Saturn ION 3 Sedan Automatic

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The Good: Roomy interior. Large trunk. Plenty of power. Nice quality of buttons and dials. Leather seating.

The Bad: Hard plastic used on dash and doors does not feel or look good. Exterior styling is wimpy. Center mounted instrument cluster just doesn't look good.

The Saturn Ion is a compact sedan with distinctive style and all the basic interior creature comforts at a value price. The Ion is available in three trim levels, simply names 1, 2 and 3. Pricing starts off at around $10,000 and goes up to $15,000 for the three different models. New for 2005 model year vehicles is a revised front fascia and grille for a more substantial integrated appearance. Much has been done to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness by the use of Quiet Steel among other improvements. An improved OnStar system is capable of upgraded hands-free capability. New interior seating greatly improves comfort over the previous Ion.

"Continuous improvement is a major part of the Ion story," said Lori Queen, GM vehicle line executive for small cars. "While Ion started with great engineering fundamentals, more than 800 enhancements have been made throughout the vehicle since the original introduction in the fall of 2002. The upgrades for 2005 bring Ion to a level of sophistication that is competitive with the best cars in the entry-level segment," said Queen.

"The Ion has always been a fun-to-drive car with high levels of content and functionality for the price," said Matt Armstrong, marketing manager for the Ion. "The improvements for 2005 add to the overall enjoyment of spending time in an Ion, whether you're driving or just along for the ride."

The Saturn Ion 3 features a 2.2 liter four cylinder DOHC 16 valve engine. This engine produces 140 horsepower. An automatic transmission with grade control logic helps to keep you in the powerband. A variable assist electric power steering system makes turning in tight areas easy and feels precise. Front suspension is set up with independent struts and the rear setup is a semi-independent torsion beam system. Front and rear stabilizer bars keep this Ion under control and reduce body sway. The engine delivers a good 24 miles per gallon in the city and 32 miles on the highway.

Driving the Ion around town and on the highway reveals that Saturn has done its homework on the road. The Ion is very quiet at speed with a small amount of engine hum entering the cabin only when pressed hard. The transmission is smooth and gear changes are hardly felt. There is a good amount of strong low-end torque for excellent off the line power. You would be hard pressed to think there was only a 140 horsepower engine under the hood.

Styling on the outside is a bit wimpy by our standards. The front nose is dated looking with blandly styled headlamps. The side profile is fine until you get to the cutoff on the rear window. The small rear hatch is also a hint at the meagerness of this car. The exterior features Saturn's trademark dent resistant panels. We did not like the wide gaps between body panels. This is quite noticeable in the Ion. However, the nicely styled P205/55R 16-inch performance tires and wheels looked great. Halogen headlamps and fog lamps do not provide enough amount of light up front at night. We found it hard to see at night even with the high beam on. Perhaps the type of reflector Saturn used in the headlights is not very good at dispersing light. A stainless steel exhaust system is also standard.

On the inside new seats on the Ion feature a more tailored and contemporary look. Seats in leather clad trim look and feel good but offer little lateral support. The shift lever is also large and feels good to the touch. Chrome dials around the instrument cluster along with glowing red needles also looked great. We did not like the half circle design theme through the interior and exterior, it simply reminded us of a VW Beetle rather than a Saturn. The center mounted instrument cluster is a feature that Saturn claims is safer because you will only have to look across, in level with rearview mirrors, rather than looking up and down. We got tired of not seeing basic instruments right in front of us, perhaps a head up display should be standard in this model. The steering wheel though clad in leather with a large feeling lacked stereo controls, something we find hard to live without. A good thing was the feel of all dials and buttons on the dash and around the steering wheel. The soft and tight feeling as you turn the button signified a quality built feeling we liked a lot. The overuse of plastic on the dash and doors did not look very nice. We feel this should all be changed. Rearview mirrors are also a bit thin and do not provide adequate view of the rod behind you.

Interior features include air conditioning, power lock with an anti lockout feature. Remote keyless entry with alarm is also standard. All windows and mirrors are powered. Cruise control and an AM/FM stereo with CD changer and MP3 player was installed in our tester. The steering column is also adjustable and the driver's seat heated with lumbar adjustment for added comfort. Rear seats fold down in a 60/40 fashion as well for a super large trunk area. The tiny armrest is adjustable with a very small storage space inside. Floor mats are also standard for the front and rear foot wells. The optional OnStar system is also a great help for live human aid wherever you are. It also helps in case your Saturn in stolen and so we highly recommend it.

Standard safety and security features include dual stage front air bags. The Ion also comes with front safety belt pretensioners. Rear doors also have child security locks. An engine immobilizer is standard as well which is great to have in this price range. Daytime running headlamps also add that extra bit of safety.

Our tester's standard base price was set at $16,805. The Safe and Sound Package was added for $1,235 which contained curtain side airbags, map lights, auto dimming inside mirror with exterior temperature gauge and digital compass, anti lock brakes with traction control, the OnStar system with 1 year of service, and a 6-disc CD changer with MP3 player. Leather seating was only $700. With the destination charge of $565, the total came to $19,305. Saturn also offers a Vehicle Exchange Program on every car that rolls off the lot. You have 30 days or up to 1,500 miles to exchange the car for another 2005 Saturn. The bumper-to-bumper warranty is good for three years or 36,000 miles.

Is the Saturn a great competitor when compared to cars such as the Toyota Corolla, Civic and Mazda 3? Well we certainly like the interior layout and quality in the Mazda 3 better. If you are looking for a budget car around $10,000 then this may be a great buy, but at $19,000 this Ion 3 needs a refreshed interior with higher quality parts and a much more modern exterior. While the ride and handling are good we expect much more in a car priced this high, something its competitors deliver.

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