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. A four-speed automatic later replaced the five-speed gearbox in the sedan and the CVT in the Quad Coupe.
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; it drives a five-speed-manual transmission. In addition to special styling cues, these potent Ions feature a performance-tuned suspension.
For 2006, an optional 2.4-liter engine with variable valve timing joins the lineup. It makes 170 hp and 162 pounds-feet of torque. Other notable enhancements on all Ions include a revised center console and a standard OnStar communication system.
The Ion is available in both Ion 2 and Ion 3 sedans and Quad Coupes, as well as the Red Line. The Ion 1 sedan has been discontinued for 2006.
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 15- and 16-inch sizes, but the Red Line rolls on 17-inchers.
Each Ion sedan can hold up to five people; the coupe can seat up to four. Both body styles have flat-folding rear seats. The sedan's trunk holds 14.7 cubic feet of cargo, which is slightly more than the coupe's capacity of 14.2 cubic feet.
The center instrument panel, which includes the speedometer, is angled slightly to the left and is designed to let the driver's eyes remain closer to the horizon. Only a few vehicles, including the Toyota Echo, have this layout. For 2006, it's been revised for enhanced appearance and additional storage space. An anti-theft engine immobilizer and General Motors' OnStar communication system are standard. An in-dash six-CD changer, remote keyless entry and XM Satellite Radio 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. An optional larger Ecotec engine joins the list for 2006. Displacing 2.4 liters, it features variable valve timing, higher-pressure fuel injectors and a higher compression ratio to make 170 hp, but Saturn recommends that it use premium fuel instead of the base engine's regular gasoline. It's offered in a package that includes a sport-tuned suspension, traction control and an antilock braking system. A 205-hp, supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder powers the Red Line Quad Coupe, which only comes with a five-speed manual.
Dual-stage front airbags, 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. The base engine can still get raucous, though, and acceleration is modest.. The ride is smooth, but handling is only so-so with the regular suspension. On-center steering feel is uncertain, with vague play in the wheel. 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.