By Richard Russell

2005 Saturn Ion
Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

There is no shortage of compact sedans on the Canadian market. In fact this is one of the most crowded, competitive and popular segments in the industry and as Saturn has discovered, making inroads is tough sledding.

Fortunately there is a strong and loyal Saturn customer base to build from. These are not car buyers looking for the latest technology, “must-have” features or avant-garde styling. These are consumers who want affordable and reliable transportation, who have come to expect exceptional service and respect at the dealer level. They also appreciate Saturn’s use of rust and dent proof composites for many body panels.

The most recent Saturn entry in the sedan sweepstakes is the Ion. Based on the same Delta platform that has become the basis for a number of GM vehicles around the world, including the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit, the Ion continues to stray from the beaten path. The roof, hood and trunk are made of the usual galvanized steel, but the fenders and doors are a tough composite that is all but impervious to damage in normal situations. Because of the use of this material which contacts and expands with temperature changes, panel gaps are inordinately wide. While this may make the Ion look as if it was hastily and poorly assembled, the opposite is in fact the case. This is a tight and solid vehicle in every sense of the word.

The Ion first appeared in 2002 as a 2003 model available in sedan and coupe formats. The four-door line-up starts with the base model at $14,935 and moves up through the Ion 2 starting at $17,285 to the Ion 3 which begins at $19,640, ($20,890 with automatic transmission). Standard equipment on the Ion 3 includes power locks, tilt wheel, cruise, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, air conditioning and 16-inch alloy wheels.

2005 Saturn Ion
Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

Our Ion 3 carried a $23,330 sticker which included ABS, traction control, an audio upgrade and a “technology package” priced at $1,635 but subsequently reduced to $995 due to a package credit! It’s a good thing Saturn dealers have such an excellent reputation for customer service, because they have to explain these credits, cash back offers and other price juggling!

Saturn has depended on continuous improvement in an attempt to keep pace with the pack and the Ion is no exception. Saturn claims that since its introduction there have been more than 800 changes in the Ion. For 2005 those include a new front fascia and grille and in the case of the Ion 3, some chrome trim and machine facing for the alloy wheels. There are numerous interior upgrades for 2005, including a new steering wheel used previously on the Ion Red Line and wider and deeper seats with enhanced side and thigh bolsters.

2005 Saturn Ion
Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

The seats are indeed comfortable and thanks to a tall roofline, they can be positioned in a manner that allows the driver to sit upright resulting in the dual advantages of better sightlines and improved posture! The height challenged will appreciate them even more because of the manual height adjustment that allows them to enjoy the view.

Like virtually every other vehicles in the class, the back seat has belts and provisions for three but room for only two reasonably-sized passengers. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and either or both sides can be lowered to increase the already impressive trunk space.

In addition to the appearance updates, the engineering team put a lot of overtime into tackling noise, vibration and harshness for the 2005 model. The Ion’s predecessor, the Saturn SL, was the subject of some derision in this respect, but the Delta chassis and new global Ecotec engine used for the Ion went a very long way to addressing the issue. The Saturn team stayed on the case even after the launch and for 2005 instituted a raft of upgrades including an acoustic engine cover and the use of a multi-layered Quiet Steel laminate for the plenum and firewall.

2005 Saturn Ion
Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

The suspension has been re-tuned for 2005 and the electric steering recalibrated for improved on-centre feel. These electric steering systems negate the need for hoses, fluids, pumps, belts and other gear. The electric motor is smaller, lighter, uses less power and can be tuned much more easily than a hydraulic pump. In fact and by way of example, the Ion is available with 15, 16 and 17-inch wheels and tires depending on model and trim and the steering tuned differently for each. The larger four-spoke steering wheel used this year, along with the steering changes, results in a more communicative system but it is still a bit light and provides less feedback than we’d like. While we’re griping, the centre location of the instrument cluster is still as out-of-place as it was when introduced two years ago.

The Ecotec four used in the Ion is a sophisticated world-class unit built in plants in Europe, Asia, South and North America for use in a wide variety of GM products from Saabs to Saturns. In this application, it displaces 2.2 litres and puts out 140 horsepower and a handy 145 lb. ft. of torque. GM has abandoned its attempt at a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), replacing it in the Ion coupe with the tried and proven 4T45-E four speed transaxle. Unfortunately the Aisin five-speed automatic previously used in the Ion sedan got lost in the changeover and the sedan is now one ratio shy of last year. The good news is the Ecotec’s torque band is wide enough and starts low enough to make the four-speed acceptable.

The Saturn Ion doesn’t stand out in any single respect, but covers all the bases reasonably well. Quiet, smooth and reliable, it offers a stylish alternative in a sea of sameness.

Technical Data: 2005 Saturn Ion 3

Base price $19,640
Options $3,690 (4-speed automatic transmission $1,250; ABS $670; Technology Package; $995, premium audio $775)
Freight $1,000
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $24,430
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine 2.2 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 140 @ 5800 rpm
Torque 145 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Tires P205/55R-16
Curb weight 1255 kg (2766 lb.)
Wheelbase 2621 mm (103.2 in.)
Length 4686 mm (184.5 in.)
Width 1725 mm (67.9 in.)
Height 1422 mm (56.0 in.)
Cargo capacity 416 litres (14.7 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.9 L/100 km (29 mpg Imperial
  Hwy: 6.6 L/100 km (43 mpg Imperial)
Fuel type Unleaded regular 87 octane
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Assembly location Springhill, Tennessee

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