- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

Saturn is not yet a teenager, but it has quietly inserted itself into the consciousness of automobile buyers all over the country. With its innovative twin thrusts of selling its cars without haggling and treating owners and prospects with basic human respect, the newest division of giant General Motors Corp. has established itself among the top nameplates in motordom, primarily from the standpoint of customer satisfaction.

Among the automotive cognoscenti, it is the brand that arguably is most recommended for first-time car buyers who know little or nothing about automobiles. At least, the thinking goes, the prospective owner will have a good experience, if not the most advanced car available.

Lately, however, that's been a tougher sell. The basic Saturns that owners have come to know and love, to the tune of 2.4 million since they were introduced as 1991 models, have admittedly slipped into geriatric city.

So the time has come for freshness and youthful vitality, and that is precisely what has happened for model year 2003 with the introduction of the new Saturn Ion. The Ion replaces the original Saturns the SL and SC models in two-, three- and four-door configurations that have anchored the brand since its birth.

Like the originals, the new models are aimed at the youthful hoi polloi the fresh-faced folks long on enthusiasm but short on bucks, both singles and young marrieds. The target is in the 18-to-34 age group, half and half male and female, with roughly a $50,000 median annual income.

But the Ion bears deeper responsibilities. It is a linchpin in a strategy by the resurgent General Motors to proselytize among young buyers and convert them for life to GM products. Robert Lutz, the charismatic vice chairman and car guy, points out that the company currently has just 24 percent of the market in entry-level cars, while overall its share in cars and trucks is 28 percent.

As one key to bumping that entry-level percentage, the heart of the Ion is a new state-of the-art four-cylinder engine, called the Ecotec, that is intended for ubiquity as a base powerplant in the Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire and other GM small cars.

It's a neat piece of work, all aluminum with cast-iron cylinder liners, chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, sequential fuel injection and four valves per cylinder in short, an engine with every modern wrinkle available to effortlessly produce the Ion's 140 horsepower but with plenty of potential as well. Mr. Lutz says West Coast drag racers already have hopped it up to 800 horsepower, with 1,000 in the offing.

As installed in the Ion, it is adequate to propel the 2,766-pound four-door to 60 mph in the 9-to-11-second range, depending on model and transmission. That's respectable but not exciting. A stronger point is the handling. The Ion has an even-keel feel, with an impression of precise control that is enhanced by the new electric power steering. It conveys a nicely weighted sense of the road with good on-center tracking.

The ride is comfortable and the cabin is roomy, quiet and serene, with only small intrusions of engine, road and wind noise unlike the Ion's predecessors. On the other hand, the seats are small and short on comfort, especially in back.

There are two Ion versions a compact four-door sedan with a trunk, and a four-door coupe. The latter is not a misprint. Saturn earlier upgraded its existing coupe by adding an extra forward-opening door on the driver's side. Now it's added a fourth door, so the new coupe has rear doors on both sides with no center pillar.

Combined with a flip-down rear seat and a right front seat that folds flat as well, it's expected to appeal to kids who want to carry such things as kayaks and bicycles built for two.

There are three transmissions. The four-door sedan, which is being introduced first, has a standard five-speed manual gearbox, with a five-speed automatic as a $900 option. The latter is a first in the economy-car class.

Nowadays, five-speed automatics are mostly confined to up-level cars and SUVs.

The quad coupe comes with the five-speed manual but a CVT automatic. CVT stands for continuously-variable transmission, an affair of belts and pulleys that delivers the fuel economy of a manual with seamless automatic operation. Saturn calls it a variable transaxle, or VTi.

The Ion retains the Saturn trademark of dent-resistant plastic body panels. It also features an eye-level, center-mounted instrument cluster and such peace-of-mind options as side air bags and traction control to augment the front-wheel drive.

To appeal to young people, the Ion also can be semi-customized with exterior and interior trim pieces in a variety of colors. They're designed so that the owners can do the customizing themselves by swapping trim pieces.

There are three equipment levels. They range from a stripper at $11,995 to the tested Ion 3 at $15,495. The latter price includes such items as a motorized sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels, a stereo with CD player and cassette, air conditioning, cruise control, remote locking and power windows. A few options brought the suggested delivered price to $16,570.

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