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2003 Saturn Ion
John Rettie

Out with the old S-Series, in with the new Ion.

It's been 12 years since GM's Saturn division first appeared on the automotive scene in an attempt to compete more effectively with Japanese imports. Unlike Japanese manufacturers who change a car's design pretty much every four years like clockwork, the basic Saturn sedan, coupe and station wagon model, known as the S-Series, remained essentially unchanged. Until now.

It didn't seem to matter terribly as people have chosen Saturns as much for the hassle-free buying experience as the car's actual character and performance. In fact, Saturn has been the only non-luxury make to ever top the J. D. Power and Associates Sales Satisfaction Index and was often ranked with such illustrious makes as Lexus and Infiniti.

For 2003, there's an all-new sedan and coupe. This time, Saturn has given its entry models a name: Ion. The Ion replaces the S-series and sports all-new styling. It's built on an entirely new and bigger platform and it's powered by a new engine. It still has an unmistakable Saturn look, however.

Model Lineup
The Ion is available as a four-door sedan or as a quad-door coupe. Both models are powered by a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. (It's the same engine introduced in the Saturn Vue sport-utility late in 2002.)

The base Ion 1 sedan comes with a manual transmission and starts at a competitive price of $11,510, but does not include air conditioning or even a radio.

The Ion 2 model with air conditioning, power door locks and an AM/FM/CD stereo starts at $13,510.

Ion 3 adds power mirrors, remote keyless entry, and cruise control for $15,010. Ion 3 is distinguished by 16-inch alloy wheels.

An optional five-speed automatic transmission adds $900 to the cost of each model. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with traction control add $595, and we recommend them highly for their ability to help you maintain control in a panic situation and avoid an accident.

The Ion Coupe is offered in much same variations as the sedans described above. The optional automatic, however, is a continuously variable transmission, or CVT.

Stylish yet recognizable, the new Saturn Ion sedan drew favorable comments on the street. From the front, the Ion retains the Saturn family look with slim horizontal headlamps and the Saturn name embossed in the bumpers. The windshield slopes far forward, which helps give the car a sleek look.

This is in spite of the fact that the Ion is more than four inches taller than the old model. The roof curves quite heavily down to the high trunk line almost giving it the appearance of a hatchback rather than a traditional sedan. The look is contemporary and not that dissimilar from the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat. (That's a good thing.)

The Ion continues with the Saturn trademark of utilizing composite polymer body panels mounted on a substantial steel spaceframe. Advantages are rust resistance and resilience to dings and small dents. The disadvantage is that the panels look thicker than steel ones, and gaps between body parts have to be greater to allow for expansion in hot weather.

Another advantage to the composite panels is that it they are relatively easy to replace. Saturn has taken this a step further with the Ion by offering optional colored roof rails that run along the edge of the roof on each side so an owner can easily customize the car's appearance.

A front air dam adds to the Ion sedan's sporty appearance but scrapes on abrupt transitions found on some driveways and side streets.

The Coupe's unique feature is a pair of rear doors that give the car its Quad Coupe name. They are also called rear-access doors (RAD) as they open out from the rear hinges in much the same way as on many crew cab pickup trucks. The absence of a B-pillar and a front seat that folds forward makes access to the rear very easy despite it being a small car. In fact Saturn likes to demonstrate that it's possible to get a nine-foot kayak in the Quad Coupe through the doors, a feat that would be tough to do in many SUVs, let alone a small compact coupe. Speaking of doors, we found the small, lever-style door handles relatively hard to grasp.

The Saturn Ion comes with a stylish, youthful interior.

Immediately noticeable is the center-mounted instrument cluster, a feature popularized by the Toyota Echo and the Mini Cooper. The advantages, according to Saturn are that the instruments are at the same level as the outside mirrors, which makes them easier to see when looking straight ahead. There's no need to look down, only across. They also allow for a smaller steering wheel with more adjustments, as there is no need to look through the steering wheel to see the gauges. The center-mounted speedometer gets mixed reviews. Tall drivers are likely to find it just as convenient as one mounted conventionally in front of the steering wheel. Short drivers, who sit nearer to the steering wheel, will have to turn their heads to look across to the speedometer.

Ion's interior design themes consist largely of interlocking half circles with different textures available. In places it works well, but there are some parts where butting plastic panels look a little cheap. The open dash design gives the Ion an airy feel.

We found the electric window switches a bit hard to locate in the dark as they are not illuminated and are located rearward of where we expected them, but at least they are conveniently mounted on the door and not on awkwardly on the center console as with previous Saturn models. Some people will like the small steering wheel but others will find it less easy to use than a larger one.

Thanks to the high roofline, passengers in all four seats get decent headroom. Rear passengers benefit from slightly elevated (theater) seating, as the seats are located two inches higher than the front seats, offering an improved view. Rear-seat legroom is adequate and if the front passengers are short the front seats can be slid far forward as they have longer seat rails than normal. This also means a taller person can enjoy even greater leg room in front as long as there are no passengers in the rear.

We did not like the front seats. They lacked side support, both on the seat bottom and on the seat back. Also, they are on the small side, narrow and short. At times, we felt like we were sitting on a padded bar stool, about to fall off. Drivers who like deep, supportive seats, and drivers who like armrests or something to lean on may not be comfortable in this car.

The coupe might have great access thanks to the rear opening doors but the sedan gets a really big trunk. Indeed, with a capacity of nearly 15 cubic feet, and a practical shape, the trunk is bigger than any in its segment and is as big as those in many mid-size cars.

Safety features include dual-stage driver and front-passenger airbags and optional curtain side-impact airbags for improved head protection for both front- and rear-seat passengers. Onstar, GM's telematics system for emergency use and for obtaining information while driving is available as an option.

Forward visibility is inhibited by thick A-pillars in front, while the view over the right shoulder is reduced by wide C-pillars.

A nice in-dash six-disc CD changer is available that features big buttons and knobs to control audio functions. All stereo systems should be ergonomically designed this well.

Driving Impressions
Saturn likes to say the Ion is fun to drive, but enthusiast drivers will find it ordinary. That's not to say it's bad, just that it does not excite.

The engine pulls nicely with more performance than most other cars of this size. It is especially good with the five-speed automatic, which works more smoothly than the four-speed automatics normally found in compact cars. The engine sounds a little rough at times, which is surprising considering it is a much newer design than the old engine and it has counter-balance shafts for added smoothness.

We weren't entirely happy with the steering. There's a dead spot on center. Off center it's a bit darty and it feels numb when driving fast on winding roads. Also, there's a fair amount of torque steer, a tugging sensation on the steering wheel when accelerating hard out of a turn. The variable-ratio steering is electrically operated, which is one of the first times such a system has been used in a small car. It makes the steering more effective at slow speed and also improves fuel economy as power is not sapped from the engine by a hydraulic pump. We liked the Ion sedan's small turning radius, two to three feet tighter than that of a Dodge Neon or Pontiac Sunfire, useful when making U-turns.

A sophisticated integrated electrical system with a LAN (local area network) is part of the technology in the Ion that is hidden from view. Apart from daytime running lights, automatic headlights and electric steering it does not offer much in the base model but it does allow the easy addition of options such as a sophisticated ABS barking system with traction control. Consequently these options can be offered on all models in the Ion range as the basic circuits are built in. On up market models it allows for power windows and mirrors with extra features that might normally be found on more expensive cars.

Ride and handling are good, average for the class. The Ion seems to be free of squeaks and rattles. Refinement, in terms of noise and vibration, is, at best, average for the class. The front suspension has struts while the rear uses a torsion-beam to provide more interior space in the trunk. Front and rear stabilizer bars on all models reduce lean in the corners.

Saturn appears to have tried hard to make a stylish car that's also somewhat fun to drive. It has several innovative features including electric steering, a center-mounted instrument pod, suicide doors on the coupe, a large trunk on the sedan and some unusual styling features. It drives quite nicely and the performance is adequate. However, it is still not a match for European models such as the Ford Focus or VW Jetta in terms of dynamic driving. Nor is the fit and finish up to the standards one expects in competitors from Japanese or European manufacturers.

Nevertheless if you're looking for a new small car and don't enjoy the buying process at many car dealerships, the Ion might be an ideal car. It offers good value and lots of interior space for people and cargo compared to its competitors.

Model as tested
Ion Sedan 3 ($15,010)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
automatic transmission ($900); ABS/traction control ($595)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Sedan 1 ($11,510); Sedan 2 ($13,510); Sedan 3 ($15,010); Quad Coupe (N/A)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual stage front driver- and passenger-side airbags; load limiting retractors with pretensioners for front seats; anti-theft engine immobilizer
Safety equipment (optional)
2.2-liter dohc 16v inline-4
5-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning; fabric/leather seats; power windows; remote central locking; power mirrors; 16-inch alloy wheels; AM/FM/CD/Cassette stereo; 40/60 split fold-down rear seat; daytime running lights

Engine & Transmission
2.2-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
140 @ 5800
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/drum with ABS
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

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