The Saturn Ion bowed with the all-aluminum "Ecotec" four-cylinder tuned for 145 bhp, a whopping 40 bhp up from the previous single-cam base engine. Sedans launched first with trim levels prosaically named 1, 2 and 3, plus an extra-cost five-speed automatic transmission as another class plus.
The two-door Saturn returned in spring '03 as the "Quad Coupe." Sporting rear access doors on both sides, it came in 2 and 3 versions with roughly the same features as like-named sedans. The wheelbase of all Ions went up an inch over the S-Series span, while overall length stretched 6.4 inches more on sedans, 4.5 inches on coupes.
With that and a two-inch rise in overall height, Ion claimed class-leading interior and cargo space. A bold departure -- controversial, too -- was a central dashtop gauge cluster canted toward the driver. Only Toyota's subcompact Echo dared something like it.
Also brave was making coupes available with the CVT as well as the torque-converter automatic. Unusual, too, was the interchangeable roof-rail trim available through Saturn dealers in colors and patterns to mix and match with paint and interior decor.
As Saturn's most affordable car and the replacement for its top-seller, the Ion was critical for near-term success. Saturn planned to peddle 160,000 a year, yet hardly budged the sales needle from the S-Series' last calendar year: about 114,000 through the end of '03.
Reviewers were critical on many counts, none more than Car and Driver, which pronounced Ion "probably the most disappointing all-new American car in a decade…Its chassis refinement, advanced safety systems and value for money are impressive" -- base prices ran around $11,600-$16,000. "But uncomfortable seats, funky ergonomics, cut-rate materials and low-quality engine sounds send the message, 'You should have spent more if you wanted a real car'."
Consumer Guide® was more charitable, noting that established Saturn virtues made up for the Ion's various vices. But plenty of shoppers thought otherwise. Within seven months, Ion inventory had ballooned to 100 days versus the desired 60-day supply. In all, it was a disheartening and worrisome debut.
To its credit, Saturn went right to work on fixes. Interiors gained visibly better-quality materials for 2004 and again for '05, when an early facelift gave most Ions a simple oblong grille and more exterior chrome, an attempt to add visual class.
Adding visceral appeal at mid-2004 was a racy Ion Red Line coupe with a supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec pumping out 205 eager horses. The $21,000 list price included mandatory five-speed manual, a tauter suspension on 17-inch wheels and performance tires, rear disc brakes, big-bolster front seats, snazzy leather/cloth upholstery, and the obligatory "go faster" body addenda, though Saturn wisely left a bulky rear spoiler to the options card.
This Ion aimed at the fast-growing youth market for tuned-up, glammed-up "sport compacts." It was mostly on target: nimble, eye-catching, and noisy but quick. Car and Driver clocked 0-60 mph at a brisk 6.1 seconds versus a sedate 8.4 for the base 140-bhp manual coupe.
Turning up the Red Line's wick for 2006 was a little-promoted $1375 Competition Package. This delivered a limited-slip differential to get max power to the pavement, dashboard lights to guide gear-swapping, plus a turbo-boost gauge, fog lamps, and unique alloy wheels. The Red Line wasn't the sort of car Saturn customers were used to, but that was the point. After so many years of sensible shoes, it was a refreshing dash of exuberance.
Red Line wasn't, however, a tonic for Ion sales, which slipped in calendar 2004 and again in '05, landing at just under 101,000 despite the availability of a 170-bhp 2.4-liter Ecotec for Ion 3s. Buying a Saturn might still be a first-class experience, but even the beautified Ions seemed second-rate against many import-brand foes.
Worse, model-year '05 brought intramural competition in Chevrolet's Delta-based Cobalt, which had no trouble luring buyers with its mainstream styling and superior fit and finish. It was an odd situation for a company founded on small cars, especially as Saturn seemed unsure of what to do about it.
In April 2006, Automotive News reported that Saturn was scrapping a planned Ion replacement and was looking for another GM car to take over after model-year '07. Trouble was, this substitute couldn't get to market until model-year '08, leaving Saturn dealers with the prospect of having no entry-level car to sell for eight or nine months, an eternity in auto retailing.