When GM’s Saturn division introduced their new sleek Ion coupe in 2003, the company provided news that a performance version would be coming in early 2004. And sure enough, their promise was a good one.
We had a chance to put our journalistic seat into a couple of 2004 Ion Red Line coupes at GM’s road test center in Milford, Michigan and on regular roads nearby, and let’s say right off that this is a performance car.
Red Line is Saturn’s high performance line of vehicles. Those include a Red Line version of the Saturn Vue SUV, and now the Ion. But it is in the Ion that Red Line comes onto its own. Here are the quick facts:
The Ion Red Line is General Motor’s answer to the popularity of California’s street racer scene where fast, small sedans and coupes are all the rage. The “Fast and Furious” crowd.
But here we have a factory hot rod with all the good that represents, such as durability, safety, and a factory warranty.
Saturn chose the Red Line name as an expression of performance shown by a tachometer at “red line.” But here, the performance begins far earlier with the powerful supercharged engine. Power and torque are available far below this car’s red line.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Ion as a charged subatomic particle, but the word’s Greek origin just means “to go.” And go it does.
You can expect 0-60 speeds to be in the mid to low 6’s with plenty of power on tap all the way to red line. This engine loves to rev and it is very easy to hit the speed limiter.
This same engine, and much of the chassis setup, will also be found in the upcoming Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged. But the Saturn has something else going for it, the Quad Cab doors, which allow easy entry into the back seats. And you still get a sporty coupe look.
On the GM’s test track, a winding course of sharp turns and some high speed sections, the Saturn Ion Red Line surprised us with amazingly balanced performance. The car is a terrific handler, especially for a front-driver. Steering surprises too as the system is electric and not hydraulic.
Saturn’s engineers tell us that they spent an enormous amount of time dialing in the right feedback into this new steering system. Their work paid off. It was both quick, and offered none of the artificial feel that has been associated with electrically assisted steering in some of GM’s other vehicles.
The suspension deserves mention as well. The car can be driven hard into a corner without the typical understeer, or pushing, common with front wheel drive cars. It will eventually push, but the limits are way out there. We even managed to get the car's tail out with the right amount of braking and steering. Driving this car is fun.
We were also surprised at its ability to handle rough surfaces. Most high performance cars sacrifice ride for handling. But not in the Saturn Ion Red Line. The suspension is sharply damped, but is not at all harsh. It is in the vein of European sports cars in this regard. Very impressive.
Inside, the Ion is remarkably roomy for a sporty coupe.
A big plus with the Red Line version is you get terrific Recaro seats as standard. Not only are the seats extremely comfortable, but they hold you in place when you want to go play on your favorite twisty road.
Also, the extra rear doors, which open opposite of the front doors, make entry and exit a snap for passengers. The back seats also have plenty of headroom for adults.
We do have some quibbles about the interior. The car needs a proper footrest to brace the drivers, a pretty big oversight considering how good this car handles.
We would also like to see the center air conditioning vents moved as the one closest to the driver will refrigerate your right hand.
Some folks might also be put off by the Ion’s center instrument cluster. But it is really easy to see and after a few miles behind the road, you will get used to it.
Visiting your nearby Saturn dealer may not be your first thought to find a hot performing coupe, but this car would make a good choice. The Ion Red Line is well packaged, has numerous features, and is designed to endure races on the weekends and drive to work on Monday.
And how much for all of this performance? Saturn says the MSRP for the mostly loaded Ion Red Line is just $20,950, which in our book is quite a bargain for this level of performance.
Saturn has also addressed numerous fit and finish issues in this new car. It is quieter, it has more sound proofing, and the fit in its plastic exterior panels is improved. In fact, we noted no squeaks, rattles or unusual noises throughout our drive.
Saturn is getting serous about their vehicles and you can expect more models, including a true 2-seat sports car coming in 2006.
But for a great handling fast car that is truly hard to beat for the money, the Ion Quad Coupe Red Line is a winner.