2003 Saturn Ion Sedan
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by Greg Wilson

Austin, Texas – I remember attending the introduction of the all-new 1990 Saturn S-Series sedans in 1989 at the brand-new Spring Hill assembly plant in Tennessee – the new SL, SL1 and SL2 models were GM’s answer to the growing import threat spearheaded by the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf.

Indeed, the Saturn S-Series WAS a different kind of car from a different kind of car company. It had a unique-to-Saturn steel spaceframe body with replaceable, dent-resistant, rust-proof plastic body panels, an exclusive 1.9 litre 4 cylinder engine, a fully independent suspension, and an import-like interior – and it was built in a brand new plant far from Detroit which featured unique Japanese-style ‘teamwork’ workplace rules. I distinctly remember that even the managers wore sweaters – there wasn’t a tie or a business suit to be seen.

Much of that attitude was transferred to Saturn showrooms where MSRP’s were non-negotiable and plainly posted, and sweater-wearing sales people were friendly and helpful and not pushy – unique in 1990. Saturn’s dealer service has remained consistent to this day – Saturn was just voted tops in service in a recent J.D. Power and Associates survey.

2003 Saturn Ion Sedan
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Although the Saturn S-Series never did overtake the Honda Civic in overall quality and sales, it did present a unique North American interpretation of the small car for domestic buyers. Unfortunately, apart from a styling makeover in 1996, the S-Series was not redesigned in all that time, and it has grown stale compared to some imports that have been redesigned three times since 1990.

Enter the 2003 Ion, the replacement for the S-Series. Based on GM’s new Delta small-car platform, a platform developed jointly in North America and Europe for GM small cars worldwide, the Ion shares nothing with the current S-Series. It is larger, roomier, with a new engine and transmission, a new suspension, new steering system, new interior – the works. It’s still built in Spring Hill, Tennessee, though.

Compared to the current SL1/SL2 sedan, the Ion sedan is 162 mm (6.4 in.) longer, 21 mm (0.8 in.) wider, 61 mm (2.4 in.) taller, with a wheelbase that is 20 mm (0.8 in.) longer. The extra size means that the Ion is considerably roomier and has a much bigger trunk – but it’s heavier: the Ion is 154 kg (339 lb.) heavier than the base SL1.

The Ion’s new ‘Ecotec’ 2.2 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with balance shafts develops 140 horsepower @ 5800 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. That compares to the current SL1’s 1.9 litre SOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with 100 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 114 lb-ft at 2400 rpm; and the SL2’s 1.9 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with 122 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.

As well the Ion is offered with a new 5-speed manual transmission with a synchronized Reverse gear, a new 5-speed automatic transmission (replacing the 4-speed automatic), and in the upcoming Ion coupe, a new continuously variable transmission will be offered.

The Ion has a new rear suspension as well: a semi-independent torsion beam setup that replaces the S-Series fully independent double wishbone suspension.

Interior impressions

The Ion’s interior is considerably bigger than the SL1/SL2 – it’s noticeably wider and there’s much more headroom. Still, I didn’t think rear legroom was particularly generous.

2003 Saturn Ion Sedan
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The most obvious new feature of the interior is the centrally-positioned instruments. Three round gauges – a large central speedometer, smaller tachometer on the right, and smaller fuel/coolant gauges on the left – are positioned on the top centre dashboard.

I found them easy to read despite the fact that they’re further away – this is partly due to the instruments’ large, bold black numerals and white background, and the fact that they are angled towards the driver. In addition, the driver doesn’t have to refocus his/her eyes quite as much.

The controls for the heater and radio are easy to reach, and easy to see due to their large white numerals and flat black background – but I wasn’t that impressed with the look of the black plastic dash material.

The quality of interior materials varied: for example, I liked the ‘golf ball’ trim behind the steering wheel and in front of the passenger, but I didn’t like the smooth plastic on other dashboard surfaces. In fact, I thought the dashboard design was a bit ‘busy’.

The front seats have a soft cloth covering, and they are generally very comfortable – but on a long drive, I found the seat cushion a bit hard. The standard driver’s seat has a ratchet-type height adjuster. The front seats have height-adjustable head restraints, but the rear seats have fixed head restraints which are too low to offer good head support for a typical adult. The rear seatback is comfortable even though the seatback is fairly upright. Split folding rear seatbacks provide extra cargo length for the huge trunk.

The trim around the instruments and centre stack is available in a number of different colours and designs, all of which can be made to match the roof strip on the exterior of the car – a way for individuals to customize their particular car. I’m really not sure if consumers will take to this idea or not, but it’s unique.

The interior features some handy storage areas, such as an open storage tray and a flip-down tray on left side of dash, and two cupholders in front, but I thought the armrest/storage bin between the seats was on the small side.

The trunk is huge – one of the biggest in its class. At 416 litres (14.7 cu. ft.), the Ion’s trunk is 21% bigger than the S-Series’ trunk.

Driving impressions

2003 Saturn Ion Sedan
Click image to enlarge

The view from behind the wheel is unique. Just like the Toyota Echo and Prius, there are no instruments behind the steering wheel. That allowed Saturn to use a smaller steering wheel mounted fairly low, so there’s less arm strain, and the tilt steering wheel never blocks your view of the instruments. Outward visibility is excellent, and as I mentioned, the instruments are plainly visible in the centre area.

The Ecotec engine is very smooth, and surprisingly quiet. Acceleration is brisk and engine noise and vibration is minimal at higher revs. This powertrain is a clear improvement over the previous one, and is at or near the top of its class in standard horsepower and torque.

Fuel consumption is good: 10.0 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 6.7 l/100 km (42 mpg) on the highway – that’s not as good as the previous S-Series engines which offered fuel economy as low as 8.0 l/100 km city and 5.3 l/100 km highway – however, the Ion is a bigger, heavier, roomier car.

I tried both the new 5-speed manual and the new 5-speed automatic transmissions. The 5-speed manual has medium-length, comfortable shifts, but they are a little sticky. As well, I found my right elbow bumping into the optional centre armrest when changing gears. This optional armrest/storage bin slides forwards and backwards – handy if you want to rest your right arm on a long drive. But if you’re going with the manual transmission, don’t order this armrest.

The 5-speed automatic is a smooth-shifting, quiet unit that can be forced into a sudden shift with a punchy kickdown – but I found it very competent.

I was quite impressed with the Ion’s new variable-assist electro-hydraulic steering system. It’s easy to steer at low speeds and offers a firmer feel at higher speeds – I found it very responsive and accurate during quick turning maneuvers, yet not too sensitive so that the car tracks well at freeway speeds.

I was most impressed with the Ion’s quiet, comfortable ride, and stable, well-balanced handling. The Delta platform is solid and rattle-free and makes the car feel like a more expensive car than just an entry-level car. Despite going from an independent rear suspension to a semi-independent one, control, handling, and ride are all very good.

2003 Saturn Ion Sedan
Click image to enlarge

New features found on the Ion that weren’t on the S-Series include speed-sensitive wipers, automatic-on headlights, oil life monitor, remote keyless entry and anti-theft system, and retained power accessory when the engine is turned off.

As well, the Ion is available with optional head curtain airbags as well as new standard dual-stage front airbags. ABS is optional on all models (rather than just uplevel models) and traction control is a new option. I would liked to have seen four wheel disc brakes available as an option, but the Ion sedan comes only with front disc/rear drum brakes.

In Canada, the Ion will be offered with the 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty as well as the standard 3 year/60,000 warranty – that matches the warranties of its major import competitors. By the way, U.S. customers won’t get the 5 year powertrain warranty.

Ion sedans will be offered in three trim levels: Ion1, Ion2, and Ion3, and will go on sale at the end of November – prices will be announced on or about November 1, 2002.

The new Quad Coupe, with two rear opening doors, will go on sale next Spring. Autos will cover the Quad Coupe in a future First-Drive report.

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