Saturn selected the New York International Auto Show in late March 2002 as the venue for the unveiling of its successor to the compact S-Series. Named Ion, these new models are intended to revitalize the Saturn division of General Motors. Saturn is poised once again to re-energize the small-car market, said Jill Lajdziak, the companys vice president of sales, service and marketing, during the Ions debut. According to Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, the new Ion is intended to demonstrate that Saturn has what it takes to excite new customers and bring them into the Saturn fold.
Introduced for 1990, the S-Series led off the Saturn phenomenon. Since its inception, Saturn has become as well known for its easygoing buying experience as it has for the products themselves.
New from the ground up, the Ion Quad Coupe and sedan are built on a new Delta global small-car platform. The same architecture will be used for other small GM cars in the future. Innovations include an available VTi continuously variable transmission (CVT) similar to the one installed in the Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle and dual-access rear doors for the Quad Coupe. Saturn introduced a single half-door in the S-Series to ease entry into the backseat, but the Ion has rear-access doors on both sides. What the coupe offers is tremendous functionality, Lajdziak said.
Cowger says that 79 percent of current Saturn buyers would have driven home a non-GM vehicle if the Saturn brand did not exist. And in a separate tally, Cowger reports that 40 percent of Saturn owners return to that nameplate for their next car. The company now offers a line of customization accessories that may include special wheels and body parts.
The Ion sedan is scheduled to go on sale during the fourth quarter of 2002, and the Quad Coupe will follow in the first quarter of 2003. Its expected that about one-fourth of Ions produced will be in the coupe body style. Saturn says approximately 2.3 million S-Series cars have been sold in the United States since their introduction.
Bigger than the S-Series, the Ion again uses space-frame construction and wears polymer bodyside panels for dent- and rust-resistance. Styling touches include what the company describes as an integral, upswept, swoosh panel. The Ions 103.2-inch wheelbase and its track width the distance between the wheels are longer and wider, respectively, than those of the S-Series. The Ions overall length has grown by 6 inches on the Ion, which is about 2 inches taller than its predecessor. The Ion sedan is 57.4 inches high, and the Quad Coupe stands 56 inches tall. The coupe gets dual rear-access doors.
Tires are available in 14- , 15- and 16-inch sizes. Electronic power steering is installed, and a trunk-mounted battery promises improved weight distribution.
The sedan holds five passengers, while the coupe is set up for four. Seating positions in the front and rear are higher than those in the S-Series. The coupe is fitted with flat-folding front and rear seats. The sedans trunk holds 14.5 cubic feet of cargo, which is slightly more than the coupes capacity.
The new center instrument panel is tilted slightly toward the driver and is supposed to let the drivers eyes remain closer to the horizon. This design is seen in few vehicles, including the Toyota Echo, and it permits the use of a steering-wheel diameter that is smaller than usual. An anti-theft engine immobilizer is standard, and remote keyless entry is optional. An in-dash six-CD changer and an automatic-dimming mirror with an outside temperature display are optional. Programmable automatic lock/unlock functions and GMs OnStar communication system are also offered.
To help spark interest among young buyers, Saturn will offer a set of personal accent kits that let owners customize their Ions. Interchangeable roof rails are color-coordinated with the interior trim kits, which include bezels for the center instrument panel, gearshift and climate-control panel. Various retailer-installed accessories are available and will likely include such extras as carbon-fiber accents. Lajdziak says the accessories are not mere stick-ons but rather personal accent pieces.
Under the Hood
Fitted with dual balance shafts that are intended to yield quieter operation, the Ecotec 2.2-liter dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine generates 137 horsepower. Base and midlevel Ions can have either a five-speed-manual gearbox or a VTi continuously variable transmission (CVT). Top-level models can have the manual shift or a five-speed step-gear automatic transmission that functions with closer steps between gear ratios when needed to produce the strongest acceleration.
Front seat belt pretensioners and LATCH child-safety seat anchors are standard, and Saturns side curtain-type airbags are optional. Traction control and antilock brakes are also available.
Even though the Ion is an improvement over Saturns S-Series, the differences arent dramatic. The Ion is quieter than its predecessor, and it has a very light feel. The ride is smooth and absorbent, but the Ions handling is only so-so. Its on-center steering is uncertain, with vague play in the middle.
Acceleration is modest, and the manual gearshift is rubbery but easy to use. The high, center-mounted gauges are generally pleasing, but you need to look for the speedometer.