Another new incarnation of the Ion brings with it another set of compromises. OK, so the 2005 Saturn Ion is smoother, quieter and more comfortable than last year's model. But it's still noisy - and not in a good way. And maybe the handling is sharper, but it's still a little sloppy - not what you'd expect from a sport coupe.
Named for the pair of rear-hinged Rear Access Panels that grant easy rear seat access and sufficient storage for a 9-foot kayak, this practical 2+2 coupe looks sportier than it acts.
The Quad Coupe's exterior appearance remains unchanged because there's little doubt about its good looks. Disappointingly, its swoopy-roofed, long-hood-short-rear-deck design doesn't deliver the two-door coupe results its looks promise.
This Ion likes to be driven quickly, but the suspension still feels a little soft at high speeds despite revised suspension settings. The front suspension has struts while the rear uses a torsion-beam axle to provide more interior space in the trunk. New hydraulic rear suspension bushings and revised front lower control arm bushings somewhat improve the ride and handling, while front and rear stabilizer bars reduce lean in the corners. Set on an imaginary "sedan" setting, the suspension provides a comfortable ride on the highway, but a decreasingly comfortable ride proportionate to increasingly rough road conditions.
Yet it handles rough roads better than winding ones, especially if you drive hard. You have to know how to handle this heavenly body before you throw it a corner. Predictable handling that tends to understeer in corners is partially balanced by the recalibrated steering for more "on-center" road feel. Unfortunately, there's little tactile feedback through the new, larger steering wheel, making it difficult to know how much traction the front tires have in cornering.
The coupe's large twin-cam, four-cylinder engine matches its competitors' horsepower and exceeds their torque, accelerating quickly when you step on the throttle. Newly added sound deadening reduces the rough engine note. "Real" drivers, however, will gravitate to the high-performance Red Line coupe, featuring a 205-horsepower supercharged engine that goes from 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds and produces a nice little sporty exhaust note.
The Red Line version also features a firmer suspension so the handling is sharper, more responsive. It delivers good throttle response and quick acceleration performance, with easily controlled torque steer.
Even the trademark composite polymer body panels attached to a substantial steel space-frame signal a compromise. Resistant to rust, corrosion, dings and dents, they are easily replaceable in the event of damage. However, the gaps between body parts have to be greater to allow for expansion in hot weather, detracting from the overall appearance.
Inside, the 2005 coupe is more comfortable, yet oddly inconvenient: another ironic compromise. Larger, new seats are nicely bolstered and more supportive on long hauls or in tight corners, with a European seating position that puts the driver farther from the new larger diameter four-spoke steering wheel and allows for seat height adjustment. But the new shifter is uncomfortably located farther back, as are the un-illuminated, door-mounted electric window switches.
Saturn copied Mini's center-mounted instrument cluster, claiming that since the instruments can be set at the same level as the outside mirrors, they're easier for the driver to read. Forward visibility is also good, though thick A-pillars inhibit the forward view and wide C-pillars hinder the view over the right shoulder.
Stylish and fresh interior design features include an assortment of textures and upgraded materials. New chrome rings adorn the instruments and vents. But points get deducted for the small center console and cheap switchgear.
Space inside a sport coupe is always at a premium, and once again the Ion is a compromise. The open dash design provides an expansive feel, with an ergonomic in-dash six-CD changer featuring big buttons and knobs and MP3 capability. A big trunk adds to the practicality of the coupe, but back seat legroom is virtually non-existent and the sloping roofline dictates that tall passengers ride up front.
The Ion's quality is not up to those of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, according to ratings from J.D. Power and Associates surveys, but it maintains a five-star rating in the federal government's (NHTSA) crash tests. It also enjoys one of the highest customer approval ratings for purchasing and maintenance experiences.
The Ion is an attractive, affordable sport coupe that drives and rides like a sedan. For a lot of aging baby boomers, that sounds out of this world. After all, they're old enough to realize that life on this planet is a compromise.
2005 Saturn Ion coupe specs
Base price: $15,495
* Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 2+2-door coupe
* Engine: 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine supercharged and intercooled DOHC
* 16-valve inline-4, aluminum 140 horsepower,
* Transmission: five-speed manual
* Fuel mileage: 24/32
* 26-inch alloy wheels
* Anti-lock brakes 60/40-split folding rear seats Power locks and windows
* Remote hood and trunk releases