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Saturn Ion is an inexpensive compact that emphasizes style and innovation as well as value. Ion was all-new in 2003, and significantly larger than the Saturn S-series model it replaced.
The 2004 Saturn Ion features some significant updates, including higher-grade interior fabrics and richer-looking interior trim in more harmonious colors. Additional sound-deadening material brings a quieter cabin. The stereo systems have been improved and is available with an MP3 player, XM Satellite Radio, and a six-CD changer.
Ion's steering has been re-calibrated for improved road feel at speed. Both of the available automatic transmissions have been refined as well. And Saturn has injected some real excitement into the Ion for 2004, with the uniquely trimmed Special Edition sedan, and the supercharged Red Line coupe.
Dent-deflecting and rust-resistant plastic body panels add to the Ion's appeal. Acceleration is good for its price class, ride and handling about average. In interior comfort and refinement, Saturn still has a way to go. But experience has shown that people choose Saturns as much for the hassle-free buying experience as the for car's actual character and performance. In fact, Saturn ranks at or near the top in J. D. Power and Associates Sales Satisfaction Index surveys, putting it in the same league as Lexus and Infiniti in terms of satisfaction with the sales experience.
The 2004 Saturn Ion is available as a four-door sedan, or as an innovative coupe with two reverse-opening auxiliary rear doors. Saturn calls the coupe a Quad Coupe. Picture the door arrangement on an extended-cab pickup, but with a lot more style.
The sedan is offered in three trim levels. The coupe is available in the upper two levels. Saturn does things a little differently from other car manufacturers, so instead of assigning arbitrary letter combinations to each trim level, Saturn calls them simply Ion 1, Ion 2, and Ion 3.
All Saturn Ion models (except the high-performance Red Line) are powered by the same 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine, rated 140 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. Automatic transmissions are available ($900-$980), but Saturn installs different units in the sedan and the coupe. Sedans use a five-speed automatic, which is unusual in this price range. Coupes use a continuously variable transmission (VTi, Saturn calls it) that uses pulleys and belts instead of gears to maximize smoothness and efficiency.
Ion 1 sedan ($10,430) comes with a four-speaker AM/FM stereo, tilt steering, an immobilizing anti-theft system, 185/70 tires on 14-inch steel wheels, and not much else. The windows wind and the mirrors adjust manually. Air conditioning costs extra ($960).
Ion 2 sedan ($13,735) and coupe ($14,285) add air conditioning, a CD player, a more deluxe interior with a driver's seat that adjusts for height, and 195/60 tires on 15-inch aluminum wheels.
Ion 3 sedan ($15,260) and coupe ($15,785) add an MP3 player and better speakers, cruise control, power programmable door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, and other niceties, plus 205/55 tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels.
Two additional variations debut for 2004. The Special Edition sedan comes only in black, with machined 16-inch alloy wheels and a chrome exhaust tip. Inside, the Special Edition is trimmed in perforated neutral leather with ebony accents. Additional standard equipment includes an automatic-dimming mirror, compass, outside temperature gauge, map lights, and unique floor-mat embroidery.
The Red Line coupe, available late in the model year, boasts 200 horsepower from a supercharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine. A heavy-duty five-speed manual gearbox from Getrag, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and a recalibrated suspension on 215/45 tires and 17-inch wheels are designed to manage the additional power. The Ion Red Line is distinguished by its lowered (by 10mm) ride height, unique front and rear fascias, side sills, rear wing, and sport seats.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with traction control ($400) are available on all other Saturns, and we recommend them highly for their ability to help you maintain control in a panic situation and avoid an accident. Head curtain air bags ($395) that protect both front and rear-seat passengers in a side impact are an unusual option in this price class, and we recommend them as well.
CD and CD/MP3 systems are available on Ion 1 and Ion 2. XM Satellite Radio and OnStar are offered at levels 2 and 3. A convenience package ($825) adds cruise control plus power locks, mirrors, and windows to Ion 2. A power sunroof ($725) is offered on all models except the Ion 1 sedan. Leather upholstery ($700) is available on Ion 3.
Stylish yet recognizable, the 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 the relatively tall Ion look sleek.
Ion does, in fact, stand tall. It's more than four inches taller than the previous-generation S-Series that it replaced. The Ion sedan's roof curves 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, both lauded for their design.
Ion maintains the Saturn tradition of attaching composite polymer body panels to a substantial steel space-frame. The polymer panels can't rust and, because they are slightly resilient, they resist the minor impacts that leave small dents and dings in sheet metal. The down side is that the Saturn's panels look thicker than steel sheet and gaps between body parts have to be greater to allow for expansion in hot weather. Another benefit of the composite panels is that they are relatively easy to replace. Saturn has exploited this advantage on the Ion by offering alternatively colored roof rails that owners can easily install to customize their car's appearance. All 2004 Ions come with body-color roof rails, but Nickel-Silver rails are available for the coupe and the sedan, and Charcoal rails are available for the sedan.
One complaint: We find the Ion's small, lever-style door handles relatively hard to grasp. Also, the front air dam adds to the sedan's sporty appearance, but scrapes like a Corvette on steep driveway and side-street transitions.
The Ion Quad Coupe derives its name from a pair of unusual Rear-Access Doors that open on rear-mounted hinges, in much the same way as the auxiliary rear doors on an extended-cab pickup truck. The rear doors have no exterior handles to compromise the coupe's sporty styling; and when they are open, there's no B-pillar in the opening, which makes access to the rear seat very easy for such a small car. The rear access doors are an innovative design that enhances the practicality of this sport coupe. A front passenger seat that folds flat further improves the utility of the coupe. Saturn likes to demonstrate that it's possible to stuff a nine-foot kayak into the coupe through its doors, a feat that would be plenty tough for many SUVs, let alone other compact coupes. You may not find the need to stuff a kayak in your car, but you may occasionally need to haul something someplace and the Quad Coupe's rear access doors will be helpful.
The Ion's interior looks stylish and youthful. Ion's interior design themes consist largely of interlocking half circles with different textures. These textures and other interior materials have been upgraded for 2004. New grains on the dash, soft-touch paint, and improved gloss levels of other plastics give the 2004 Ion a more upscale appearance than the 2003 model. For those who want to customize the interior, the trim bezels can be swapped out.
The open dash design gives the Ion an airy feel. Immediately noticeable is the center-mounted instrument cluster, a feature popularized by the Mini Cooper and Toyota Echo. The advantage of this, says Saturn, is that the instruments can be set at the same level as the outside mirrors, so there's no need to look down, only across. This arrangement also allows for a smaller steering wheel with more range of adjustment, as there is no need to look through the steering wheel to see the gauges. Tall drivers find it convenient, but short drivers who sit nearer to the steering wheel have to swivel their heads farther to look across at the speedometer. Some people like the small steering wheel, but others do not love the Ion's small, two-spoke wheel.
We do not like the front seats. They are on small, narrow and short, and lack side support in the seat bottom and seat back. Arm rests have been added to Ion 2 and Ion 3 trim levels for 2004, which may be helpful.
Forward visibility is inhibited by thick A-pillars in front, while the view over the right shoulder is hindered by wide C-pillars. We found the electric window switches hard to locate in the dark, as they are not illuminated and are located rearward of where we expected them. At least they are mounted on the door and not on the center console as in previous Saturn models.
Thanks to the high roofline, however, passengers in all four seats enjoy decent headroom. Rear passengers benefit from slightly elevated (theater) seating, as the rear seats are mounted two inches higher than the front seats, offering an improved view. Rear-seat legroom is adequate, and the front seats have longer-than-normal adjustment rails, so short front-seat passengers can slide them well forward. This also means a taller person can enjoy even greater leg room in front as long as there are no passengers in the rear.
The coupe and the sedan feature a big trunk. The sedan's trunk is little larger than the coupe's. With a capacity of nearly 15 cubic feet, and a practical shape, the Ion sedan's trunk is as big 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 head-curtain side-impact airbags for improved head protection for front- and rear-seat passengers. The Ion has received five-star/five-star ratings, the highest attainable, in the federal government's crash tests. We recommend the optional ABS and traction control.
OnStar, GM's security and information service, is optional ($695) and at times quite useful. Unlike a navigation system, there's nothing to program. Simply press the OnStar button and a human operator responds to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the exact location of your vehicle. The staff will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls, dispatching rescue crews to the scene. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover. To get OnStar, you must also order the Travel Package ($200), which includes a map light, outside temperature gauge, compass, and auto-dimming inside mirror, all useful features.
The optional CD player ($290) feat
The Saturn Ion handles well and the engine pulls nicely. It has a nice smooth ride quality and it's quiet. The steering system has been improved and new suspension bushings have been added for 2004 improving the handling and steering response considerably. Other measures were implemented to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.
The steering has been greatly improved on 2004 Ion models. Saturn recalibrated the steering for more on-center road feel. It feels much better now. Also, torque steer has been eliminated. (Torque steer is that tugging sensation on the steering wheel we sometimes experience when accelerating hard out of a turn in a powerful front-wheel-drive car.) The variable-ratio steering is electrically assisted, a technology which General Motors developed for its big luxury cars; this is one of the first times it has appeared in a small car. It makes the steering boost more effective at slow speed and also improves fuel economy as power is not sapped from the engine by a hydraulic pump. We like the Ion sedan's small turning radius, which is a couple of feet tighter than that of a Dodge Neon or Ford Focus. That's useful when making U-turns.
Ride and handling are good, and about average for the class. The Ion seems to be free of squeaks and rattles, and additional sound deadening material and other refinements have been added for 2004. Refinement, in terms of noise and vibration, is about average for the class. The front suspension has struts while the rear uses a torsion-beam axle to provide more interior space in the trunk. Front and rear stabilizer bars on all models reduce lean in the corners. The Ion handles well on winding roads, tending toward understeer when driven very hard. The suspension feels a little squishy at high speeds.
The twin-cam 2.2-liter engine offers more performance than in most other cars of this size, though it sounds a bit rough at times. Saturn has recalibrated the transmissions in both the sedan and the coupe for improved gear selection. The sedan's five-speed automatic works more smoothly than the four-speed automatics normally found in compact cars. The manual gearbox works well, though the shifter is positioned slightly rearward from the ideal position.
The Saturn Ion is a stylish compact with innovative features. It drives nicely and its performance is adequate. It doesn't match European models such as the Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf in terms of dynamic driving nor is the fit and finish up to the standards of the import brands. But it has is improved on both scores for 2004.
Ion offers a good value and lots of interior space for people and cargo compared to its competitors. Consumers report that buying and servicing the Saturn Ion is more pleasant than performing these chores with other brands.