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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.
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.
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.