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Saturn's strength has always been its dealers. It's Saturn's car that haven't always measured up, particularly in comfort and refinement. GM's youngest car division is working to remedy this, so while the Saturn dealership experience remains as good as it ever was, Saturn's cars are now better than they ever have been.
The Saturn Ion is a good example of that. When it appeared in 2003, the Ion represented a major improvement over the old Saturn S-series. Yet our impressions of it were negative. We found the seats uncomfortable and its levels of refinement were average at best. However, Saturn has continued to update and refine the Ion over the past three model years, and we came away with positive impressions of the current models. Most of the things we complained about have been changed and refinement has been improved overall.
The most substantial changes came for 2005: Larger and more supportive seats have replaced the barstools used previously, and a larger steering wheel provides a more comfortable grip. Suspension tweaks have resulted in a smoother and quieter car that's more pleasant in everyday use. At the same time, the handling is sharper, making it more fun to drive. A new four-speed automatic built by GM replaces outsourced transmissions that proved problematic. And the appearance of the sedan was greatly improved with a new grille.
The improvements continued for 2006: Saturn has reconfigured the center dash to provide more room for storage and to enhance legroom. OnStar is now standard on all Ions. A larger, more powerful engine is available. Saturn has dropped the base-level sedan with its narrow seats, and a new Enhanced Performance Package has been added to bridge the gap between the base-engine/base suspension models and the Ion Red Line sport compact. Prices have been reduced, especially at the lower end of the line, where an 2006 Ion 2 sedan lists for $2,455 less than a comparable '05 model.
Meanwhile, all of the Ion's best features remain unchanged. The sedan offers plenty of interior and luggage room for a reasonable price. The Quad Coupe features innovative dual rear-access doors, like those on an extended-cab pickup, that make it easy to load and unload cargo. We found we could stuff large objects into the back seat of a Saturn that would not go into a traditional two-door coupe.
The Red Line coupe features a 205-horsepower supercharged engine good for 0-60 mph in about 6.3 seconds. We found it fun to drive, with strong throttle response and a sporty exhaust note. It comes with Recaro seats that provide comfortable support in corners.
And then, of course, there's that Saturn dealership experience. Surveys show that Saturn buyers tend to be more satisfied with their dealers in terms of the sales and service experience than buyers of other brands. Saturn tends to be the top-scoring non-luxury brand in these types of surveys.
The Saturn Ion is a lot of fun on a winding road. It handles well and the engine pulls nicely. Brake for the corners, turn in, and roll onto the gas. It's also smooth and quiet, something that hasn't always been the case.
Saturn has improved the Ion each year since its introduction as a 2003 model. The steering is much better, thanks to recalibrated steering, though it still seems 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 do like the 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 about average for the class. The Ion seems to be free of squeaks and rattles, especially since additional sound deadening material was added for '05. 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.) A noise-absorbing cover over the engine cuts sound from that source. Overall, the latest Ion seems more refined than it used to be. 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. Again, major improvements were made last year, with new hydraulic suspension bushings in the rear and recalibrated solid bushings up front. 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 ABS option comes with traction control and dynamic rear brake proportioning. The latter adjusts brake pressure according the load on the rear wheels. It sends more brake pressure rearward when the back seat and trunk are full. Under hard braking, it shifts brake pressure from the rear wheels to the front as the car's weight shifts forward, reducing rear-wheel lockup, for better, more stable braking.
The Ion's 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine develops 140 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 145 pound-feet of torque at 4400. This twin-cam engines gives the Ion good performance for the class. Sound deadening added for 2005 reduces filters out engine noise. Ions sold with this engine in California are certified as Super Low Emissions Vehicles (SULEV).
A new 2.4-liter twin-cam engine with variable valve timing has been added to the lineup for 2006. Like the 2.2, it's part of GM's Ecotec engine family, designed for low mass and compact dimensions. Twin balance shafts counteract engine vibration, and direct mounting of all accessories helps further reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. Optional on Ion 3 as part of the Enhanced Performance Package, the 2.4-liter develops 170 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 162 pound-feet of torque at 5000, numbers normally associated with midsize cars. The performance package includes stiffer shock valving and thicker anti-roll bars, front and rear.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard with either engine. It works well, though the shifter is positioned slightly rearward from the ideal position.
The four-speed automatic, optional with either engine above, is a smooth-shifting unit that responds quickly to the throttle and doesn't hunt excessively between gears. Built by GM and designated Hydramatic 4T45-E, it represents a major improvement over automatics installed in 2003-04 Ions, which were built by outside suppl
The Saturn Ion is a stylish compact with innovative features. It drives nicely and its base engine offers adequate performance. Ion delivers 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Detroit and Los Angeles.