2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
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by Greg Wilson

Unique features distinguish new Saturn coupe


I can’t think of another car that has as many unique features as the new Saturn Ion Quad Coupe – at least in the under-$30,000 price range.

Yes, you read it right. The 2003 Saturn Quad Coupe really is an innovative vehicle.

Examples? It has two rear door panels that open out towards the rear to allow easier access to the rear seats. No other coupe has them.

The instruments sit right in the middle of the dashboard on the top – the Saturn sedan and Toyota Echo have them too, but the Ion Quad Coupe is the only sporty coupe.

Aside from the Mini Cooper and some expensive Audis, the Ion Quad Coupe is the only sporty coupe available with a continuously variable transmission.

It offers unique interchangeable roof trim panels with colours and patterns that can be ordered to match the interior’s dash trim. And its fold-flat front passenger seat allows long objects to be stored from the trunk to the dashboard.

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
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And let’s not forget the Ion’s electro-hydraulic steering, optional head-curtain side airbags, and ding-proof, rust-proof polymer body panels on all its vertical surfaces.

When you add it all up, the Saturn Ion Quad Coupe is probably the most innovative sub-$30,000 car on the market right now. The question is, will these unique features be enough to lure buyers away from popular well-known coupes like the Honda Civic coupe, Chevy Cavalier coupe, Pontiac Sunfire coupe, and Hyundai Tiburon.


New design for 2003

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
Click image to enlarge

Now based on the same GM global ‘Delta’ platform as the new Ion four door sedan, the 2003 Ion Quad Coupe replaces the three-door Saturn SC1/SC2 coupe (which had two front doors and a third, driver’s side rear door panel). Size-wise, the Ion Quad Coupe is 115 mm (4.5 in.) longer, 7 mm (0.3 in.) narrower, and 74 mm (2.9 in.) taller than the SC1/SC2 – and has a wheelbase that is 20 mm (0.8 in.) longer. This makes for more interior room, particularly front and rear headroom; and the Ion’s trunk is much bigger: volume increases from 11.2 cu. ft. to 14.2 cu. ft.

The 2002 SC2’s 124 horsepower 1.9 litre four cylinder engine has been replaced by GM’s new 140 horsepower “Ecotec” 2.2 litre four banger – and in the Quad Coupe, it’s available with an optional continously variable transmission which replaces the previous four-speed automatic.

Prices haven’t gone up a whole lot. The 2003 Ion 2 Quad Coupe ($18,150) and Ion 3 Quad Coupe ($21,600) replace the 2002 Saturn SC1 ($16,765) and SC2 ($22,045) coupes – but this year’s base model has more standard equipment – not to mention a totally new design. My test car was an Ion 3 Quad Coupe.

As with the previous coupes, the Ion Quad Coupe is made in Saturn’s facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee.


Interior impressions

The Ion Quad Coupe’s interior is totally different to any other coupe you’ve ever seen. A centrally-located instrument cluster dominates the overall design. The instruments are further away and to the right of the driver, but I found them easy to reference with a slight turn of the head – and a prominent hood shroud protects the gauges from glare through the windshield. The gauge cluster includes a large central speedometer, a smaller tachometer to the right, and fuel and coolant gauges on the left – all finished with a white background.

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
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Since the gauges are not behind the steering wheel, Saturn was able to use a smaller steering wheel (35 cm/13 3/4 in. diameter), and position it lower than a traditional steering wheel. I liked this design because it allows the driver’s arms to be positioned lower with less effort, and the steering wheel doesn’t obscure any of the gauges. Still, it looks strange..

The cloth-covered front bucket seats in my test car were the best quality available – yet, the quality of the material wasn’t as good some of its import competitors. As well, the seatbacks resemble foam blocks covered in cloth material, and the small side bolsters weren’t very supportive. I did like the shoulder belt guides which make it easier to reach the belts when reaching over your shoulder.

The quality of the dash materials too is average, and the variety of materials and mish-mash design is too complicated, in my opinion. I liked the big interior door handles, though.

The central control panel includes an AM/FM/cassette/CD player with average sound quality, and a rather unusual arrangement of control buttons. A traditional heating/ventilation system was quite effective and easy to use. A panel at the bottom of the centre console looks like a storage cover, but it doesn’t open. There is an open storage tray under the handbrake lever next to a 12 volt powerpoint – this is where you charge your cell phone, but you have to reach under the handbrake lever when it’s down.

Between the front seats is a small armrest that slides forwards, and inside is a small bin capable of holding five or six CD’s. There is also a unique open coin bin just to the left of the steering wheel and another covered storage area just below that.

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
Click image to enlarge

The two rear bucket-type seats offer adequate legroom and enough headroom for adults up 175 cm (5′ 9″) tall. There is a plastic storage tray and two cupholders between the rear seats, and outboard armrests and grab handles. The rear side windows are fixed in place.

The Ion Coupe’s trunk, which can be opened with the remote key fob, is quite spacious and includes a lined floor and walls. Underneath the floor is a temporary spare tire and the battery, which is positioned on the right rear side presumably for better weight balance. There is also quite a bit of hidden storage space under the cargo floor.

To fold down the 60/40 split rear seatbacks, there are two levers in the trunk which are easy to reach without climbing in the trunk. The rear seatbacks don’t fold down flat, but the pass-through opening is quite big.

Standard safety features on the Quad Coupe include front safety belts with pretensioners and energy absorbing retractors, rear three point safety belts, rear Lower Anchors and top Tethers for child seats, rear door child locks. As well, the Quad Coupe is available with side curtain airbags and the OnStar emergency/information system.


Rear door panels have advantages, disadvantages

The Ion Quad Coupe’s rear door panels, on both sides of the car, make it much easier for rear passengers to get in and out. They also make it easier for the driver to store parcels and shopping bags in the rear seat. As there is no centre pillar, opening both front and rear doors provides a very wide, unobstructed door opening.

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
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However, I had some problems with the design. To open either of the two rear-hinged door panels, the front doors must be opened first. As the rear door handles are located in the door jambs, they are only accessible when the front doors are open: there are no rear door handles on the outside or the inside of the vehicle. That means that the rear passengers cannot get out until the front passenger opens their doors, and pulls on the rear door handle. This is designed as a safety feature so that the rear doors don’t fly outwards, but my rear passengers found it inconvenient.

As well, the rear doors must be closed before the front doors, otherwise they will bump up against the front doors. Portions of rubber seals on the rear doors protrude out, adding to the awkwardness of opening and closing them.

Still, despite these criticisms, I would prefer a coupe with two rear door panels than one without door panels because it makes it much easier to access the back seat.


Driving impressions

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
Click image to enlarge

The Ion Quad Coupe comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission, but a new continuously variable transmission (VTi) is available as an option instead of Saturn’s new five-speed automatic transmission. The VTi transmission provides seamless gear changes, but the driver of a VTi-equipped Saturn will notice a significant difference in the way the engine performs when compared with a vehicle equipped with a standard automatic transmission.

For example, with the VTi, if the driver presses the accelerator to the floor, the engine revs up very quickly to around 5 or 6 thousand rpm, and stays there while the car increases in speed. The transmission feels like its “slipping”, but it’s not faulty – it’s just the way a continuously variable transmission works. When the desired road speed is reached, the engine drops back in speed to around 1500 rpm. The closest analogy is one of those circus go-karts – remember how the engine revs up before the kart really gets under way? That’s a crude comparison, but one you will remember if you drive the VTi Quad Coupe.

Moderate acceleration with the VTi is similar, if less dramatic. The engine revs up to around two or three thousand rpm, and stays there until the car reaches the desired speed. Engine speed then drops back to around 1500 rpm.

As well, the VTi transmission is programmed to hold in a lower ‘gear’ when descending a grade with the foot off the accelerator. This acts as an engine braking device, and I liked the fact that I didn’t have to feather the brakes while descending small inclines.

It takes a while to get used to the VTi, but I found that after a week of driving, there were some features that I liked better about it than a regular automatic transmission. For example, there are no bumpy shift points, and the engine revs at a very low speed most of the time, reducing engine noise and vibration in the cabin.

However, there’s nothing sporty about a continously variable transmission. Off-the-line performance is not as brisk, and the engine seems to be working terribly hard when prompt acceleration is needed. To be fair though, acceleration times didn’t appear to be adversely affected, just the perception.

2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
Click image to enlarge

I found the engine and transmission quiet at freeway speeds, with a moderate ‘buzziness’ under acceleration, and some engine rumbling at idle. As well, the VTi emits a whine under light load at highway speeds.

At a steady 100 km/h, the four cylinder engine does only 1800 rpm, and at 120 km/h, it does just 2200 rpm. These are very low engine speeds for a car with a four cylinder engine, and are partly responsible for the Quad Coupe’s excellent highway fuel economy: 6.7 litres per 100 km (42 mpg). City mileage is also good: 9.6 litres per 100 km (29 mpg). In fact, the Ion Quad Coupe with the VTi gets slightly better fuel economy than the Quad Coupe equipped with the five-speed manual transmission.

With its independent strut-type front suspension and semi-independent torsion beam rear setup, the Ion Quad Coupe offers a comfortable city and highway ride on good pavement, however, I noticed some annoying rattles in the suspension when travelling over broken pavement.

During brisk cornering, the Ion Quad Coupe exhibits some lean, but it handles quite well, and grip in the dry is good. My test car had Firestone Firehawk GTA 205/65R-16 inch all-season tires mounted on alloys.

The Ion Quad Coupe’s electric power-assist, rack-and-pinion steering is direct and responsive but lacks “road feel”. The car’s turning diameter of just 10.8 metres (35.4 feet) is tight.

All Quad Coupes come with front disc/rear drum brakes, but anti-lock brakes (ABS) are optional on all trim levels. I thought the brakes had good pedal feel but I didn’t do any high-speed braking tests (my neighbours hate it when I do that..)

From the driver’s seat, outward visibility is clear to the front and sides, but rear vision is partially obstructed by the high rear deck and small spoiler on top. Backing into a parking space is difficult because you can’t see the nose of the car behind you, or anything else under four feet tall. As well, when lane-changing, I found the right rear side pillars a bit thick.

In conclusion then, the Ion Quad Coupe is not a performance coupe – 140 horsepower is adequate but not dramatic, and the shiftless feel of VTi transmission and lack of steering feel reduce its sportiness. But as a comfortable, attractive, roomy, and innovative sporty coupe for typical urban and highway driving needs, the Ion Quad Coupe is just fine.


Competitors

The 2003 Ion 3 Quad Coupe ($21,600) competes with the Honda Civic Coupe Si ($20,700), Hyundai Tiburon SE ($22,395), Chevy Cavalier Z24 ($21,550), Pontiac Sunfire GT ($20,500), and Mitsubishi Eclipse ($23,857).

Of these, the Ion Quad Coupe is the only one with two rear doors, an available continuously variable transmission, electric steering, personalized roof panels, fold-flat front seat, side curtain airbags, and plastic body panels.

The Ion’s horsepower and torque are comparable with the above cars, but the Civic, Tiburon and Eclipse are more nimble than the Ion. The Ion Quad Coupe offers more interior room, particularly head room, than the others. It’s also priced competitively.


Verdict

Equipped with the continuously variable transmission, the Saturn Ion Quad Coupe is a pleasant, comfortable but not particularly sporty coupe with better-than-average access to the rear seats, and a unique dashboard.


Technical Data: 2003 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe VTi

Base price (Ion 2) $18,150
Base price (Ion 3) $21,600
Freight $900
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $22,600
Type 4-door, 4 passenger compact coupe
Engine 2.2 litre “Ecotec” 4 cylinder, DOHC
Horsepower 140 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque 145 lb.-ft. @ 4400 rpm
Fuel Regular unleaded
Transmission Continuously variable
Tires P205/55R-16 all season
Curb weight 1256 kg (2769 lb.)
Towing capacity 454 kg (1000 lb.)
Wheelbase 2621 mm (103.2 in.)
Length 4699 mm (185.0 in.)
Width 1725 mm ( 67.9 in.)
Height 1422 mm ( 56.0 in.)
Trunk capacity 402 litres (14.2 cu.ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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