It took Saturn about 15 years to discover the performance market, but the company's lack of experience didn't show with its successful Red Line series, consisting of the Ion Red Line and the Vue Red Line.

The Vue Red Line has a smooth Honda-built, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, and although it's quick, it isn't as performance-oriented as the Ion Red Line. That model, tested here, has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a supercharger that pumps out a potent 205 horsepower. Both Red Lines debuted as 2004 models and will continue with minor updates as 2006 models.

The Ion Red Line I drove is a 2005 model. It's considered a coupe but has Saturn's neat small rear doors that open clamshell-like, only when the front doors are already open. The Ion coupe's rear seat is on the smallish side, and although its abbreviated rear doors make access easier back there, any adult will find it a tight fit. That said, the rear doors make it very convenient to use the back seat for groceries or other cargo; you might think these little doors are a gimmick, but they aren't. And they were a good enough idea to be stolen for the Mazda RX-8, right?

The Ion shares its basic platform with the Chevrolet Cobalt, and the Ion Red Line is quite similar to the Cobalt SS Supercharged, which has the same engine.

The Cobalt also has a regular SS version with a 170-horsepower engine; the Ion gets that model for 2006, called the "Enhanced Performance Package."

The test Ion Red Line, painted "Chili Pepper Red," proved the thesis that it's possible to have a relatively high-performance, undeniably fun-to-drive car and still get decent fuel mileage. The Ion Red Line is rated at 23 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway. GM says the Ion Red Line can go from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 6.2 seconds.

The Red Line delivers a beefed-up suspension that enhances handling, at the slight expense of some ride comfort. It's pretty jiggly on rough pavement, but it never gets to the teeth-rattling stage.

Inside, ultra-supportive Recaro front bucket seats are superb, especially if you're on the thin side. The car's five-speed manual transmission shifted well, better than on the last Ion Red Line I drove. The engine's power is linear and nicely distributed; this isn't the smoothest four-cylinder engine on the market, but it isn't bad.

The Red Line model comes with a long list of standard features, including air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, an AM/FM stereo with a CD player, power windows, lock and mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and high-performance 17-inch tires with aluminum wheels.

Optional on this car was a $1,470 competition package that added a limited-slip differential, special wheels and several other features. Floor mats, a massive boy-racer rear spoiler (which I'd happily do without) and XM satellite radio, plus shipping, took the $20,885 base price to a still-reasonable $23,705. Personally, I'd pass on the spoiler and the competition package and save $1,850.

There really isn't a lot to differentiate the Ion Red Line from the Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged, but the Ion's rear doors are enough to make me slide over to Saturn's side. Either car, though, gives you a lot of entertainment for the money.

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Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at or 407-420-5699.