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2004 New Car Review: Saturn Ion Redline Coupe

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Remember the old Saturn slogan ``a different kind of car company''? The Saturn Ion Redline Coupe is a different kind of Saturn. Say ``Saturn'' in relation to a car, and the word associated will likely not be ``performance.'' Practical, yes. Economical, yes, But high-performance? No. Not until now.

The Ion Redline, named for the upper limit of engine speed, which is usually marked by a red line on the tachometer, is a factory tuner car, meant to cash in on the current sport-compact performance phenomenon. The cars that Saturn considers competitors are popular with sport-compact tuners, and are selling to a market that places a premium on performance at a low price. Several import manufacturers have their own factory-built and -warranted tuner editions, so what could be better for Saturn's reputation among an influential group than a seriously competitive tuner car of its own?

Hence the Ion Redline. And unlike some ``performance'' editions from GM in the past that were merely cosmetic, the Ion Redline is the real deal. Based on the Ion Coupe, its Ecotec engine is a touch smaller than the one found in the regular Ion coupe, at 2.0 liters vs. 2.2, but it is supercharged and intercooled for 205 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. It gets a heavy-duty five-speed gearbox made by the German specialist company Getrag. And the chassis has been upgraded as well, with a seriously sports-oriented suspension tuning, ultra-low profile performance tires on 17-inch rims, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Racer-look front and rear fascias and rocker panels give it presence, and interior upgrades include real Recaro(tm) sports seats.

And it all comes at a Saturn price - $20,385 base on the window sticker for the Ion Redline currently sitting in my driveway. While you could, theoretically, do all of the modifications yourself, you'd spend much more and probably have the dubious pleasure of pleasing your state vehicle and emissions inspectors to get your car registered. And the factory warranty would be history, too.

My week with the Ion Redline was filled with varied driving situations, including a most un-sporting 15 mile-long traffic jam. Ah, Friday ``getaway day,'' ugh. That could be the undoing of some highly-strung tuner cars, but the Redline maintained its cool. And in better circumstances, it was thoroughly enjoyable, with a fine balance between handling and comfort. Add practicality, too. The quad-door design is a major plus, allowing easy access to the rear seat for passengers or cargo. People in the market for a car like the Ion Redline often need one that will do it all, with style and performance, and the Redline will not disappoint.

APPEARANCE: What were you expecting a tuner Saturn to look like? This: Although it is sleek and sporty-looking in standard trim, and most body panels are unchanged, the Ion coupe gets a makeover before the Redline badge in applied. The flat ``air dam'' front fascia has a low central intake flanked by faux brake ducts, and a noticeable chin ``splitter.'' On the practical side (this is a Saturn, after all), clearance is good, reducing the chance of damage from curbs or steep driveways. There are extra non-functional ducts on the sides of the lower front, and the splitter theme is carried back through the rocker panels. The combination of the restyled fascia and the standard low, wide, and pointed headlights give a look that while not exactly menacing (Saturn, menacing? Not!) is very different from the standard coupe. The rear bumper fascia is also suitably modified, with a cutout for a single oversized exhaust pipe on the left side a faux ``diffuser'' in the center. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels with low-profile performance tires are standard, and show off the four-wheel disc brakes.

COMFORT: Hey, look! Real Recaro(tm) seats! The driver and passenger are treated to manually-adjustable sports seats by the famous manufacturer as standard equipment. Not only does this enhance the Redline's image and street credibility, it gives the front occupants a high degree of comfort and support, especially important in spirited driving. The side bolsters and grippy cloth covering hold the occupants in place and still provide easy access. The tilt-adjustable steering wheel has a thick, leather-covered rim that provides a good grip for control, as does the leather shift knob. Unlike some trendy sport compacts, the Ion Redline's pedals are good old grippy rubber, not slippery metal. The dash layout is standard Ion fare, with the instrument cluster under a hood at the top center and angled toward the driver and the climate and audio controls below. The instrument faces are white with black lettering, while the center stack is faced with the silvery plastic that is the standard in the class. All controls are simple, well-marked, and easy to use. There are small storage spaces for all occupants. Access to the rear seat is as easy as in a sedan because of the huge opening from the rear-hinged rear doors. The rear seat is a 2 + 2 design, with adequate room for anyone under about five-eight. It folds with a 60/40 split. The Ion coupe is not a hatchback, so anything going in from the rear needs to fit through the trunk opening. A bicycle can, and larger objects fit through the sides. Why should performance and practicality be mutually exclusive?

SAFETY: The Saturn Ion Redline's space frame chassis has front and rear crush zones and a central safety cage to protect occupants. Dual-stage front airbags are standard; side curtain air bags are optional. Antilock brakes and an antitheft system with an engine immobilizer are standard.

ROADABILITY: Saturn's engineers did a great job on the Ion Redline's suspension. New shocks, springs, and bushings lower the car, and are firmer for better handling. But it's not harsh on poor road surfaces. There is little body roll in enthusiastic cornering, and this is a car that begs to be driven with enthusiasm. The electric power steering has been quickened for much faster steering response than the standard-spec car, and requires an appropriately heavier touch. The Ion Redline is a Saturn that is great fun to drive, and drive hard.

PERFORMANCE: Unlike the powerplants of some sport-compact tuner cars, the 2.0-liter supercharged and intercooled version of the GM Ecotec twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine found in the Ion Redline is a torquer, not a twister. Although it has a shorter stroke than the 2.2-liter naturally-aspirated version, and could theoretically take more revs, it doesn't need to be revved to redline to make serious power. Maximum horsepower, 205, is at 5600 rpm (vs. the atmospheric engine's 140 at 5800), and maximum torque is 200 lb-ft at 4400 rpm (vs. 145 at the same 4400). Redline is a far from astronomical 6450 in either case. What bench-racing bragging rights might be lost by that are more than made up in very useful low- and mid-range torque. It's much like a modern version of a V8 muscle car, with useful power right now when needed.

CONCLUSIONS: Sports Saturn? Yes, really, and it's called the Ion Redline Coupe.


2004 Saturn Ion Redline Coupe

Base Price			$ 20,385
Price As Tested			$ 21,320
Engine Type			supercharged and intercooled 
				  dual overhead cam inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size			2.0 liters / 122 cu. in.
Horsepower			205 @ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			200 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		103.2 in. / 185 in.
Curb Weight			2590 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		13.0
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P215/45 ZR17 Dunlop SP Sport 9000
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  semi-independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		23 / 29 / 25
0 to 60 mph				est. 7  sec

Front and rear floor mats		$   80
Saturn advanced audio system		$ 280
Destination charge			$ 565