Man, I love my Saturn.
I bought it after a rapidly deteriorating relationship with a 2001 Honda Civic LX coupe (see my review on this site). When the sounds from the front end of my old Honda became more ominous, I started researching my next car. After weeks of soul searching, I decided to take a drive to my local Saturn dealer.
Now, I owned a Saturn before -- my wife had a 1995 SL -- and it was a great car. We kicked the crap out of it, and it performed flawlessly. We also got great service from the dealer, so that's why I can give it a good rating despite only having my new Saturn for a few weeks. I was a little hesitant, because the Ion was a brand-new model and the automotive press wasn't too kind to it (words like "disappointing" appeared regularly in Ion road tests).
I needn't have worried. From the moment I sat behind the wheel, I knew I was going to leave with a new Ion.
First off, I love the way it looks. It's not a very photogenic car, but in person, man, is it nice. Sporty, well proportioned, and classy, especially in black, like mine. The optional alloy wheels look great, too -- I highly recommend them.
The interior is very nice, too, although it's not exactly conventional, which I'm sure causes a lot of polarity. The instruments are in the center, and the steering wheel is downright tiny. Everything else in the center stack is nicely arranged, and the CD/MP3 player is nicely laid out and easy to use.
It didn't take long for me to get used to the center-mounted gauges. I actually like them better -- I can adjust the steering wheel for comfort without worrying about obscuring the gauges, and I don't have to move my hand to read them if I driving with my hand on top of the steering wheel. Come on, we all do it.
The only improvement I can see is for Saturn to flip-flop the tachometer and the gas/temperature gauge. The tach is on the far right, and it takes quite a stretch to see it. If it were on the left side, a quick glance -- or even peripheral vision -- can be used to monitor the tach, especially for "spirited" driving.
There is one glaring design flaw in the interior, especially for manual transmission drivers -- the center console cover/armrest is mounted way too high, seriously impeding shifting. I banged my elbow on it for two days before finally taking it off -- an easy maneuver, but it leaves the interior looking unfinished. The Ion 1 I test drove doesn't have a cover, and I never noticed any problems. The armrest is available only on 2s and 3s.
I'm going to contact my dealer and see if I swap my console for an Ion 1 console. It's an easy swap, with only two screws to remove. If I can't, I'll live with it, but I sure hope Saturn fixes this glitch in an otherwise very comfortable interior. They should either make it standard only in automatic-equipped Ions, redesign it, or just ditch it altogether and put the open console from the Ion 1 in all models.
The engine is smooth and powerful. I'm quite frankly amazed GM can make an engine so smooth. It bodes well for the company, as the Ecotec engine will be the staple among many GM divisions. The electric assist steering has been tightened up from last year, and although it's not as good as the steering in my old Honda, it's not bad either. The small steering wheel takes a bit getting used to, as smaller inputs are needed to make the car turn, but it doesn't take long. And the small wheel means quick steering for emergency maneuvers or backroad hi-jinx.
Adding to the hi-jinx is a well balanced chassis. The Ion is the first GM product based on the new Delta platform (the Chevy Cobalt is next), which was born and bred in Europe, and it shows. It's firmly damped, but still manages a good highway ride. Handling is superb, with little body roll, and mid-corner bumps do little to upset the chassis. The 15-inch wheels on my Ion 2 help, and I'm sure the 16 inchers on the 3 will be even better. Coming from a line of Hondas -- three in a row -- I have no regrets buying this Saturn. And, knowing Honda's sporting reputation, that's saying a lot.
The Ion is very solidly built, with no rattles or squeaks and no initial quality problems. Admittedly, it's not on par with Honda or Toyota, but it doesn't bother me. Most of the interior plastic is of the solid variety, with soft-touch plastic used sparingly on the back-half of the door panel and armrest (where drivers most likely will rest their elbows).
The center stack is offset with attractive silver plastic and the HVAC controls feel solid. The gearshift lever is nice and meaty. The sets are comfortable if not luxurious, and the fabric seems a little cheap. The back seat is a simple bench, but leg room is at a premium, especially if the front seats are all the way back. I'm sure Saturn could afford to remove a few inches out of the immense trunk to slide the seats back a little, or at least sculpt out the front seats a bit. I have no kids, so it won't bother me, but those with older children may need to check that out before buying.
All in all, I'm very pleased with my purchase. It was reasonably priced -- downright cheap, especially considering some of its options, like alloy wheels, ABS, traction control and MP3 player. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges, but I like that. Saturns always have exuded a raw and honest character, maybe a bit unpolished, but always friendly. And in a sea of boring cars with little or no character -- my old Civic included -- that's a very refreshing trait.