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More refinement is among the list of improvements to the Saturn Ion for 2005. The 2005 Saturn Ion is smoother, quieter, and more comfortable than last year's models. And a new grille improves the looks of the sedan models. The changes raise the 2005 Ion to the level of being a compelling choice in a strong class of compact cars.
The Ion was redesigned and launched as an all-new model for 2003. It received some updates for 2004, but the changes for 2005 are more substantial.
For starters, the 2005 Ion sedans and coupes are more comfortable, with new seats that are larger and more supportive, addressing a big complaint with last year's models. Adding to this comfortable new seating position is a larger steering wheel, a surprisingly important feature.
The 2005 Ions ride better than last year's models. They're smoother and quieter, making them more pleasant in daily use. Handling is sharper, making them more enjoyable to drive. Extensive mechanical improvements to the 2005 models include revised suspension settings and improved steering feel. A new four-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission in the coupe and the five-speed automatic in the sedan, both of which had been problematic.
The 2005 Ion sedans look better that last year's models, with a new front-end treatment that gives them a classier, more elegant, more mainstream, more upscale appearance. The Ion sedans offer four-door practicality. The front seats offer lots of headroom, and the back seats are roomy. A well-equipped Ion sedan retails for just $15,000.
Ion quad coupes feature innovative dual rear-access doors, small doors like those on an extended-cab pickup that maximize the usefulness of the interior space by making it easy to load and unload cargo. We found we could stuff large objects into the back seats that will not go into a traditional two-door coupe.
Enthusiasts will gravitate to the high-performance Red Line coupe, which features a 205-horsepower supercharged engine. Saturn says it's good for 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds. We found it fun to drive, with strong throttle response and a sporty exhaust note. It comes with Recaro seats for comfortable support in corners.
Surveys of buyers indicate the Saturn Ion is easy to buy and have maintained. Granted, Ion's quality is not up to those of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, according to ratings from J.D. Power and Associates surveys, but Saturn buyers tend to be happier with their dealers, citing hassle-free sales and service. Saturn was ranked well ahead of Honda and Toyota and was outranked only by luxury brands in J.D. Power's 2004 Sales Satisfaction Index, which surveys buyers of new vehicles on the purchasing experience. Maintaining one is a satisfying experience as well. Saturn ranked No. 2 in a 2003 J.D. Power survey on customer satisfaction with dealer service, outranked only by Infiniti and well ahead of Honda and Toyota. Model Lineup The 2005 Saturn Ion is available as a four-door sedan or an innovative coupe. Saturn calls the coupe a Quad Coupe for its unusual reverse-opening rear doors. Picture the door arrangement on an extended-cab pickup, but with a lot more style.
All Ions (except the high-performance Red Line) are powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 140 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. Automatic transmissions are optional ($980).
Three trim levels are available, called Ion 1, Ion 2, and Ion 3. The sedan is offered in all three. The coupe is available in the upper two levels.
The Ion 1 sedan ($11,430) 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).
The Ion 2 sedan ($14,380) and coupe ($14,930) also come with 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. A convenience package ($825) adds cruise control, power windows, mirrors and locks.
The Ion 3 sedan ($15,905) and coupe ($16,680) add an MP3 player and better speakers, cruise control, selective locking and unlocking with remote keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, and other niceties, plus 205/55 tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels. Leather upholstery ($700) is optional.
Safety features include dual-stage driver and front-passenger frontal airbags. Optional curtain airbags ($395) are designed to improve head protection for front- and rear-seat passengers in the event of a side impact or rollover. The Ion has received five-star/five-star ratings, the highest attainable, in the federal government's (NHTSA) crash tests. We recommend the optional ABS and traction control ($400) as it can help you avoid a crash. Always wear your seatbelts as they are your first line of defense in an accident. OnStar ($695) is available on Ion 2 and 3, an option that enhances safety as well as convenience, with operators that will direct emergency crews to your exact location should the airbags deploy.
A CD player ($290) and CD/MP3 systems and XM Satellite Radio ($325) are available on Ion 2 and 3. The Travel Package ($200) includes a map light, outside temperature gauge, compass, and auto-dimming inside mirror, all useful features A power sunroof ($725) is available for all models except the base Ion 1.
The Red Line coupe boasts 205 horsepower from a supercharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine. To manage the additional power, the Red Line coupe gets a heavy-duty five-speed manual gearbox from Getrag, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a recalibrated suspension with a lowered ride height (by 10mm), and 215/45R17 tires on 17-inch wheels. The Ion Red Line is distinguished by unique front and rear fascias, side sills, a rear wing, and Recaro sport seats.
Walkaround Stylish yet recognizable, the 2005 Saturn Ion sedan drew favorable comments on the street. The new nose gives the Ion a more contemporary look, and is less polarizing than the previous design, which drew criticism. From the front, the sedan's new nose resembles that of a Nissan Sentra, with a more traditional grille between the headlights in place of the chrome and body-color bar on 2003/04 Ions.
The windshield slopes dramatically, helping the relatively tall Ion look sleek. And the Ion does 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 sedan looks contemporary and not that dissimilar from the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat, both lauded for their design. We found the Ion's small, lever-style door handles relatively hard to grasp, however.
The Quad Coupe's exterior appearance remains unchanged. It gets its name from a pair of back doors that open on rear-mounted hinges, in much the same way as the auxiliary doors on an extended-cab pickup. 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. It's an innovative design that enhances the practicality of this sport coupe. The front passenger seat folds flat, improving utility further. 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 big and the Quad Coupe's rear access doors will be helpful.
Ion continues 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. 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. Nickel-Silver roof rails are available for the coupe and sedan, and Charcoal rails are available for the sedan. 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. Interior Features Comfort has been greatly improved for the 2005 Saturn Ion. All but the base sedan get new seats that are larger and more substantial and offer more side support than the bar stools that were in 2003/04 models. The new seats are a vast improvement, more comfortable and more supportive, though we thought they still lacked side support. The seats feature a height adjustment, accomplished by jacking them up and down somewhat similar to those in a Volkswagen. The Red Line coupe comes with excellent Recaro seats, but they are best suited for narrower hips.
Lots of headroom, a benefit of its high roofline, makes the Ion sedan a good choice for tall drivers. Passengers in all four seats of the Ion sedans enjoy good headroom. Rear passengers benefit from slightly elevated (theater) seating, as the rear seats are mounted two inches higher than the front seats. This gives back-seat riders a better view. Rear-seat legroom is adequate, and the front seats have longer-than-normal adjustment rails. A short front-seat passenger can slide way forward to allow more legroom for someone in back, while a tall front passenger can take advantage of expansive leg room when no one is sitting behind.
The interior looks stylish and youthful. Ion's interior design features interlocking half circles and an assortment of textures. Textures and materials have been upgraded for 2005 and the overall effect is nice. New chrome rings adorn the instruments and vents. The new four-spoke steering wheel feels nice to the touch and is larger in diameter than last year's, making it more comfortable to hold. There's a new shifter and new cruise controls. However, the center console is tiny and the switchgear feels cheap.
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. Tall drivers find it convenient, but short drivers who sit closer to the steering wheel have to swivel their heads farther to look across at the speedometer.
Forward visibility is good, though inhibited toward the corners by thick A-pillars in front. 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.
A big trunk adds to the practicality of both coupe and sedan. The sedan's trunk is a little larger than the coupe's and, with a capacity of nearly 15 cubic feet and a practical shape with a flat floor, it's as big any in its segment and is as big as those in many mid-size cars.
OnStar, GM's security and information service, is 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 or any other assistance to make your life more wonderful. OnStar operators can quickly pinpoint the exact location of your vehicle, and can direct you to the nearest gas station, ATM or Mexican restaurant. OnStar operators will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls, and rescue crews will be dispatched to the scene. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. If you lock the keys inside, they can unlock the doors. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its exact location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover.
The audio system is a paragon of ergonomic design. All stereo systems should be designed this well. The optional CD player features big buttons and knobs to control audio functions. An MP3 player can be added as well. A nice i
The Saturn Ion handles well, has a smooth ride quality and it's quiet. Stand on the gas and the engine pulls nicely.
Saturn has been improving the Ion each year. The 2004 models offered improvements over the 2003 models, and more substantial improvements have been made for 2005. The steering has been improved and new suspension bushings have been designed to improve the ride and handling. Other measures were implemented on the 2005 models to reduce noise, vibration and harshness.
Saturn recalibrated the steering for more on-center road feel and to complement the new, larger steering wheel. We liked the improvements to the steering on the 2005 Ion sedan we drove, though it seemed a bit sensitive at high speeds. The variable-ratio steering is electrically assisted, a technology General Motors developed first for its luxury cars. It makes the steering boost more effective at slow speed and improves fuel economy as power is not sapped from the engine by a hydraulic pump. The downside is that there is little feedback through the wheel, making it difficult to know how much traction the front tires have in cornering. 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, 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 2005. GM's Quiet Steel is used in the firewall between the engine compartment and passenger area. (Two pieces of steel sandwich a layer of asphalt, which absorbs vibration much better than traditional materials.) In addition, a new noise-absorbing engine cover is used along with driveline enhancements to reduce engine noise. Overall, the Ion seems more refined than before, and noise and vibration are now about average for a compact car.
The front suspension has struts while the rear uses a torsion-beam axle to provide more interior space in the trunk. For 2005, the Ion receives new hydraulic rear suspension bushings and revised front lower control arm bushings for better ride and handling. 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, however. The ride is nicely damped on rough roads.
The twin-cam 2.2-liter engine offers more performance than in most other cars of this size, and the added sound deadening reduces the rough engine note.
The manual gearbox works well, though the shifter is positioned slightly rearward from the ideal position.
The four-speed automatic is a smooth-shifting unit that responds quickly to the throttle and doesn't hunt excessively between gears. Built by GM, this four-speed automatic (called the Hydramatic 4T45-E) is better than last year's transmissions, which were built by outside suppliers. GM's transmission allows the Ion to be flat towed, such as behind a motor home.
The 2005 Red Line coupe we drove was a lot of fun. The Red Line features a firmer suspension, so you can feel and hear bumps but the handling is sharper, more responsive. Its sporty exhaust sounds good and the supercharged engine delivers good throttle response and quick acceleration performance. As with most powerful front-drive cars, there is some torque steer, but it's easy to control. The manual shifter feels tall, maybe a little ropey but it's easy and fun to shift with easy clutch takeup. The pedals are arranged well, making it easy to heal and toe when braking and downshifting for corners, setting you up to accelerate out and charge down the next straight.
Summary The Saturn Ion is a stylish compact with innovative features. It drives nicely and offers adequate performance. Ion offers a good value and lots of interior space for people and cargo. Saturn buyers report happier experiences when buying and servicing than with other brands. Dent-deflecting and rust-resistant plastic body panels add to the Ion's appeal.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed reports from Detroit and Los Angeles; with Keith Buglewicz in LA.
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