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2006 Saturn ION review

November 18, 2005 06:23 PM EST | Saab , Sedans | Email to Friend | Comments (0)

View large imageWith its solid performance and affordable pricing, the Ion is worth a look if you're shopping for an economy sedan or coupe. Bear in mind, though, that newer peers like the Honda Civic and Scion tC are more refined and more fun to drive.

Pros
Low price, customer-focused dealers, large trunk capacity, coupe's innovative rear access doors, solid ride and handling dynamics.

Cons
Limited rear legroom, center-mounted instrumentation takes some getting used to, below-average interior materials.

What's New for 2006
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.

Introduction:
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 Chevrolet's Cobalt. Compared to the S-Series, the 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 Saturns, 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 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 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 Kia Spectra, Mazda 3, Scion tC and the new-for-2006 Honda 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 an Ion.

Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 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.

Powertrains and Performance:
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 models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission, with a four-speed automatic available as an option.

Safety:
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 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.

Interior Design and Special Features:
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 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.

Driving Impressions:
The standard engine provides adequate, if not entirely refined, power throughout the rev range. The optional 2.4-liter is not the pinnacle of smoothness, either, but it's still a worthwhile upgrade if your budget allows. The four-speed automatic transmission is responsive, but the manual box is still a little rough through the gates. The ride is soft enough to soak up rough roads, yet the Ion still handles itself well in tight turns and freeway off-ramps.

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