- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

Saturn fans sure are loyal. Barely had I embarked on a first drive in Saturn’s new 2003 Ion than the driver of an old-model Saturn stopped me to ask how I liked the new car.

She was looking to replace her Saturn S-Series with the new Ion, she said.

Several other Saturn drivers also were drawn to the Ion, helping to illustrate just how long it has been since Saturn offered something truly new and fresh in the small-car segment.

In fact, S-Series production dates back some 13 years, which means Saturn’s small-car line has been overdue for a replacement.

The Ion, which debuted as a sedan in fall of last year and added a coupe model in the spring, is bigger, inside and out, than the S-Series cars.

It’s restyled with a more contemporary look than its predecessor. It’s also equipped with a more powerful four-cylinder engine that can be mated to a high-tech continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2003 Ion sedan is $11,995, up $960 from the 2002 S-Series starting price.

The Ion Quad Coupe, as it’s called because of its two small, rear access doors — one on each side of the car aft of the front doors — starts at $14,595.

The test car was the Ion sedan with top-level trim and five-speed automatic transmission. The price topped out at $17,365.

I liked the new exterior styling because it gives these inexpensive cars a richer look than the aged S-Series, though the appearance still is practical and sensible.

The bigger size is noticeable, too, with the Ion 6.4 inches longer, overall, 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.

Still, it’s difficult not to notice the sizable gaps between the body panels on the Ion. Most vertical panels on the car are a dent- and ding-resistant polymer material, which contributes to a long-lived, neat and tidy appearance.

Inside, the Ion looks different from other Saturns — mostly because of the positioning of the instrument cluster. It’s not at the base of the steering column, but atop the dashboard, near the center of the car.

Saturn officials said this helps keep the driver’s eyes closer to the horizon and allows installation of a smaller-diameter steering wheel.

But this quirky positioning of the gauges takes some getting used to.

For example, I never quite got accustomed to seeing the left turn signal blinking beyond my right hand on top of the center dashboard. It just seemed weird.

The resulting emptiness of the area in front of the steering wheel also drew my attention to what seemed like a mix of seams, colors and textures on the dashboard. The look wasn’t integrated.

The fabric on the test car seats gave me so much static electricity that I hesitated to touch the car door when I stepped out.

Saturn’s smallest car now is offered with just one engine, rather than a choice of two from last year.

The new powerplant is the 2.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder also found in the Saturn Vue sport utility and Saturn’s larger L-Series cars.

Here, the engine delivers 137 horsepower — up from 100 in the base engine last year and up from 124 horsepower in the upper engine for the S-Series last year.

Maximum torque now is 142 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm and helps get the Ion four-door moving at a respectable clip.

In the test car, the engine was paired with an automatic transmission with five speeds — an unusually high-tech automatic gearbox for this class of car where four-speed autos are the standard.

It operated smoothly in most circumstances but in sudden, aggressive pedal-to-the-metal driving, I did feel a bit of a jerk as the car sought to respond.

In highway passing, I still discovered I had to give enough time and distance to get beyond other cars, and the engine could be buzzy-sounding when pressed.

Other transmission offerings in the Ion are a five-speed manual and a CVT. But the federal government’s fuel-economy rating in the CVT model of Ion is the same as the five-speed automatic.

Riders feel road imperfections mostly through mild vibrations in the Ion sedan. But when traveling over some recessed manhole covers, the bumps felt more severe and they were accompanied by a troubling, ba-boom sound.

The independent front suspension in the Ion uses struts while a semi-independent torsion beam works at the rear.

There’s more noise-reduction engineering in the Ion than the S-Series had, but road and engine noise still come through.

Steering in the Ion is the same electronic power steering system that’s in the Vue. It’s designed to tap less fuel than conventional hydraulic systems.

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