- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

It’s a tough old life when you have to spend each day battling the likes of Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla for sales and respect.

Such is the fate of the Saturn Ion. Replacing the gray-haired S-Series in 2003, the all-new Ion is better bred for its role as small-car import fighter. However, it still lacked the refinement of its Japanese competitors. Recognizing this, Saturn made some improvements in the 2004 version and even more in 2005.

The result of this tinkering may not have advanced Ion to the top of its segment, but it has transformed Ion into a serious contender.

Offered in three numerical trim levels from 1 to 3, the Ion sedan appeals to an entry-level consumer. The Ion 1 is very basic, no-frills, five-passenger transportation. It’s the way to go for someone who doesn’t mind cranking down his own windows to compensate for the absence of air conditioning. The Ion 2 and 3 are more popularly equipped and also come in a four-door coupe configuration. A high-performance Red Line edition is available as well.

For 2005, all Ions have improved noise suppression. Noise and vibration conspired to compromise the ride experience of the old S-Series and, while improved, noise and vibration still put Ion at a disadvantage within its segment. Saturn addressed this shortcoming in several ways for 2005. An acoustic engine cover, new coating for the pistons, acoustic fuel line clips and a new exhaust down pipe are among the powertrain enhancements. Saturn has also introduced Quiet Steel into the plenum and dash to better isolate the cabin. Quiet Steel consists of two thin layers of steel separated by an elastic polymer core.

A bit vague — particularly on center — the electronic steering system has been recalibrated for better feel and response. A new four-speed automatic transmission is the alternative to the five-speed manual standard in all three Ion trim levels. It offers the additional advantage of flat-towing the Ion rather than requiring it to be placed on a dolly when pulling it behind an RV.

A new beefier four-spoke steering wheel replaces the smallish unit on last year’s Ion. Ion 2 and 3 benefit from significantly improved front and rear seats. Not only is the styling enhanced, but they are wider and deeper than the seats in the Ion 1 for added comfort. Side and hip bolstering also have been upgraded to improve support. Outside, a new front fascia spruces up the exterior appearance.

All Ions except the Red Line use the Ecotec 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine. It delivers 140 horsepower and 145 foot-pounds of peak torque. These numbers stack up well against in-segment sedans. When considering base price versus horsepower, Ion shines among its competitors. The five-speed is a trifle notchy, but the automatic performs seamlessly with the engine. With the automatic transmission Ion has earned an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 24 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway.

The interior is roomy and comfortable. The new seats in the 2 and 3 have made a noticeable difference in passenger comfort. All controls and instrumentation are concentrated in the center of the dashboard. Placing the main gauges to the right of the driver and more in his line of sight isn’t unique to Ion — the Toyota Prius jumps to mind — but their location takes some getting use to. A better grade of materials in this cabin would help bring Ion up to the quality level of some of its competition. However, all the pieces seemed screwed together with care.

Ion gives away very little to the competition when comparing cargo or passenger space. Front-seat head and legroom are virtually identical with the Civic Sedan, as is rear-seat headroom. Only in rear-seat legroom does the Civic have an advantage with 36 inches versus Ion’s 32.7 inches.

Ion and Corolla also match up reasonably well with headroom front and rear being a draw. Ion has about an inch more front legroom, but about two inches less rear legroom. Both Corolla and Civic have less cargo volume. Ion’s 14.7 cubic feet of trunk space trumps Corolla’s 13.6 and Civic’s 12.9 cubic feet of storage room.

About the only amenity included among Ion 1’s standard features list is an AM/FM radio. Its base price with delivery charge is a reasonable $11,995. Adding a few basic creature comforts such as air conditioning, power locks and CD player requires stepping up to the $14,945 Ion 2.

Fifteen-inch wheels also replace the 1’s 14-inch ones. Plunk down $16,470 for the Ion 3 and the standard equipment list swells to include 16-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and an upgraded audio system with CD player and MP3.

Replacing the five-speed manual with the four-speed automatic transmission adds $900 to the bottom line. For an additional $1,235, a number of significant options are lumped into the Safe and Sound Package. This includes head-curtain side air bags, antilock brakes with traction control, OnStar safety communications system with one year’s service, and an upgraded sound system with a six-disc CD changer.

The hope at General Motors has always been that Saturn could give the Asian imports a run for their money. The original S-Series just didn’t make the grade; however, the Ion gives Saturn another chance to fulfill its destiny. It’s doubtful Corolla or Civic is running scared, but no doubt they do hear the footsteps.

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