION’s ride and handling definitely tends toward the sporty side. It’s surprisingly firm — but not harsh — with tight damping and very little body motion, also thanks to stabilizer bars front and back. Over rough pavement the ride could feel a little too choppy, but the benefit is good control and sharp handling reflexes.
If only the steering were a little more communicative. The electric power steering system is one of our least-liked features in this car. It’s been recalibrated this year for better on-center feel, but it still feels both uncommunicative and nervous at the same time, with frequent small adjustments needed on center, especially at higher speeds and when the road surface is uneven. The steering gear was unexpectedly noisy on our test car, too, something we’ve noticed on a couple of other Saturns equipped with the electric system.
Another relative disappointment for the ION is fuel economy, still one of the reasons why people look to buy small cars even if it isn’t as much of the buying decision as it once was. Our ION’s highway figure of 32 miles per gallon seems unimpressive when compared with competitors like the Honda Civic Coupe (also available with a CVT). We observed about 27 mpg in a tank of mostly highway driving — not much, if at all, better than GM’s V-6 mid-size sedans.
Controls and switchgear in the ION are simple and have a nice tactility to them. As with other Saturn models current and past, buttons, knobs, and control stalks are large and clearly labeled. But in the ION the nice, large displays have been skipped in favor of a somehow more fashionable center instrument pod. Gauges and warning lights are clustered in the middle of the dash, where they seem just slightly out of the natural range of the eyes. Yes, you can sense our skepticism — it’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it features.
2004 Saturn Ion
The front seats in our Quad Coupe lacked adequate lateral support for aggressive driving or back support for long trips. The seats are height adjustable, but many drivers will wish for more all-around support and more adjustability. In back, the seats are a bit higher than those in most small cars. Headroom is abundant in front, and a bit tight in back.
We really tried to love the Quad Coupe’s rear-hinged ‘rear access’ doors, but we found just as much annoyance as convenience from them. For example, when tightly parked in a grocery-store parking lot, wanting to stash our bags of groceries in the back seat, we found it difficult to get to the backseat, as you need to open the front door first, then step behind the rear door, pulling it open from the back; then you need to somehow step around the door with the bags.
Later, I convinced a friend to sit in the back seat for a short time. He fit reasonably well, but narrowly avoided a serious gouge to the head while getting in. “These aren’t suicide doors, they’re brain hemorrhage doors,” he deadpanned. He has a point. The door latch is up near the roof, protected by a hard plastic housing. Seriously, no hemorrhages, but some people will be getting bumps on their heads. But we can see how the innovative design does allow larger objects to fit into the vehicle if you have full access to the side of the car.
The ION comes in three different models, denoted simply by ION 1, ION 2, and ION 3. The Quad Coupe only comes in ION 2 and ION 3 trim. The 2 comes equipped with air conditioning, power locks, and a CD player, while the 3 adds power windows and mirrors, cruise control, an upgraded sound system, and the sharp 16-inch alloys with 205-width performance tires.
Styling is purely subjective, but if the way it was received by my always-eager-to-opine 20- and 30-something friends is any indication, the ION isn’t altogether hitting the mark with younger buyers. The coupe’s outside proportions held some resemblance to the current-generation Mustang at some angles, but other angles are less than flattering. The stylish “flangeless” 16-inch, four-spoke alloy wheels that come with the ION 3 seem to have nearly unanimous approval.
2004 Saturn Ion
2003 Saturn ION Red Line Quad Coupe
On the plus side, the ION is a substantial, well-equipped small car with a very low price tag. On the down side, ION is only adequate in refinement, overall performance, efficiency, and driving enjoyment.
Saturn buyers aren’t big risk-takers, but the ION could have been a trend-setting, innovatively packaged small car. The dealer network is there; the consumer perception is there; the marketing channels are there. With the sedan the obvious sales leader, an inventive hatchback or sport-wagon body style would likely garner more interest than the odd-duck Quad Coupe design. That argument was probably made by someone at GM, but at the time perhaps no one product-minded was there to hear it.
Of course, Saturn buyers as loyal as they are, the car itself is only part of it. For loyal Spring Hill homecomers, or those people who are lured in by Saturn’s marketing and sales approach, the ION will be just fine. Some people may be seduced by the Quad Coupe’s quirky door design, too, but we’re not counting on it. If you’re a comparison shopper who test-drives the competition like the rest of us, there are many other good small-car alternatives.
2004 Saturn Quad Coupe Automatic
Base price/as equipped: $16,430/$20,045
Engine: 2.2-liter in-line four, 140 hp
Drivetrain: Continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 185.0 x 67.9 x 67.9 in
Wheelbase: 103.2 in
Curb weight: 2769 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 24/32 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes (optional)
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, rear defroster, CD/cassette sound system, 16-inch alloy wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles