- Structurally stiff new platform.
- Smooth Ecotec engine.
- Good trunk space.
- Dent-resistant plastic body panels.
- Decent amount of rear seat room.
- Awful build quality.
- Some cheap interior materials.
- Rear suspension is not independent anymore.
- Rear drum brakes.
- Automatic transmission sucks the life out of engine.
Press Coverage :
The five passenger ION sedan and four-passenger ION quad coupe both use GM's new global 'Delta' platform and are considerably bigger than their predecessors - approximately 150 mm (6 in.) longer and 50 mm (2 in.) taller with a 50 mm (2 in.) wider track and a 20 mm (0.8 in.) longer wheelbase.
Under the ION's (steel) hood is an entirely new engine: an all aluminium 'Ecotec' 2.2 litre twincam 16 valve four cylinder engine. The Ecotec 2.2 litre engine has dual balance shafts for quieter, smoother running, and offers more torque for better throttle response.
A five-speed manual transmission will be standard for all ION models, and a new five-speed automatic transmission (formerly four-speed) will be available on up-level sedans and coupes. The big news however, is the availability of a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) which will be optional on base and mid-level IONS. The CVT provides an infinite number of gear ratios for a 'stepless' shifting experience. One advantage of the CVT is that it provides almost as good fuel economy as a manual transmission.
Another new feature on the ION is electronic power steering - the first-time this has been used on a small car in North America. The ION's speed-sensitive variable power-assist electronic steering contributes to minor gains in fuel efficiency by eliminating the power steering pump.
The Saturn S-Series independent double wishbone suspension has been replaced by the ION's semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension. Combined with front and rear stabilizer bars, a wider track, and a longer wheelbase, GM says the new ION has much-improved ride and handling.
As well, the ION's turning circle also has been significantly reduced to 10.6 metres (34.8 ft.) from 11.3 metres (37.1 ft.).
Safety-wise, the ION's spaceframe's front and rear crush zones have been improved, and ION's include dual-stage driver and passenger air bags, front seatbelt pretensioners, three-point safety belts for all seating positions, and new LATCH (Lower Anchorages and Tethers for Children) child-seat attachment system. A new head-curtain air bag system is optional.
Inside the ION, the interior is all-new, highlighted by a new centre mounted gauge cluster. In addition, putting the instrument cluster in the centre allows the driver to position the steering wheel without having to position it to read instrument gauges.
To attract younger buyers, ION's can be customized with interchangeable roof rails that are colour-coordinated with the interior trim kits - these consist of trim for the centre-mounted instrument panel, shifter and heater control panel. Saturn also plans to offer a full range of retailer-installed accessories such as floor mats, cargo trays, and even coloured key fobs. Saturn is also working with aftermarket manufacturers to develop accessories such as ground-effects packages, spoilers and special wheels.
The Ecotec engine provides consistent power from idle to redline, and enough torque to generate a bit of wheel spin when the car is floored from a standstill. It's also a fairly refined powerplant with only a slight whine from the engine compartment at higher rpms.
The Ion's steering could best be described as "weird." It has a heft that initially makes it seem responsive and sporty. But after one run through the slalom it was obvious that the heavy steering was just that -- heavy. Feedback was non-existent, meaning the increased effort simply made it take more energy to drive through the slalom. Body roll was typical for a vehicle of this class in front, but poorly controlled in the rear, often allowing the rear end to break loose during quick transitions. The flat front seats didn't provide much lateral support, and the automatic transmission's inability to hold a lower gear meant minimal torque for powering out of the cones. Despite these many issues the Ion still managed a respectable speed through the slalom, but achieving that speed was not fun.
More troubling than any minor steering complaints is the Ion's general feeling of frailty. The lack of insulation allows you to hear every crack in the pavement even if the suspension adequately smoothes them out; and although we noticed only a few minor creaks and rattles, the interior trim panels are poorly anchored and of unimpressive quality.
Many compact cars only offer ABS on higher trim levels, and the Ion is the first compact car to offer optional head airbags. Top-of-the-line Ion 3 models add 16 inch tires and alloy wheels, a premium AM/FM/cassette/ CD player with auto tone control, auto reverse music search, and seek and scan functions; power windows, power mirrors, front fog lamps, cruise control, silver-faced gauges, and up-level fabric seats. The Ion 3 is the only model available with optional leather seats.
The Ion's increased dimensions mean more legroom, headroom and trunk space, but most of that extra room seems to have gone into the trunk. The Ion's roomy trunk (14.7 cu. ft.) is about 18% bigger than the trunk of the SL sedan, while interior volume has increased by only 2%.
The Ion's suspension is all new, and to some it will be a disappointment. The previous independent rear multi-link suspension has been replaced with a semi-independent torsion beam setup. While the new rear suspension is more space-efficient, and provides a comfortable ride and decent handling over most paved surfaces, it lacks the ability for each rear wheel to act independently. Up front, the Ion retains an independent strut-type setup.
The Ion's front buckets are firm but comfortable, with some side and thigh support, and a medium-quality cloth covering. I liked the ratchet-type height adjustment which allows you to pump down to lower the seat cushion, and pump up to raise it. Each front seat has donut-shaped head restraints, which help improve visibility whether you're looking from the front to the rear, or vica-versa. The rear bench seat offers generous headroom and kneeroom, but there's not much footroom under the front seats. I found the raised 'theatre style' rear seats comfortable, but the seatbacks were a bit firm. Two adults can sit comfortably at the rear, but three is tight. The Ion's 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks can only be released from inside the trunk - a good idea because it prevents thieves from entering the trunk from the passenger compartment.
The new 5-speed automatic transmission is exceptional for this class of car. Shifts are smooth and silent, it responds well to kick-down, and it shifts down automatically when descending a grade or braking for a corner. My only complaint is that the shift lever doesn't have the same tight, well-oiled shift feel as a Civic or Jetta - it just felt a bit loose to me.
The Ion rides very smoothly and tracks well at high speeds, and though it's not quite as nimble as the SL series sedans, it handles well. The optional 16 inch Firestone Firehawk tires on my test car were quiet on the highway and offered decent grip in dry conditions, but I found they slipped easily when accelerating on wet pavement, something not normally experienced on a front-wheel-drive car.
1996-2002 Saturn SL2
1,901 cc / 124 hp / 122 lb-ft / 2399-2465 lbs / 0-60 mph 8.5 sec.