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.
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 anti-lock braking 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.