Saturn Ion

In the 80s, Japanese dominated the American small car market. To strike back, GM decided to set up a new division called Saturn, building small cars using new engineering, marketing and production methods never tried before by any American car makers. The first Saturn, S-series, went into production in 1990, taking place at a brand new factory in Tennessee. It had a sophisticated look, 16-valve engine and plastic body panels to made it headlines in automotive magazines. The result? after 13 years, one major renew, 1 mid-life makeover, the American small car never really took off. Corolla and Civic - now enter the European-designed Ford Focus - still dominate the small car segment. The Saturn only succeeded to keep its customers satisfying (as shown in JD Power surveys) thanks to its good customer services.  

GM admits the defeat, but it won’t give up so early (by the way, it already gave Oldsmobile 100 years to prove itself). Here comes its third generation attempt - Saturn Ion. In mechanical aspect, Ion has taken a big leap forward. It is built on GM’s new global platform Delta, which will give birth to the next generation Opel Astra as well. The Delta was developed in Germany, therefore you can trust its chassis stiffness and NVH suppression. Its rear wheels ride on torsion-beam axle in European way, unlike the trailing-arms of the S-series.  

Although Delta has a conventional steel monocoque chassis, the Saturn version is covered with polymer plastic doors, fenders and rear quarter panels in traditional way for the benefit of dent-resistant and easy replacement in case of damage. Customers can also choose different colors of roof rails, this is probably learned from Smart city car. In terms of size, the Ion matches the latest generation of European hatchback in wheelbase and exceeds them by a large margin in overall length, thanks to its 3-box structure. The trunk offers an astonishing 520 litres of luggage space. 

Engine is the familiar Lotus-developed Ecotec 2.2-litre 16-valve four-cylinder, with twin-balancer shafts to ensure smooth and linear power delivery. This is a world class engine, and probably the only item better than its competitors. 140 horsepower and 145 lbft of torque is class-leading too, although it also drink more fuel than its 1.8 or 2.0-litre counterparts. Another surprise is the adoption of an automatic transmission with 5 ratios and a CVT gearbox taken from Saturn VUE, beside that standard 5-speed manual. 

Does the high specifications deliver in real world? not really. Despite of big engine and 5-speed automatic gearbox, Ion takes 10.2 seconds to reach 60mph, a second off from my prediction beforehand. Its top speed is electronically limited at 107mph. This is quite disappointing for a 2.2-litre small car weighing 1255kg. Handling is tidy enough but not very interesting. Steering feel is lifeless, while the electrical assistance is artificially non-linear. The new suspensions and rigid chassis deal with bumps pretty good, providing a much smoother and quieter ride than the outgoing S-series. Braking is also up to the job. Overall speaking, Ion is easy to live with but it is also rather boring to drive. 

So far, this could have been a 3-star (read "average") car. Unfortunately, Ion loses most of its hard-earned stars by its cabin. There, you will see an unbelievably cheap, ugly and odd-looking environment. The instrument readings are positioned right over the center console instead of the usual place in front of the driver. That’s not a problem, as Toyota also does this in its Yaris, but the design in Ion is really too bad. Look at that instrument panel! look at that center console! look at that steering wheel! look at their strange shape and all those rough, 1970’s kind of plastic materials. They suddenly make Korean cars luxurious. Running over rough surfaces, you can hear creaks and rattles coming out of the poor fit of plastic panels. Now you wonder how GM could spend a lot of money into the chassis and then decided to save the same amount of money from the interior. Despite of Bob Lutz, this is still very much an accountant-driven company, sadly. 

Space and comfort aren’t remarkable too. The front passengers enjoys good room, but the seats are flat, unsupportive and uncomfortable. At the rear, both headroom and legroom are less than its rivals like Civic, Corolla and Focus.  

So, at least the price is cheaper than its rivals? no. Saturn Ion is actually no cheaper than the aforementioned rivals in the USA. So, you can forget this car as if it were never existed. One day, if you read news about its disappointing sales, its plant closure or even the termination of the Saturn division, you need not to be surprised. This is the American way of starting and ending a dream. 

The above report was last updated on 3 Mar 2003. All Rights Reserved.

Ion Quad Coupe

When a coupe is devoid of speed and excitement, it becomes nothing.  

Externally, the Ion Quad Coupe seems to be exciting - doesn't it look like a mini-Firebird ? but its underpinning is identical to the Ion sedan, which notoriously earned 1 star in AutoZine rating 4 months ago. With a modest 140hp 2.2-litre engine and 5-speed manual, it will take 9 seconds from rest to 60mph. Opt for the CVT (the sedan's 5-speed automatic is not available to the coupe) and it will take 10 painful seconds. And the perception of slowness is further amplified by the old-fashion rubber band effect.  

Slow isn't a problem if handling can compensate, but the Quad Coupe will again disappoint you. Basically, it corners and rides like the sedan - refined enough, but never exciting. Steering lacks sharpness and feel. Body control isn't remarkable. In short, it is a sedan in coupe skin. 

This feeling of being cheated vapours in the cabin. The dashboard, console and seats are unchanged from the sedan. That means horrible taste, rubbish-grade quality and uncomfortable seats. With a pair of RX-8-style rear-hinged doors and the elimination of B-pillars, the rear passengers may be better catered than in other coupes, but then it cannot accommodate my 5' 10" frame.  

For US$20,000, you can find many fast and exciting coupes or hot hatches. I wonder how many Quad Coupes Saturn can sell. 

The above report was last updated on 9 July 2003. All Rights Reserved.

Ion Red Line

Although Ion is one of the poorest new cars we encountered in recent years, its fault is more about finishing instead of fundamental. Remember, its basis is GM’s Delta platform, which is closely related to the new Opel Astra. The stiff chassis offers tidy handling and refined ride like European cars. What it lacks is a decent powertrain and a sharp chassis response. Ion Red Line is going to deal with these problems. 

The standard Ion Quad Coupe powered by the 140hp 2.2 Ecotec engine is pretty slow. The shift quality of its 5-speed manual gearbox is also far from satisfactory. Now Saturn switched to the 2.0-litre version of Ecotec and added an Eaton supercharger. Power is raised to 205hp at 5600rpm. Max torque is 200 lbft at 4400rpm. Furthermore, it uses a new 5-speed gearbox from Opel Astra and Saab 9-3, whose short-throw shifter changes gears much cleaner than before. The supercharged engine allows the Ion Red Line to do 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds and reach a top speed of 144mph. 

On the other hand, Red Line also received a 10mm lower and 15% stiffer suspension, bigger wheels, wider tires and stronger brakes to improve handling. This sharpens its handling considerably without making ride quality unacceptable - Saturn should have applied the same tuning to all Ion Quad Coupe. Furthermore, there is no torque steer at all. This fine tuning must thanks to some testing work done at Nurburgring - it is unusual for a budget American car to do this.  

Unfortunately, Ion Red Line did not touch the rubbish-grade interior packaging, except a pair of Recaro seats. Although the Red Line is inexpensive (approx. US$20,000), its driver still deserve a prettier and higher quality dashboard and interior trimming. For a car having such performance, its driver should expect an instrument panel mounted right in front of him rather than on the center console like some funny mini cars. How can you have the confidence to attack corners if you have to switch your sight to the center console? 

Yes, perhaps it is more matured than the rawer and faster Dodge Neon SRT-4, but by any objective standard the Ion Red Line is still a flawed coupe. Its poor quality, ugly interior and rough-sounding supercharged engine devoid it the chance of success, even though Saturn plans to sell only 5,000 cars a year. 

The above report was last updated on 15 Aug 2004. All Rights Reserved.


Saturn Ion 3
Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
Saturn Ion Red Line
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
L / W / H / WB (mm)
4685 / 1707 / 1458 / 2620
4699 / 1725 / 1422 / 2620
4699 / 1725 / 1417 / 2620
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl,
bal shaft.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl,
bal shaft.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl,
2198 cc
2198 cc
1998 cc
140 hp
140 hp
205 hp
145 lbft
145 lbft
200 lbft
Suspension (F/R)
strut / torsion-beam
strut / torsion-beam
strut / torsion-beam
Tyres (F/R)
All: 205/55 R16
All: 205/55 R16
All: 215/45 ZR17
1255 kg
1255 kg
1320 kg
Top speed
107 mph (limited)
107 mph (limited)
144 mph (c)
0-60 mph
10.2 sec*
10.2 sec (est)
6.2 sec**
0-100 mph
34.8 sec*
15.8 sec**
Figures tested by: * C&D, ** R&T

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