I have had the following problems with the 2004 Saturn ION 3:
- The notorious starting problem. I did the wire modification in 2010 and it has started reliably ever since, in all weathers.
- This car has very simple brakes, which makes doing a good brake job inexpensive. However, torque the lug nuts to factory specifications or the rotors will immediately warp. Also, emergency application of the brakes will cause rotor warping.
- Starting around 175000 miles, the power steering would, on rare occasion, malfunction when biasing to a left turn, particularly when stopped and pressure was applied to the wheel.
- The wiper transmission cracked and left my wipers disabled. The fix is an easy do-it-yourself job. $120.
I enjoy owning this car. It is a very easy car to own. It does have a few quirks, but I have put it to the test, and it is better than average for an American economy car.
All cars require a budgeted maintenance plan. I use the "13th month" rule, where I set aside enough money every year to make a monthly payment on a 36 month loan for the model of car I purchased. This car asked $224 dollars a year. Fortunately, I have only exceeded this by a few hundred dollars. This is an easy car to maintain, so I saved a lot of money using my own garage.
Number one suggestion for this car (or any car, for that matter) is to put the best tires on that you can find. You will have to spend the money, no argument. Expect $500 - $700 for excellent tires. This car has cheap, sealed wheel bearings. The transmission is a non-serviceable component. The engine is not particularly rugged, either. In order to reduce stress on these components, thus reducing maintenance costs, the tires have to roll like silk. The strategy has worked excellently on this car, as I have had zero powertrain issues. If mismatched or used tires are installed, expect life expectancy to drop dramatically.
Oil changes are a dream. If it takes me 15 minutes to change my oil, I wasted 7 minutes, somewhere. The filter is a paper element mounted in the engine block. Very easy and very fast, without a mess.
Brakes are fantastically easy to service on this car. Life expectancy is about average, so I go about 2 years between brake jobs. I do my own for $110.
The engine uses Dexcool coolant. I have only had it flushed and filled once in 170K+ miles. DO NOT mix coolant types ever, and there will likely not be a problem.
The fit and finish of this car is average. Though I do find it to be considerably better than many 2013+ economy models I have looked at.
Ultimately, an owner of a 2004 Saturn ION 3 gets no free ride. Cheap cars are cheap cars. If the maintenance budget of a cheap car is out of reach, then lifestyle changes may be in order. That's not necessarily the fault of the car/manufacturer. My banked budget should be around $1200/5 years for maintenance. My actual costs have been about $1900. Not too bad.
The 2004 Saturn ION 3 is not tolerant of neglect, so do not buy one with the expectation that no care will have to go into it. However, with great tires, a good mechanic and proper maintenance intervals, the life expectancy of the 2004 Saturn ION 3 is an easy 250000+ miles.