It's very easy to summarize any Saturn: "A spaceframe vehicle with polymer doors and fenders, horizontal headlamps, a side ‘swoosh' character line, and ‘Saturn' badges located behind the wheel openings in the front fenders." This also describes the 2003 Ion, which is available either as a sedan or a "Quad Coupe." It's the first nameplate–Saturns now have names, not just alphanumerics–to use GM's Delta architecture. It also replaces the 12-year-old Saturn S, and is a pretty impressive car.
All Ions sit on a 103.2-in. wheelbase and are about 185-in. long, which gives the sedan 93 ft3 of interior space, the coupe 87.3 ft3. For rigidity and superior crash performance, the engine rails are made of high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steel, the battery is located in the trunk, and the body side is a one-piece stamping whose offal is recycled to create brackets and other items for use elsewhere in the car. In addition, the sedan has two steel beams in the front doors, one in the rear doors, as well as structural foam inserts. The Quad Coupe–so named for its four doors (two full- and two half-size)–use single beams with high-density foam inserts in the front doors, and heavy-gauge steel reinforcements combined with upper and lower latches in the rear doors. The result is a first-order beaming of 27 Hz in the sedan, 23 Hz in the coupe, either side of the 25 Hz most manufacturers claim as their bogey. This is pretty impressive for an entry-level sedan and coupe that have base weights of 2,692 lb. and 2,751 lb., respectively.
On the passive safety front, the story is similar. Saturn offers the Ion with standard dual-stage front airbags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners and load limiters, three-point belts at each seating position, and optional side curtain airbags. In order to reduce deployment injuries, the driver's airbag is recessed in the hub of the 340-mm (13.4-in.) steering wheel, and folded so that it deploys radially rather than directly at the driver. The passenger-side bag, on the other hand, initially deploys up toward the windshield, expands outward, then toward the front seat occupant. In an impact, a sensing unit ascertains the severity of the impact, fires the seatbelt pre-tensioners, and determines which level of airbag deployment–primary or primary and secondary–is necessary to adequately protect the occupants.
The electrical architecture of the Ion is similarly interesting in that the five to eight (depending on options) microprocessors are linked via a vehicle network, which lessens the amount of wiring, and allows a number of personalization programs to be integrated into the vehicle systems. (BMW followed a similar path with the Mini.) Things like: turning the headlights on when the wipers are activated, controlling wiper sweep in relation to the speed of the vehicle, programmable door lock/unlock modes, turning off the starter motor circuit once the engine fires, preventing the driver's door from locking when the keys are in the ignition, and retaining power to the accessories when the engine is off. "Features like these usually aren't offered in this segment," says senior development engineer Alan Storck, "but the Ion's architecture allows hardware and software expandability, which means these functions are essentially free."
Even the engine architecture is common. The Ion uses GM's all-aluminum 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder (often referred to by its L850 designation). It's lost-foam cast, has dual balance shafts, and produces 140 hp at 5,800 rpm, 145 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm, with a redline of 6,500 rpm. In future applications–especially the "Tuner Coupe" Saturn launches next year–the engine will be supercharged and its output increased to at least 200 hp. Torque capacity is unknown for this engine variant, but the Getrag F23 five-speed manual gearbox has an input shaft torque capacity of 175 lb.-ft., and peak input speed of 7,000 rpm. The gearbox also has a cable-operated shifter, carbon fiber blocker rings on reverse and third through fifth gears, double-cone sintered bronze blocker rings on first and second gears, and a synchronized reverse gear.
Of course, this isn't the only gearbox available. Sedan owners can opt for an Aisin AF23 five-speed automatic that is shared with some Opel and Saab models: it is a very unusual gearbox for an entry-level car. Quad Coupe buyers don't get this choice, however. They'll have the option of GM's VTi continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is also offered on the Saturn Vue SUV. GM claims the CVT has 45% fewer parts, a fuel economy advantage, and is easier to manufacture than a conventional four-speed automatic transmission. Getting customers used to it will take time, hence the coupe-first roll-out.
Missing from the Ion is a hydraulic power steering pump. Saturn chose a Koyo-supplied electronic power steering unit that is speed-sensitive, has an integrated torque sensor, and is said to provide an fuel savings of 0.7 mpg. "There are five different calibrations for the steering," says Storck, "which correspond to the wheel and tire combinations offered on the sedan and coupe." There are, he admits, three more calibrations available. Storck declined to identify what changes to the Ion's specs would trigger their use.
The suspension is conventional, using MacPherson struts up front and a torsion-beam in the rear. "If we had gone to an independent rear suspension," says Storck, "the shock towers would have intruded into the trunk cavity, and significantly reduced the space available." Saturn specified dual-rate springs and urethane jounce bumpers to keep the rear under control in both laden and unladen situations, without giving up much–if anything–to a fully independent unit. As a result, the Ion sedan has 14.7 ft3 of trunk space, the coupe 14.2 ft3, and each has a split-fold rear seat. Front and rear anti-roll bars are standard.
Single-piston vented front discs and rear drum brakes are standard equipment, and ABS is an option. With ABS, front-to-rear proportioning is handled electronically via dynamic rear proportioning, which takes into account cornering and passenger loads, as well as how much gear is in the trunk. Ordering the ABS adds traction control at no extra charge, a continuation of previous Saturn practice.
Quite different from Saturns past is the centrally located instrument pod that is angled toward the driver. It sits above a sloping center stack filled with climate and sound system controls, leaving the area ahead of both the driver and passenger bare and sloping toward the large, 5.4-mm thick windshield. With its large hub and small diameter, the steering wheel feels too small at first, and looks a bit...odd. Of course, personalization pieces–alternative trim options for the gauge cluster, center stack, shift quadrant and exterior roof rails–just add to the fun.
The Ion promises to be a strong contender in the entry segment. Prices for the sedan start at $11,995, though "popularly equipped" models will run from $14,225 to $16,475, including the $485 destination charge. The competition will definitely take notice.