2003 Saturn Ion sedan
2003 Saturn Ion sedan. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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General Motors launched its Saturn division in the early 1990s in an attempt to, uh, run rings around the imported models that dominated the compact car market at the time. But after two long generations, the only rings visible were the ones under the eyes of its first offering, the SL-series.

Yes, the SL was getting old and tired, so Saturn launched the Ion in a second attempt to go after the compact imports. Sadly, the Ion did little other than attract return buyers who liked not only their plastic-bodied cars but also Saturn’s low-pressure sales tactics. Where the SL was at least attractive in its own dull way, the Ion was awkward-looking, with oddball shapes inside and out.

The Ion was the first of a trio of GM compacts based on the same platform; the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit (which later became the G5) would arrive in 2005. In 2003 and 2004, the Ion’s sole engine was a 145-horsepower, 2.2-litre “Ecotec” four-cylinder; 2005 added the supercharged 2.0-litre that would power the Ion Red Line (and the Cobalt SS) and in 2006, a naturally-aspirated, 170-hp, 2.4-litre version arrived and was available in the top-line Ion 3 model. A five-speed manual transmission was the base choice in all Ion models. In 2003, a five-speed automatic was the optional choice, something that stood out in the class. That was short-lived, though: the Aisin-built five-speed auto and a continuously-variable transmission were canned after 2003, supposedly due to performance and reliability issues. A GM-built four-speed auto (the 4T45-E) became the only transmission option for 2004 and later Ions.

2003 Saturn Ion sedan
2003 Saturn Ion sedan
2003 Saturn Ion sedan. Click image to enlarge

The Ion’s Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption numbers are generally mid-pack for the compact class, ranging from 9.5 to 10 L/100 km in the city and anywhere from 6 to 7 L/100 km on the highway for the 2.2- and 2.4-litre engines, depending on transmission choice. The supercharged 2.0-litre used in the Ion Red Line tends to be a bit thirstier, using a little more than 10 L/100 km in the city and around 7.5 L/100 km on the highway.

The Ion’s reliability has been below average, according to Consumer Reports. That publication thought more highly of Saturn’s previous compact car, the SL, which was sold as a coupe, sedan and wagon until 2002. That said, most of the common issues that pop up in the Ion forum at SaturnFans.com tend to be relatively minor. Yes, there are the less-than-perfect CVT and five-speed automatics mentioned above, but otherwise, common issues include a cold-start problem that seems to be linked to ignition switches and/or starter motor connections that don’t like cold weather. In Red Line models, broken drive axles and transmission cases are linked to hard driving and abuse.

While the sedan was a rather pedestrian four-door, the coupe was nifty mainly for the clamshell-type rear doors that made rear-seat entry easier and gave the coupe its “Quad Coupe” moniker. In 2005, the Ion got freshened styling inside and out and better sound insulation.

2003 Saturn Ion coupe
2003 Saturn Ion coupe
2003 Saturn Ion coupe. Click image to enlarge

Where safety is concerned, the Ion’s performance in collisions is either not bad or outright poor, depending on which safety organization you ask. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the 2003-2006 Ion five stars in frontal impact protection for driver and front passenger. Side impact protection was middling, though, with four-door versions earning three stars for front seat occupation protection and four stars for rear-seat protection; the coupe earned four stars in each side impact test.

This kind of variance in crash test results between the two organizations is quite common and is most likely linked to differences in their respective test procedures. Nevertheless, it makes it difficult to say who’s “righter” and whether the Ion is indeed a safe car in the event of a crash.

Check the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) crash test results for the Ion, however, and the picture isn’t so nice. The 2005-2007 Ion (the only years tested) managed an “acceptable” score in the IIHS’s frontal offset test and 2003-2006 models got nailed with a “poor” rating in that organization’s side impact test. It bears mentioning that the poor rating applies both to cars with and without side airbags, which were optional on all Ions. Other safety items like anti-lock brakes and traction control were optional on all Ions.

2005 Saturn Ion sedan
2005 Saturn Ion sedan
2005 Saturn Ion sedan. Click image to enlarge

As with most domestic-branded cars, Ion resale values are pretty weak. Used values, according to Canadian Red Book, range from just under $7,000 for a 2003 Ion sedan to a high of $20,200 for a 2006 Ion Red Line coupe. In between, you could shop for a 2005 Ion 3 (the top-end model) with a value of $13,200 in mind; that same model in a 2004 version is worth $11,225. A Hyundai Elantra from the same years would cost about the same and might offer more predictable reliability; naturally, to get a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, you’d have to pay more for one from the same model year, or go back a year or to for competitive pricing. Same goes for the Mazda3, but it’s arguably a better value for all-around fun in a more attractive and better-built package. For coupe buyers, cross-shop the Ion with the Hyundai Tiburon; the Tiburon may price out a little higher, but the V6 that comes in the higher-end models is a little more refined than the Ion Red Line’s blown four-banger.

Then, of course, there are the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit. These mechanical twins of the Ion are far more attractive, and real-world used prices should be very similar to those of the Ion. They sport a more conventional interior too.

Another thing to consider is that new Ions are likely to get some attractive incentives as this model nears the end of its life cycle and is replaced by the Astra hatch for 2008. If you’re on the fence deciding between new and used, you might want to wait for the far more attractive Astra to arrive. While the Ion is far from the worst small car choice out there, I wouldn’t recommend it unless the price is very nice.

Online resources

SaturnFans.com is where I’d recommend starting an Internet search on the Ion. It’s a busy site with lots of useful information in the forums. RedLineForums.com is a good resources for fans of the supercharged Ion coupe. Other Ion-related sites include SaturnSpot.com, SaturnForum.com and GMDelta.com.

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Manufacturer’s Website


Transport Canada Recall Number 2004401; 18,512 units affected

2003-2004: On certain vehicles, the turn signal/daytime running lamp (DRL) bulb on either front side can become inoperative because of inadequate contact between the bulb and socket. If a front turn signal lamp is inoperative, others may react slowly to a turning vehicle and a crash could occur. Correction: Dealers will replace the DRL/turn signal bulb on both the left and right front side.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003345; 12,823 units affected

2003-2004: On certain vehicles, the fuel filter assembly may corrode prematurely on the exterior surface. If corrosion on the exterior surface of the fuel filter assembly progresses to the point of creating a hole in the shell, fuel droplets would form and drop to the ground. There would be a noticeable fuel odour around the vehicle. If an ignition source is present, a fire could result. Correction: Dealers will replace the fuel filter assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003344; 6,178 units affected

2003-2004: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 118. The power windows and/or sunroof may be operable after the ignition has been turned to the “OFF” position and the front passenger door is opened. If unsupervised children are left unattended in the vehicle and operate the power windows or sunroof, there is an increased risk of personal injury to the child. Correction: Dealers will upgrade the Body Control Module (BSM) calibration.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2004191; 45 units affected

2004: On certain Saturn Ion Red Line vehicles equipped with the supercharged 2.0L engine, the fuel feed pipe may crack near the fuel rail, which would result in a fuel leak and a noticeable fuel odour around the vehicle. If an ignition source is present, a fire could result. Correction: Dealers will replace the fuel pipe assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2005367; 27 units affected

2006: Certain Saturn ION Quad Coupe Red Line vehicles fail to conform to CMVSS 108 – Lighting Systems and Retroreflective Devices. When the fog lamps are turned on, the parking lamps, tail lamps, licence plate lamp, and side marker lamps do not automatically turn on as required. Correction: Dealers will install a jumper wire, which will activate the required lamps when the fog lamps are turned on.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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