San Francisco: If this were 1994, the Saturn Ion 3 Quad Coupe would be praised as a fabulous
new car with an advanced suspension, innovative styling, and refined interior. Too bad
Saturn's Ion Quad Coupe hides two small rear-swinging
doors behind the normal front doors, giving it the athletic look of a coupe with the easy
rear-seat access of a sedan. The feature is innovative, but the Ion's driving experience
While it's far from awful, the latest Ion seems to lack the
quality, refinement, and precision found in its Japanese rivals - and even a few Korean
ones. Sure, it has some one-of-a-kind features and a dent-resistant plastic body, but it
still feels like a cheap rental car.
What's wrong with it? Start with the itty-bitty steering
wheel that could have been ripped right off a bumper car, or the skittish, jittery feeling
as it cuts through corners. Plus, its trunk lid rubs against the top of the rear bumper to
leave an ugly scratch mark that's visible every time you open the trunk, and it has an
aging engine that's starting to feel sluggish in comparison to other compact cars.
Despite its drawbacks, there are several things we really
like about the new Ion. First on the list is a special version called the Quad Coupe that
has two stubby, rear-swinging doors in addition to the normal front doors, which gives it
the sporty look of a two-door coupe and the practicality of a four-door sedan. Very nice.
Second is an optional CD player that can play MP3 files from
a computer. Where a normal CD may hold 20 songs or so, an MP3 CD recorded at home can hold
several hours of music with only slightly lower sound quality. That feature is hard to
find even in luxury cars.
It's wonderful to see easy-to-use controls in the Saturn
Ion's freshened cabin for 2004. While other new cars seem to add unnecessary complexity to
do simple tasks, the Ion has controls that are intuitive and straightforward Finally,
there's the Ion's simple practicality. There are no complicated controls or vast arrays of
buttons to understand, something becoming scarcer with each year's crop of new cars.
Saturn's easy-to-understand controls and gauges are refreshing at a time when some
interiors look like they were designed on the set of "The Matrix."
Speaking of interiors, Saturn revamped the Ion's cabin for
2004 with higher quality materials that don't feel as cheap and clunky as last year's
model. It's a huge improvement, but still not quite up to par with Volkswagen, Honda, or
Thankfully, Saturn kept the central instrument pod that puts
gauges in the middle of the dash, not in front of the driver like normal. It seems awkward
at first, but once you get used to the central location it provides better forward
visibility when you glance down at the gauges. It also looks pretty cool. Other new
features for 2004 include additional sound-deadening material to reduce cabin noise,
optional XM Satellite Radio, and better looking fabrics inside.
Unchanged from last year is a four-cylinder engine that makes
140 horsepower. While it's much better than some of Saturn's previous four-cylinder
engines, the standard 2.2-liter Ecotec design doesn't feel as smooth or quiet as those in
the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Also, while it provides plenty of oomph when you first
step on the gas, power seems to taper off quickly as the engine revs faster, almost giving
the driving impression of a small diesel.
Finally, the Ion's handling is mediocre. It's not
uncomfortable around town, but it doesn't provide the kind of sporty, precise driving feel
that makes small cars really fun to drive. If General Motors would spend a little more
time tuning the Ion for better handling, it could make a huge difference in improving the
Overall, the Ion has some nice features offered by no other
car in its class, and we're especially impressed with the Quad Coupe's stylish
practicality. Nonetheless, it feels like it's trying to play catch-up with the Japanese
rather than truly leading the pack.
Why buy it? With a dent-resistant plastic body, no-haggle
pricing, available MP3 CD player, and an innovative Quad Coupe design, the Ion is quite
unique among compact cars. By Derek Price © AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
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