Compact car; Built in USA
  • 3-door coupe
  • 4-door sedan
  • transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive
Good condition price range: $2,500 – $8,500*

2003 Saturn Ion 3-door coupe

2004 Saturn Ion 4-door sedan

2005 Saturn Ion 3-door coupe

Saturn Ion interior

  • Steering/handling
  • Interior materials
  • Noise

Despite disappointing interior decor, Ion matches most like-priced competitors for comfort and performance, though Saturn trails in mechanical refinement. The Quad Coupe has more storage flexibility and easier rear-seat entry/exit than other subcompact coupes. No rival offers Saturn’s dent-resistant, rustproof body panels. Ion resale values are lower than those of the Civic and Corolla, which could benefit used-car buyers.


Saturn replaced its entry-level S-Series models for 2003 with larger, more powerful subcompact Ion sedans and a unique four-door coupe. Sedans and coupes retained the brand’s trademark dent-resistant plastic bodyside panels.

Both body styles were nearly the same length, and shared a wheelbase about an inch longer than that of the S-Series. Compared to their S-Series predecessors, the Ion sedan was longer overall by 4.5 inches, and the coupe by 6.4 inches. Both were taller by more than 2 inches. Saturn called the coupe the Ion Quad Coupe, for its unique configuration of two rear-opening half-doors behind the front doors. The rear doors would not open or close independently of the fronts.

A new four-cylinder produced 140 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission was standard. Two automatic transmissions were available: a continuously variable unit (CVT) on coupes, and a conventional five-speed on sedans. The CVT featured near-infinite ratios.

Head-protecting curtain side airbags were optional. Torso side airbags were not available. An ABS/traction-control system also was optional. All Ions had front-disc/rear-drum brakes.

Primary instruments sat in the center of the dashboard, rather than directly in front of the driver. Split folding rear seatbacks were standard, and the coupe’s front passenger seat could fold forward to create a continuous 10-foot-long storage channel.

Sedans ascended through Ion 1, 2, and 3 trim levels. Coupes came in 1 and 2 form, equivalent in equipment to the 2- and 3-level sedans. Air conditioning was standard, except for the 1 sedan. Leather upholstery was optional on 3 sedans and 2 Quad Coupes. Wheel sizes were 14-inch for the 1 sedan, 15-inch on the 2 sedan and 1 coupe, and 16-inch alloys for the 3 sedan and 2 Coupe.

Both the coupe and sedan could be fitted with interchangeable strips of body trim, tracing the arc of the roof. Available through Saturn dealers, these contrasting-color “roof rails” could be matched to interchangeable interior trim pieces. Saturn’s Ion competed against the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta/Golf.

Yearly Updates

2004 Ion
Fresh interior materials went into Ions for 2004, with new “soft touch” surfaces. Midseason brought a new supercharged Red Line model. A new black-only Special Edition Ion sedan also debuted at midyear, with bright-alloy wheels, additional exterior brightwork, and unique interior trim. Red Line models had 17-inch wheels, a sport suspension, a supercharged four-cylinder engine and antilocking all-disc brakes. A newly available MP3 option could upgrade the CD player to read discs recorded in MP3 format.
2005 Ion
Saturn dropped the continuously variable transmission option for 2005, as well as the five-speed automatic, replacing them with a conventional four-speed automatic unit. All Ions got revised steering and suspensions this year, and styling was freshened a bit. New front and rear seats went into Ion 2 and 3 models.
2006 Ion
A new engine option and standard OnStar assistance lead changes for Saturn’s 2006 compact cars. The price-leader Ion 1 sedan is dropped for ’06. A 170-hp 4-cyl engine is newly optional for Ion 3s.
2007 Ion
Ion stands pat for 2007, which Saturn says is the car’s final model year. A replacement is due for 2008.


transverse front-engine/front-wheel drive

Regular Ions held a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine that produced 140 horsepower and worked with a standard five-speed manual gearbox. A five-speed automatic transmission could be installed on 2003-04 sedans, while coupes could have a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Saturn dropped the CVT and five-speed automatic after 2004, substituting a conventional four-speed automatic as the sole option. Introduced in 2004, the Red Line coupe got a supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 205 horsepower, offered only with manual shift. For 2006, a 170-hp 4-cyl engine is newly optional for Ion 3s.

dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 2.2/134
Engine HP 140
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 145
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic
5-speed automatic
dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 2.4/145
Engine HP 170
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 162
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual
4-speed automatic
Supercharged dohc I4
Engine Size (liters/cubic inches) 2.0/122
Engine HP 205
Engine Torque (lb-ft) 200
Avail. Trans. EPA MPG (city/hwy) MPG avg. as tested
5-speed manual


Road Test

Acceleration is adequate from a stop with either a manual transmission or the conventional automatic. That appraisal is reflected in Saturn’s 0-60 mph estimates of 9.5 seconds with manual and 10 seconds with the five-speed automatic. Once underway, manual-shift versions feel lively and have pleasant shift action. Quick to downshift, the automatic does not curtail acceleration by much. Despite traction control, a manual-shift Level 3 sedan suffered copious tire slip when accelerating from a stop on wet pavement. The Red Line coupe has plenty of punch, capable of hitting 60 mph in a claimed 6.3 seconds.

EPA gas-mileage estimates are lower than those of rival Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. A test 2-sedan with automatic averaged 22 mpg. Another automatic sedan averaged 25 mpg, and a manual-shift 3-coupe managed 25.1 mpg. In mostly city driving, a Red Line coupe averaged 19.4 mpg. Regular-grade fuel is used, except for the Red Line coupe, which requires premium.

The regular Ion’s ride is surprisingly firm. Somewhat sporty suspension tuning delivers a controlled ride, but bump absorption may disappoint. Red Line coupes are stiffer, but not punishing.

Steering/handling is a high point, and a tight turning radius aids low-speed maneuverability. Steering is firm, direct, and nicely weighted. Ions corner with little body lean and feel secure at highway speeds. Level-3 coupes have slightly firmer suspension tuning, but don’t handle appreciably better. Electric-boost steering feels unnaturally light to some drivers. Red Line coupes are tighter still, permitting even less lean and sharper steering response.

Wind noise is well-muted, but 16- and 17-inch tires transmit considerable road noise on some coarse surfaces. The engine produces pronounced but refined whine at higher rpm, but is otherwise subdued. Red Line coupes transmit more engine and tire noise to occupants.

Gauges are large and plainly marked. Locating them in the center “pod” annoys some drivers, because reading the speedometer demands a longer look away from the road. Because the driver need not look through the steering wheel to see gauges, the wheel is unusually small in diameter, but its function is unaffected. Controls are clearly labeled and easy to reach. Most interior surfaces and switches look and feel budget-grade.

Ions are among the largest subcompacts, which pays off in front-seat room. Even robust drivers have plenty of head and leg space. However, seats are flat and lack side support–a deficit exaggerated by the absence of a center armrest on 1 models, and by slippery optional leather upholstery. Visibility is fine in sedans, but marred over the shoulder in coupes by their rear roof pillars. Red Line seats have prominent bolsters for firm lateral support.

Saturn considers two rear passengers to be the limit in coupes, but three-across seating in sedans seems equally unrealistic. There’s no excess of foot room, and head space is tight for six-footers. The Quad Coupe’s door design simplifies rear-seat entry/exit, though once seated, closing the rear doors demands an uncomfortable reach.

Sedans have good trunk volume for their class, and a low liftover. All sedans have 60/40 split rear seatbacks that fold flat. Coupes have the added convenience of a folding front-passenger seat.


Model Tested: 2004 Ion 2 sedan w/auto.

Ratings values are on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best. With the exception of Value, these numbers reflect how the vehicle compares against the universe of vehicles, not just against rivals in its class.


Acceleration - 4
Fuel Economy - 6
Ride Quality - 5
Steering/Handling - 7
Quietness - 4


Controls/Materials - 4
Room/Comfort Front - 5
Room/Comfort Rear - 4
Cargo Room - 4


Value - 5

Total: 48


3-door coupe
Wheelbase (in.) Length (in.) Width (in.) Height (in.) Weight (lbs)
103.2 185.0 67.9 56.0
Cargo Volume (cu/ft) Payload Capacity (cu/ft) Fuel Capacity (gal.) Seating Capacity
14.2 13.2 4
Headroom Legroom
Front Rear Front Rear
38.9 36.5 42.2 32.7
4-door sedan
Wheelbase (in.) Length (in.) Width (in.) Height (in.) Weight (lbs)
103.2 184.5 67.2 57.4
Cargo Volume (cu/ft) Payload Capacity (cu/ft) Fuel Capacity (gal.) Seating Capacity
14.7 13.2 5
Headroom Legroom
Front Rear Front Rear
40.0 37.0 42.2 33.3
Safety Ratings

Model Tested: 2004 Ion 3-door coupe


(5 is the highest rating)

Front Impact Test

Driver Injury - 5
Front Passenger Injury - 5

Side Impact Test

Driver Injury - 4
Rear Passenger Injury - 4


(A score of 100 is average. Lower is better)

Collision N/A
Injury N/A
Theft N/A

Trouble Spots

Air conditioner
Description: Water (condensate) from the A/C housing leaks onto the passenger floor requiring a 90-degree elbow installed on the drain hose. (2003)
Blower motor
Description: The blower motor may make a clicking, ticking, chirping noise requiring a replacement motor cover. (2003-04)
Climate control
Description: The ventilation system knobs may be hard to turn, or may not turn, and the airflow seems inadequate because some of the foam (gaskets) falls off and jams the HVAC doors. (2003)
Coolant leak
Description: If the engine loses coolant and there are no leaks, the cylinder head probably has casting porosity and will have to be replaced. (2003-04)
Engine stalling
Description: The engine may start then stall, or the engine may rev unexpectedly even with no throttle input requiring the PCM (engine computer) to be reprogrammed. (2003)
Exhaust system
Description: Exhaust manifold bolts work loose causing noise that may be misdiagnosed as lifter tap. (2002-04)
Description: If the sunroof stops working, it may require replacing the blown fuse in the body control module. (2003-04)
Turn signal
Description: If the turn signals behave abnormally (front blink slower than the rear or the indicators on the dash) when using a cell phone plugged into the power outlet, a capacitor must be spliced into the circuit. (2003)

Recall History

Description: Turn-signal lamp and daytime running lamp on either front side might stop working because of loss of contact.
2004 w/supercharged engine
Description: Fuel feed pipe could crack and leak fuel, accompanied by noticeable fuel odor.
2006 vehicles originally sold in or currently registered in the states of Arizona and Nevada
Description: The plastic supply or return port on the modular reservoir assembly may crack. If either of these ports develops a crack, fuel will leak from the area, resulting in a possible fire. Dealers will replace the fuel pump module free of charge.
2007 vehicles originally sold in or currently registered in the states of Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, and Texas.
Description: The plastic supply or return port on the modular reservoir assembly may crack. If either of these ports develops a crack, fuel will leak from the area, resulting in a possible fire. Dealers will replace the fuel pump module free of charge.

Equipment Lists

Equipment lists are only viewable on larger screen sizes.


Used-car pricing varies widely depending on local market conditions. Therefore, we recommend visiting websites that list used cars for sale to get a better idea of what a specific model is selling for in your area.

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