After foisting the forgettable S-series onto 2.4 million customers since 1990, Saturn delivers another mediocre small car, the Ion sedan and quad coupe. We have already indicated, via Robert Cumberford's July 2002 design analysis, what we think of the Ion's styling, which isn't much. Unfortunately, driving the Ion is not appreciably better than looking at it.
The Ion is powered by a 140-horsepower, 2.2-liter Ecotec four, which, says GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, "is one of the most modern engines in the world." That may be true, but the engine sounds coarse. The manual gearbox is just okay, and the optional automatic chokes the engine's output. GM's new global Delta vehicle architecture provides a suitably stiff platform, and the car rides and grips well enough considering its beam-axle rear suspension, yet it falls short dynamically. The electric power steering might be connected to the front wheels, but it's hard to discern by which mechanism. The effect is exacerbated by the small, video-game-like steering wheel.
The Ion uses Saturn's trademark plastic body panels, but its gaps are thicker than Lutz's ever-present cigar. The contrasting-color polymer roof rails can be replaced with optional patterns such as leopard, blue bubbles, and brushed steel, with matching trim for the instrument panel.
The Braille-dot-esque mold pattern of the interior plastics was clearly inspired by Volkswagen, but the tactile quality is appalling, nothing like the class-leading materials in a Golf or a Jetta. We adjusted quickly to the controversial, center-mounted instrument cluster but not to the seats, which are unsupportive and too low.
The earnestness with which the Saturn folks present and promote the Ion makes us wonder whether they ever drive their competitors' cars. There are some clever ideas here, but overall, the Ion is a disappointment, even with its low, $12,000 entry price. A promised "tuner" coupe with 200-plus horsepower might be more enticing to drive, but it's a year away.