Built on a new Delta global small-car platform, the Ion sedan and Quad Coupe were introduced for 2003. Innovations included rear-access half-doors on both sides of the Quad Coupe, as well as an available continuously variable transmission.
Saturn joined the hot compact arena during 2004 with a new Red Line edition of the Ion Quad Coupe. Rather than the usual 140-horsepower four-cylinder, the Ion Red Line Quad Coupe is equipped with a supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that develops 205 hp and drives a five-speed-manual transmission. In addition to special styling cues, these potent Ions feature a performance-tuned suspension.
A four-speed automatic takes the place of the CVT as a coupe option for 2005; it also replaces the previous five-speed automatic in the Ion sedan. A larger four-spoke steering wheel goes into 2005 Ions. Sedans get a revised fascia and grille. Saturn claims that noise levels have been reduced.
Ions use space-frame construction and wear polymer bodyside panels for dent and rust resistance. Ions ride on a 103.2-inch wheelbase; sedans are 57.4 inches high, while the Quad Coupe stands 56 inches tall. Tires come in 14- , 15- and 16-inch sizes, but the Red Line rolls on 17-inchers.
Each Ion sedan can hold up to five occupants; the coupe can seat up to four. Both body styles have flat-folding rear seats. The sedan's trunk holds 14.5 cubic feet of cargo, which is slightly more than the coupe's capacity.
The center instrument panel, which includes the speedometer, is angled slightly to the left and is supposed to let the driver's eyes remain closer to the horizon. Only a few vehicles, including the Toyota Echo, have this layout. An anti-theft engine immobilizer is standard. An in-dash six-CD changer, remote keyless entry, XM Satellite Radio and General Motors' OnStar communication system are optional.
Under the Hood
Fitted with dual balance shafts that are intended to yield quieter operation, the Ion's Ecotec 2.2-liter four-cylinder generates 140 hp. Ions can have either a five-speed-manual gearbox or a four-speed-automatic transmission. A 205-hp, supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder powers the Red Line Quad Coupe, which only comes with a five-speed manual.
Front seat belt pretensioners and LATCH child-safety seat anchors are standard. Side curtain-type airbags, traction control and antilock brakes are optional, but ABS is standard on the Red Line model.
Even though the Ion is an improvement over Saturn's previous S-Series, the differences aren't dramatic. The Ion is quieter than its predecessor and has a very light feel, but its engine can still get raucous. The ride is smooth, but handling is only so-so. On-center steering feel is uncertain, with vague play in the wheel. Acceleration is modest, and the manual gearshift is rubbery but easy to use.
Saturn's Red Line coupe is energetic from a standstill but less so for passing. The exhaust has a snarllike sound. All told, it feels like an econocar masquerading as a performance model.
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