A replacement for the aged S-Series, the Saturn Ion arrived as a new model in 2003. It's built on GM's "Delta" vehicle platform, which is shared with the Cobalt. Compared to the S-Series, the Saturn Ion benefits from its increased structural stiffness, an ability to accommodate multiple engine/transmission combinations and a larger overall size. Styling is increasingly important in this vehicle class as manufacturers court younger buyers, so Saturn engineers came up with a few innovative tricks to catch the attention of potential buyers. Interchangeable trim panels that reside along the exterior roofline and around the instrument cluster allow owners to quickly and easily transform the look of their Ion to suit their mood. Ion "coupes" actually have four doors -- two traditional openings in front and a set of rear-hinged doors for easier access to the rear seats. Both the sedan and coupe offer spacious cabins and one of the largest trunks in the class at 14.7 cubic feet. Unfortunately, as roomy as the cabin feels from the front seats, legroom is pretty tight in the backseat. A center-mounted instrument cluster gives the interior a unique look as well as offers more room for the driver to adjust the steering wheel, but in terms of functionality we prefer the "old-fashioned" location -- in front of the driver. Like other Saturn cars, the Ion offers buyers the no-hassle buying experience, a pull so strong it keeps almost half of all previous Saturn customers coming back. And in a society that seems to have forgotten about the idea of customer service, not having to dread each trip to the dealer is a feature no army of engineers could have possibly tackled.
Unfortunately, the Ion hasn't turned out to be the slam-dunk Saturn had hoped for. The car suffered from too much engine noise and vibration, a poorly calibrated electric power steering system, cheap interior materials and uncomfortable seating. Interestingly, Saturn listened to the complaints and did something about it. Most dramatic were the changes for 2005, which the front and rear seats were redesigned for long-haul comfort and interior materials were upgraded. Additionally, the Saturn Ion was fitted with noise-dampening steel for the dash and plenum, an acoustic cover for the engine, and a new exhaust down pipe to reduce noise and vibration. Finally, engineers retuned the electric steering for better feel and did some work on the car's suspension.
As a result, the 2006 Saturn Ion is now up to par in most areas, and it's worth a look if you're shopping for a budget sedan or coupe, particularly if a low out-the-door price is your main priority. Unfortunately, competitors like the Spectra, Mazda3, tC and Civic keep raising the bar even higher when it comes to value, performance, features and refinement, so you'd be wise to explore your options before buying one of these Saturn cars.
The Saturn Ion is available in two body styles: a regular sedan and "quad coupe" that combines coupelike styling with dual rear-access doors. The sedan and quad coupe are available in two numerical trim levels -- 2 and 3. The Ion 2 includes basic comfort options like power locks, OnStar and a CD player. Add the Preferred package to get power windows and mirrors, cruise control, a driver-seat height adjuster and keyless entry. The Ion 3 takes a sportier step forward adding 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, full power accessories and an anti-theft system. The Enhanced Performance package includes a more powerful engine, sport-tuned suspension, antilock brakes and traction control.
The speedometer and other related instruments are housed in a center-mounted pod, freeing up space in front of the driver for better sight lines and more steering wheel adjustability. Nevertheless, this unusual layout of the Saturn Ion takes some getting used to. The quad coupe's additional dual rear-access doors open rearward to make it easier for rear passengers to get in and out. Unfortunately, rear legroom is tight in both the coupe and sedan, so passengers aren't likely to be happy back there for long.
Both the sedan and coupe feature a standard 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated for 140 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 170 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque is included in the Enhanced Performance package. Both Saturn Ion models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission, with a four-speed automatic available as an option.
The engine provides adequate, if not entirely refined, power throughout the rev range. The four-speed automatic transmission is responsive, but the manual box is still a little rough through the gates. Built on a completely different platform than its S-Series predecessor, the 2006 Saturn Ion displays commendable ride and handling characteristics. It's soft enough to soak up rough roads, yet it still handles itself well in tight turns and freeway off-ramps. We've previously criticized the Ion's steering, which never seemed to provide the right amount of power assist, but recent revisions have yielded much improved road feel.
Antilock brakes with traction control are optional, as is a side curtain airbag system that unfolds from the roof rail to provide head protection for both front and rear outboard occupants. GM's OnStar communication system, which can summon aid automatically if the airbags deploy, is standard on all models. In government crash testing, both the coupe and sedan earned a perfect five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. In side-impact testing, an Ion sedan without side curtain airbags earned three stars for the protection of front occupants and four stars for the rear; the coupe received four stars across the board. In IIHS testing, the Saturn Ion earned an "Acceptable" rating (second highest) for frontal-offset crash safety and a "Poor" rating for side-impact protection, even with the optional airbags.
The entry-level Ion 1 trim level has been dropped for 2006. Wheel designs have been revised, OnStar is now standard across the board, and air conditioning has moved to the options list for the Ion 2. Upgraded performance is available via an optional Enhanced Performance package, which includes antilock brakes, a sport-tuned suspension and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 170 horsepower.