It's about time Saturn gets a new small car. Production of Saturn's S-Series dates back about 13 years.
So it's no wonder that Saturn's S-Series replacement, the 2003 Ion, gets attention.
Funny thing is, though, all the attention during my test drive came from people who were driving other Saturns, not folks driving other small cars like Hondas and Toyotas.
I guess it's to be expected. Saturn has developed a pretty loyal following among folks who like the brand's reputation for low-pressure dealer showroom environments and its affordable lineup of vehicles.
While the new Ion, available in sedan and coupe versions, looks modern, yet sensible, when parked next to the old Saturn S-Series, it's not one to stand out in a crowd.
Major new model
Styling isn't the only thing that's new about this new Saturn. The Ion rides on a new platform, is larger than the S-Series, offers a new interior and a more powerful engine.
Best of all, starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of around $12,000 for a base Ion sedan at introduction in the 2003 model year was at least $1,475 less than that of a new, 2003 Honda Civic sedan or a 2003 Toyota Corolla.
Note that my test Ion, a sedan with top-level trim and five-speed automatic transmission, topped out at more than $17,000.
Polymer panels, rear doors remain
On the outside, Saturn still uses many body panels made of a dent- and ding-resistant polymer material, which contributes to a nice, long-lived, neat and tidy appearance.
As in previous Saturns, I couldn't help noticing that many body panel gaps on the Ion cars are larger than those on the Civic and Corolla, which use sheet metal exterior panels. I realize the polymer panels need extra spacing for expansion issues, but the resulting look isn't impressive from a fit-and-finish standpoint.
Another fixture on Saturn's new small coupe is abbreviated rear doors. Like those on the S-Series coupe, they work like a clamshell and make it so much easier to reach items stored in the back seat. They also make it easier for riders to climb into the back seat.
Best of all, these doors don't detract from the coupe styling.
Inside, the Ion looks different than other Saturns—mostly because the instrument cluster sits atop the dashboard, over in the center of the car, and is not in front of the steering wheel.
Saturn officials said this helps keep a driver's eyes closer to the horizon and permits a small-diameter steering wheel in the Ion.
This quirky positioning of the gauges, which is also used in Toyota's Echo small car, takes some getting used to for the driver. The resulting emptiness of the area in front of the steering wheel drew my attention to what seemed like a mix of seams and textures on the dashboard. There wasn't a very integrated look.
Knobs and buttons in the Ion tester didn't have a consistent feel, either. Fabric on the test car seats gave me so much static electricity, I hesitated each time I exited the Ion before touching the car door to close it.
I had to step carefully out of the Ion to keep my pant leg from getting soiled from the dirt and rainwater that collected on a slight ledge, by the sill, by each doorway.
One engine now
The sole engine this year for Saturn's small cars is the 2.2-liter dual overhead cam four cylinder that's in the Saturn VUE sport utility and Saturn's larger L-Series cars.
In the Ion, the engine delivers 137 horsepower—up from 100 in the base S-Series engine last year and up from 124 horses in the upper S-Series engine last year.
Maximum torque now is 142 lb-ft at 4200 rpm and helps get the Ion four door moving at a respectable clip and is a big improvement over last year's base engine, in particular.
In the test car, the engine was paired with an automatic transmission with five speeds—an unusually high-tech automatic gearbox for this class of car where four-speed autos are typical.
It operated smoothly in most circumstances, but in sudden, aggressive pedal-to-the-metal driving, I did feel a jerk as the car sought to respond.
In highway passing, I had to give enough time and distance to get beyond other cars, and the Ion engine could be buzzy-sounding when pressed. Road noise from the tires also came through.
Odds and ends
While riders felt road imperfections mostly through mild vibrations, some recessed manhole covers and larger bumps were felt harshly and accompanied by a troubling "ba-boom" sound.
The Ion's electronic power steering has a mainstream feel, but an annoying rubbing sound emanated from the steering wheel area in the test car.
Still, I liked that trunk space is improved from 12.1 cubic feet in the S-Series to 14.5 cubic feet in the Ion sedan.
Saturn buyers should be aware that the Ion is scheduled to be offered in a high-performance Red Line version incorporating a supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec, four-cylinder engine capable of 200 horsepower and some 200 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. The Red Line Ion was slated for the 2004 model year, according to Saturn officials.