The Saturn Ion replaces the long-running S series as Saturn's entry-level car, and its sales leader. While it is about the same size as the Chevrolet Cavalier, it is quite a bit more expensive, thanks to the promise of service that bests most luxury-car makers, and a no-haggle, polite sales experience. Many veteran car owners will happily trade some cash up front for a reliable car that isn't a nuisance to buy or have fixed.
The Saturn SC coupe was reasonably fast for its time, and would probably have done well in stock car racing had not the then-hot Neon made its entry in late 1993. The Ion gets good performance from its 140 horsepower engine and continuously-variable automatic transmission (slightly better with the manual transmission), but does not quite come up to the speed of the base Dodge Neon. Our vehicle, equipped with the variable automatic, managed 24 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, acceptable for a sporty vehicle with an automatic. The engine was responsive, with the transmission quickly and smoothly downshifting (downratioing is more accurate but doesn't sound right) as needed. The engine was quiet at idle; the sounds on acceleration were disconcerting at first because it zooms up to a given engine speed and stays there while the transmission smoothly alters its gear ratios to increase speed. The five-speed automatic and stick will both have more conventional noises, but one does quickly get used to the change.
Handling is surprisingly good for a General Motors vehicle, speaking to Saturn's continued separation from the rest of the company. Indeed, we'd put up the Ion against most other cars in its class.
Our Ion 3 Coupe continues the SC's unique "suicide doors," seen only on Saturns and a small number of pickup trucks. It looks like a coupe, but open the front door, and you get a hidden handle for a short rear door which opens to a full 90 degree angle. This makes rear seat access easy, and is actually better than a conventional door for putting large objects into the back seat. However, it is a bit awkward, since the front seat must be open to reach it, and it cannot be opened from inside. New and welcome to the Ion are rear doors on both sides, both operated the same way, so it is now a four-door coupe instead of a three-door. (Front doors on both sides also have their own locks, which is increasingly unusual as automakers penny-pinch.) Bystanders were very impressed by the hidden doors, particularly since they are now available on both sides, and those who insist on a true coupe will find them invaluable.
The rear seats are comfortable but there is very little legroom, more than in some competing coupes but less than in most sedans. The four doors may lead some to believe the Ion is a good family car, but this is only true for those who think the only car worth having is a coupe. It is very practical for a coupe, but the Ion's sedan version is a far better choice for families. Dealing with those rear doors and kids gets old quickly. On the other hand, it is far better to have the hidden rear doors than a conventional coupe, and the rear seat is habitable for smaller people. Headroom in the rear is not too bad, and there is a rubber-lined area for putting food and drinks, which is welcome for parents.
The interior feels a bit cheap, albeit well-made, with massive expanses of plastic, thanks partly to the center-mounted instrument panel. This panel, which is tilted towards the driver, makes it cheaper to sell right-hand-drive versions, and is easy to get used to - instead of moving eyes down, the driver moves eyes to the right a little. The gauges are full-sized, unlike the Echo (which introduced the center-panel idea to the US), with a tachometer as well as a gas and temperature gauge. The gauges all have brightly-lit orange pointers over a silver background. At night, the black figures become backlit amber. Unlike most black-on-white (or black-on-silver) arrangements, the Ion's seems to be readable in all types of light, and is attractive both day and night. The amber backlighting preserves night vision, without being distracting or lessening the effect of red warning lights (as Volkswagen's and Pontiac's red-lighting scheme does).
Switches and buttons are generally in sensible positions, though the trunk release button is hidden and the cruise control does not have a cancel or marked "set" button (it's the coast button). The automatic transmission has a console shifter, with the continuously variable automatic providing three programs: normal, hill/performance, and steep hill. The steep hill is equivalent to the first or second gear positions, while the hill/performance tries to keep the gear ratios relatively low without going too low, providing surprisingly good acceleration but hampering fuel economy. We found that the car settled to a coasting speed of about 2,500 rpm on hill/performance, as opposed to 1,500 on Drive, which can cut into economy.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) has no gears as such, but aside from the lack of shifting, feels just like a regular automatic. On sudden acceleration, you can feel the change in gear ratios, just like a very soft downshift. The system seems very well programmed for a combination of responsiveness and economy. Other automakers have been using these systems for quite some time, so reliability should be good.
The CVT has advantages in emissions and gas mileage, partly because gas engines like to stay at a single rpm - and the Ion's engine does just that when you keep the throttle steady, varying the gear ratio instead of the engine speed. Thus, while in an automatic you might shift into second and watch the tachometer race from 1,500 rpm up to 5,500 rpm, in the Ion with CVT you hit the gas and watch the tachometer leap up to 5,500 rpm, while the transmission rapidly changes ratios so the speedometer moves up. It's one way to avoid the problem of wide gear ratios, where the car leaps to the end of first gear, then bogs down in second until it builds up steam, races forward, and bogs again in third. Gas mileage is helped by this, and also by the use of belts instead of fluid couplings. Thus, the CVT has about the same mileage and acceleration as the manual, something you cannot say for most (if any) conventional automatics.
That said, you can get better gas mileage in any Toyota Corolla, with roughly the same acceleration, admittedly in a somewhat dowdy (though larger) body, and without the Ion's good handling. Likewise, a Dodge Neon provides similar acceleration and gas mileage with an automatic, along with similar handling and a far larger interior; with a stick, the Neon is better in both speed and mileage, but either way, it is not available as a coupe.
The engine itself has dual balance shafts, like the old Mitsubishi 2.6 and Chrysler 2.5, to reduce noise and vibration. At idle, the 2.2 liter engine is indeed quiet and steady.
As befits a Saturn, the Ion has dent-resistant plastic fenders and body panels. Other standard features include air, power locks with remote keyless entry and alarm, power windows and mirrors, cruise, CD and cassette stereo, tilt-wheel, rear defroster, remote trunk release, height-adjusting driver's seat, and a built-in oil life monitor (to save oil without endangering the engine).
Options on our test car included a travel package which we recommend, at $200, providing map lights, an auto-dimming mirror, an outside temperature gauge, and a digital compass. The safety-minded may go for the $400 side airbags and $400 antilock brakes with traction control, while others may like the $725 sunroof, $700 leather trim, $250 spoiler, and $700 OnStar which has one year of the "safe and sound" plan. This does not provide concierge service, but does provide emergency service and such. The total ended up being $20,440, so that performance-minded buyers may give up some features and the coupe shape for the Dodge SRT-4.
The Ion coupe is built on the same platform as the sedan, and since there is little rear seat space, the extra room has to go somewhere. It seems to end up in the capacious trunk - which is similar to those of mid-sized cars -and if that trunk is not large enough, you can always fold down the rear seats for extra space.
The base stereo has good sound, with nice stereo separation, but not especially strong bass. We'd prefer sliders or knobs for audio adjustment, but a variety of preset equalizer positions makes it easy to get a good audio profile for each station.
Another transparent and clever feature is the electric power steering, which provides a variable ratio so that steering is not too touchy at high speeds, but parking is still relatively easy. Steering is sporty and tight, and there is never any steering pump noise.
Overall, the Saturn Ion is a credible entry, with the sedan version offering good overall practicality and the coupe offering superior ergonomics (compared with other inexpensive coupes), thanks largely to those extra doors but also to a well-designed suspension. Competition in this field is tight, though Saturn has one feature Toyota, Ford, Honda, and the others do not: a dealer network whose service rivals Lexus. In our opinion, that's worth paying extra for.
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