The cars we loved.
The so-called “lost decade” marked a renaissance for performance cars. Renewed interest in performance was brought on by a wave of compact Japanese performance cars in the 90s. A less than a decade later, the movement extended to domestics in the form of trucks, sedans and even SUVs. For the compact car performance shopper, domestic options were slim. There was the Cobalt SS, Focus SVO or SRT4, all capable but adaption of common cars that you were likely to see everywhere. GM’s crowded stable of subcompact cars alone would have been enough reason for anyone to overlook Saturn and its Ion Red Line.
Not really known for performance, Saturn made a name for itself by appealing to people who were intimidated by the typical dealership environment. Saturn cars were just a small step up in quality from a typical Chevrolet, but did not come with the baggage of the rest of GM. Overbearing apple pie and All-American propaganda was toned down in favor of attention to detail (in customer service at least). That appealed to a lot of people who might have otherwise chose a Honda or Toyota. Unfortunately, it did not appeal much to performance minded shopper who more than likely looked at the Civic Si first. That was unfortunate because the Ion Red Line was great performance value. Saturn began to make a name for itself with the 90’s SC2/SL2 coupe and sedan. Although not hard-core performance cars, they did manage to blend a fun to drive factor with frugality. Saturn’s replacement for the S cars was the Ion in 2003. In an attempt to expand the Ion’s appeal, Saturn worked with the GM Performance Division (GMPD) to develop a special coupe only Ion.
The resulting collaboration with GMPD was the Red Line brand of performance cars within Saturn. introduced in 2004 with the Vue SUV. The Ion coupe got the Red Line treatment shortly thereafter. The Ion RLE was distinguished immediately by its larger 17’ wheels, not so subtle ground effects and revised front and rear end treatments. Under the hood the standard 2.0 Ecotec engine was massaged to 205 hp thanks to a Eaton supercharger. The European sourced five speed manual transmission (shared with the Colbalt SS) managed power from the front wheels. 0 to 60 times of 6.0 seconds was faster than the next closest GM car, the Cobalt SS. Due to the light weight of the Ion to start with, breaking from the larger four-wheel discs was a short 164 ft. from 70 mph, a figure Car and Driver Magazine said was “Porsche territory”. A lower ride height thanks to re-tuned brushing and spring rates added to the aggressive stance created by the gun-metal painted alloy rims. The revisions were not just for looks as extensive testing at the famous Nurburgring track helped produce skidpad figures of 0.85g.
As if the Ion Red Line’s performance was lacking, in 2005 Saturn offered an optional Competition Package. The most significant item was a limited slip differential. In 2006 GM offered a two stage engine upgrade kit for both the Cobalt SS and Ion Red Line. The Stage one kit boosted power to 236 with revised fuel injectors and a recalibrated ECU. The stage two kit added even more tweaks for a total of 241 hp, all within the factory warranty. In an effort to promote the Red Line performance cars, Saturn set a land speed record in the “G/Blown Fuel Altered” class by running a Ion to 212 mph in 2003. The previous record was 183mph.
For all the Ion’s great performance numbers, it was still hampered by much of what saddled the regular Ion coupe. The exterior was distinctive, with its trick rear door, but the problem was inside. The same 2007 Car and Driver article that praised the Ion’s brakes, harped on its interior describing it as having a “cheap plastically feel”. Many of the components of the Ion were shared with the Cobalt which got similar criticism. The center oriented dashboard was off-putting to many, who felt that a performance oriented car should have a more driver centered display. With a crowded field including the class leading Mazdaspeed 3, Impreza WRX and Volkswagen GTi, the Ion did not stand a chance in the fight for attention. Often finishing well behind these cars in mass comparison tests, it simply lacked the refinement to be a solid contender. Even within GM, more people opted for the Cobalt SS or even the generic looking Pontiac G5 GT.
However late or unrefined the Ion Red Line was, it was not enough to save Saturn. The larger selling Ion coupe could not have done that. The Opel based Astra replaced the Ion in 2008, but there was no direct replacement for the Ion Red Line. The Astra’s top version the XR was a more refined car, but it’s higher cost put it at a disadvantage and its performance was nowhere near the Ion Red Line. Less than 20,000 Astra’s were sold in the two years they were available before GM pulled the plug on Saturn. Unless you collect cars from defunct GM brands, the Ion has little more than a small cult following. Something north of 12,000 Ion Red Line coupes were sold between 2004 and 2007, making them rare, but not impossible to find in the used car market.