2004 Saturn Ion Redline
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

St. Adele, Quebec – I’ve always felt a little guilty for not liking the Saturn Ion more than I do. It’s fundamentally a nice-driving car wrapped underneath a skin that just doesn’t appeal to me, but I can’t help the fact that I make part of my living as a freelance art director.

So it’s tough to tell me not to judge a book by its cover, because judging books by their covers is part of the credo I live by; my final English assignment in high school, after all, was a 3000-word dissertation instructing people how to do just that. In an ideal world, an object’s looks should communicate its function; what your eyes see should be confirmed by what your other senses feel. Fact is, what you feel when you drive the Ion often contradicts what you’re seeing and touching; to drive it feels small, nimble, surprisingly precise, but look at it and it seems big, clumsy, and kind of amateurish.

Now there’s the $26,995 Ion Red Line, which is an Ion that’s better to drive. But – thanks to its wings and sill extensions and extended front pieces and a ride height that seems no lower than a stock economy Ion’s – one that manages to look no better, perhaps even a little worse if you’re into the clean design thing rather than the visual-impact thing. I’m wondering, standing here before getting in, if I’m going to like it any more.

2004 Saturn Ion Redline

2004 Saturn Ion Redline

2004 Saturn Ion Redline

2004 Saturn Ion Redline
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It’s not bad, once you get behind the wheel. GM seems to have worked out the quality gaffes that plagued earlier Ions I drove, for the Red Line has big-car build quality. Not only do all of the pieces fit well, but the finishes are often pretty luxurious: the turn-signal stalk has a silky-smooth feel that’s better than the last Cadillac I drove, and many of the secondary controls are actually off Saabs.

To counter that, however, are front chairs that, despite extra bolstering (and prestigious Recaro logos), I still found too low and uncomfortable, with still not enough side support and still way too much lumbar bulge, as well as a centre console that seems like it was added as an afterthought, just kind of butting up against the dash when the rest of the pieces seem to have been designed together. As for the Ion’s most controversial bit, its curious central instrument cluster, I rather like it, as it reminds me of some other cool cars I’ve driven, like BMW’s Z8; there’s a new, larger steering wheel as well.

That’s pretty much the end of the disappointment, however, because the fast Ion is a delight to drive. For while it may look kind of amateurishly designed, it’s quite sophisticated underneath. The small Saturn is based on GM’s worldwide Delta platform, which underpins the European Opel Astra, a car widely praised by the overseas media for its terrific, stable handling and excellent ride quality. And so it is with the Ion, which goes down the road with the ability of cars a class above. Compared to the base Ion’s suspension, which is already fairly taut and responsive, the Red Line features stiffer springs, larger anti-roll bars and retuned dampers, as well as significantly larger 17-inch tires. The Red Line grips like a leech in most corners, the steering levers it into curves with an easy rhythm, there’s very little body roll, and it’s very stable and safe.

Primarily, though, the Red Line is about its engine, a supercharged 2.0-litre four cylinder engine that pushes out 205 horsepower instead of the standard 140 horsepower 2.2-litre Ecotec in the standard Ion. As you would expect from such a setup, power delivery is strong, smooth and linear, with plenty of low-end grunt and a nice rush up to the redline. It sounds good, too, thanks to a new exhaust with much less back-pressure than a stock Ion’s, as well as a nice whine from the supercharger at higher speeds. Importantly, the brakes are significantly enlarged as well, with big 11.6-inch rotors on the front that have superb stopping power and fantastic fade resistance.

2004 Saturn Ion Redline
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Work done on all of the Ion’s major controls – from the steering to the shifter to the position of the pedals – mean that this is an easier car to drive enthusiastically as well, one that’s easy to get into a nice, flowing rhythm on a winding road. The Ion Red Line is an impressive car to drive, much more so than its somewhat disjointed style would lead you to expect.

The real question for me, and potentially for a lot of the car’s buyers, will be how the hot Ion stacks up against its major competitors, the hottest of which, the Dodge SRT-4, has 30 more horsepower, two more doors, and also happens to be better-looking than the Ion. To drive, the Dodge is definitely faster and more tenacious but it’s also a lot more raw, herking and jerking over bad pavement, its pumped-up turbo motor hissing and banging and popping; the Ion may not be as quick, but it’s a lot easier to drive smoothly, and more refined when you’re commuting; overall, it’s a better package.

And to be fair to Saturn, there are as many people out there that like the looks of the Ion as there are people like me who don’t. The key for the company is to convince people to take the Red Line for a drive. If they manage to do that, their job’s mostly done.


Saturn Vue Redline

2004 Saturn Vue Redline
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Saturn’s introducing another Red Line product into its mix, as well, the $33,210 Vue Red Line. Cosmetically, it shares many of the Ion’s styling features, including a very aggressive front air dam, large (18-inch) alloy wheels, a big chrome exhaust tip and monochromatic paint, this time in your choice of silver, black, or lime green.

Mechanically, there’s not quite as much to differentiate it from a V6 AWD Vue, with which it shares the Honda-designed 3.5-litre, 250 horsepower V6 and five-speed automatic. But though the Red Line is no faster in a straight line than its less-aggressive cousin (it hardly needs to be as it will happily chirp and torque-steer its way past any other compact SUV), it’s a different story in the corners.

Simply put, this little truck is a hoot to drive, thanks to its lowered suspension, sticky Bridgestone Turanza tires and more responsive steering. Body roll in most corners is minimal, grip is phenomenal, there’s plenty of steering feel, and the ride isn’t too bad either. Too bad that, inside, you’re sliding around on seats with minimal side bolstering, are subjected to a transmission that doesn’t have any sort of provision for shifting manually, and are steering with a Cadillac-sourced wheel that’s too big to feel truly sporty. Also on the demerit side: the seat fabric is pretty horrible, and the general level of interior quality isn’t up to the car’s high standards of driving pleasure.

Nevertheless, the Vue Red Line (surprisingly) does exactly what Saturn says it does, which is define a niche of the compact SUV market devoted to performance and driving entertainment. Who would have thunk it?

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