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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Tue, Jun 24, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff


By Contributing Editor DAVID GARDNER

DRIVING slowly through the rush hour traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway I couldn't help but notice the blonde in the convertible Mercedes who seemed to be trying to catch my eye. I let my elbow hang casually out of the window, settled back into the beige leather seat, turned down the Coldplay CD and checked my hair in the rather neat auto-dimming rearview mirror.

It's the new car, I thought. She's checking out the new car. One last attempt to comb forward the receding hair as she pulled alongside. Astounded the Saturn Ion should be such a babe magnet I turned to give my most winning smile. "Your lights are on," she cried out. "You've left your lights on." Before I could tell her the daytime running lamps come standard in the new Ion she was gone in a cloud of Chanel. Okay, so maybe I was being overly optimistic. In a town where style wins out over substance every time, the Ion is never going to turn any heads. To be honest, it's not going to attract too much attention in Des Moines, Iowa, either. Trust me, Jay Leno is not going to be adding one of these babies to his hangar full of cars near Burbank Airport. But my point is this: when you are sitting inside the Ion, bigger and roomier than its predecessors in the late S-series, especially in the test car complete with leather seats and sunroof, you could be forgiven for getting above yourself. If you are looking to attract the women with a new vehicle in the same price range ($11-18,000) - get yourself a Harley. But this is not your bog standard budget compact. It has a funkier look with its curiously alluring centrally-placed instrument cluster, which takes a little getting used to but is rather fun, and a comfortable feel with a windscreen offering excellent visibility and set far enough away to cause the illusion of being in a much bigger car. On countless business trips I've been lumbered with compact hire cars where I've driven around with my knees up by my ears and my nose almost pressed up against the glass. The Ion is spacious enough for four people with far too much time on their hands to be sitting in one around the clock in a Tennessee mall in a bid to win a free car. The last one left sitting - they can't recline the seats, read books, watch portable TVs, use cell phones or leave the vehicle for more than 15 minutes every two hours for a toilet break - will win the prized, if extremely smelly, Saturn. At the time of writing this, three of them were still sitting tight. Try doing that in a Boxster! All of which is all very well, particularly when you bring Saturn's legendary reputation for good service into the equation. We have a decent little car with a sterling, if not spectacular 2.2 liter L4 engine, a practical, if uninspiring design, is slightly bigger, inside and out, than the old S-series, if not substantially so, and has just about enough room for three lunatics to live in for a few weeks. The Ion is 6.4 inches longer, 0.8 inch wider and 2.4 inches taller than the S-series. Trunk space alone increases by 2.4 cubic feet, to 14.5 cubic feet.

So why can't Saturn sell the damn things? It is no great secret that sales of the new four-door sedan have been off to a sluggish start since their introduction last October. General Motors has even stopped building Ions at its Spring Hill, Tennessee, plant for a couple of weeks to try and rein in its surplus stockpile. Perhaps the answer lies in all the ifs. If only it had a more interesting design, buyers would realize what a good little car it is. If only it had that discernible something that made it stand out from the crowd, then it would start racking up the sales with the youngsters and the commuter crowd as well as the Saturn die-hards. Mind you, it's certainly not short of stuff. The standard price on the Ion 3 Sedan with 5-speed manual transmission is $15,010. Under the hood, you get value for money with the comparatively punchy 2.2L 4-cylinder dual overhead cam 16-valve 140-hp engine with dual balance shafts and a self-adjusting clutch on the stick shift, power steering, front disc brakes, independent strut front suspension with semi-independent torsion rear suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars. On the exterior, you can't help but notice the sizable gaps between the body panels on the Ion. Most vertical panels on the car are a dent resistant polymer material, which gives it a long-lived, neat and tidy appearance. But just as in other Saturns, the body panel gaps on this car are larger than you see on competitors like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which use all sheet-metal exterior panels. It's a trade-off Saturn owners are willing to make for having dent resistant panels. Unlike sheet-metal, the polymer is susceptible to expansion and contraction as the temperature varies - hence, the need for the larger gaps. It has P205/55R16 performance tires on 16-inch flangeless alloy wheels and most of the old extras that now come standard, like an adequate radio/CD/cassette, remote keyless entry and fold-down rear seats that open up the inside even further. Saturn says the instruments were placed in the center of the car to better keep the driver's eye on the horizon and, although it seemed a little weird to see the left turn indicator flashing by my right eye, I didn't find it at all off-putting. On my cranberry red test car, the leather seats, power sunroof, OnStar communications system, floor mats and travel package with map lights, auto-dimming inside mirror and digital compass pushed the price up a couple of grand to $17,975. Around town, which is the Ion's home turf, it cornered smoothly and performed effortlessly with its electric power steering, but if I have one serious driving criticism it is that it doesn't handle so well at higher speeds. On the freeway there is a suspicion of a snake when you change lanes rapidly back and forth, as if the car needs a moment to steady itself. It does a reasonable 33 miles a gallon on the freeway, with 26 mpg in town. So here's a tip. If you drive an old S-series Saturn and you like it, upgrade to the Ion right away and if you are looking for a small car with a big heart, it's worth a closer look. And as for that blonde in the Mercedes, she was too old for me anyway....

More information at


Engine type: In-line four, DOHC, aluminum block & head, balance shafts (2)

Displacement: 2.2 liters

Horsepower: 137 @ 5600 rpm

Torque: 142 @ 4200 rpm

Drive configuration: Front engine/fromt-wheel drive

Transmissions: 5-speed manual; VTi continuously-variable (coupe only); 5-speed automatic

Front suspension: Independent strut type with stabilizer bar

Rear suspension: Semi-independent, torsion beam with stabilizer bar

Wheel size & type: base: 14-inch steel mid-level: 15-inch steel (15-inch aluminum alloy optional) up-level: 16-inch aluminum alloy

Tires: base: Firestone P185/70R14 mid-level: Firestone 195/60R15 up-level: Firestone 205/55R16

Brakes: Disc front/drum rear; ABS optional

Overall length: 184.5 inches / 4686 mm

Overall width: 67.2 inches / 1707 mm

Overall height: 57.4 inches / 1458 mm

Curb weight (lbs.): 2750 (with manual transmission)

Mileage estimates City/ Highway/Combined: 26 / 33 / 29 (manual) 24 / 32 / 28 (5-spd auto)

0-60 mph: N/A

Body structure: High-strength steel spaceframe with full-length frame rails and steel safety cage

Body panels: polymer body-side panels; steel hood, roof and deck lid

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