The new Ion, Saturn’s replacement for its compact S-series, shows the General Motors division still chasing the imports.
Ion is a sharp-looking little sedan being marketing to young adults as a hip alternative to the crowded field of small cars from Japan, South Korea and, to a lesser degree, Detroit. The pack is still led by Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, with inroads by Ford Focus.
Moderately priced for someone just starting out in life, Ion offers a lot of little car for the money. Still, it lags behind the refinement and drivability of the segment leaders.
Ion is a vast improvement over the S sedan. The styling is interesting enough to stand out in traffic; the interior is much roomier, and handling and road manners are sharply improved.
Saturn could use the boost. After 12 years, the marketing buzz that surrounded GM’s freestanding effort to build an import beater has faded into obscurity. The feel-good Saturn dealers and the reputation for durability remain, but Saturn is hardly the trendsetter that it started out to be.
The smallest of the Saturn family, which now includes the quick-selling Vue sport utility vehicle and the midsize L-series sedan and wagon, Ion is still made in Spring Hill, Tenn., and still includes fenders and door skins made of plastic composite rather than steel.
The styling is fairly creative, especially for Saturn, from its arching roofline to its stubby rear deck. It seemed to turn quite a few heads, especially among those driving custom imports. This is the kind of attention Saturn needs to drag it out of the competent-but-boring doldrums.
Inside the Saturn is where you find some highly intriguing shapes and textures, although some are controversial. First off, the center-mounted instrument pod takes some getting used to.
Ion follows such trendy compacts as Toyota Echo and Cooper Mini in having center-mounted speedometers and other gauges. Some reviewers detested the Ion’s setup, though it didn’t bother me.
One thing: If this were a stick shift car instead of automatic, I would have objected to the tachometer being far on the right side, while the fuel and temperature gauges were on the left. It’s difficult to see the tachometer and watch the road.
Otherwise, the dashboard was cleanly modern looking, though some parts looked cheap. The seats are supportive, but the cover material is strictly bargain bin.
Ion’s handling is crisp and maneuverable, with responsive steering and good control over bad road surfaces. Cornering is flat and predictable. Ion is the first car to use GM’s Delta chassis, a highly rigid design that is poised for use in such small cars as Chevy Cavaliers.
Ion is equipped with electric power steering rather than hydraulic. This creates less drag on the engine and can be calibrated for driver preference.
The latest version of GM’s Zetec engine, the 2.2-liter double-o verhead-cam four is still a noisy power plant, though less so than in the past. It feels stronger than its 140 horsepower and moves the little car smartly under acceleration and easily on the freeway.
The test car was equipped with a five-speed automatic that felt competent under most conditions with smooth upshifts and quick downshifts.
Ions start at just under $12,000, but that doesn’t include most of the goodies you’d want on your little sedan, including air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes and side air curtains.
At $14,410, the base price of the test car includes AC and some power and convenience features, such as door locks, four-speaker audio system with CD and fold-down rear seats to expand trunk space.
Options on the tester included an $825 convenience package of remote keyless locking, power windows, power mirrors and cruise control; 15-inch alloy wheels, $375; a stereo upgrade, $220; a travel package of map lights, auto-dimming mirror, exterior temperature gauge and compass, $200; and shipping, $485.
At $16,515, the Ion comes in just under comparable Civics and Corollas. A decent, attractive car, Ion could still stand some upgrades to put it on par with the top competition.
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door wagon, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $14,410.
Price as tested: $16,515.
Engine: 2.2-liter inline-four, 140 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 145 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 103.2 inches.
Curb weight: 2,766 pounds.
EPA mileage: 24 city, 32 highway.
Cheap seat upholstery.
Stripped base model.