The planet Saturn is a giant ball of gas. When it comes to selling cars to enthusiasts, GM’s “like never before” division is also full of hot air. In 1999, Saturn said their Opel-sourced LS sedan would be fun to drive. It wasn’t. In 2003, Saturn made similar noises over the ION Quad Coupe. Strike two. In 2004, the ION Red Line was supposedly da bomb. Pistonheads lined up none deep. But was the Red Line really at fault? Or was it sabotaged by Saturn’s nebulous image and boy-who-cried-wolf marketing?
Either way, Saturn’s stylists certainly didn’t help matters. Granted, it’s tough to butch up an econocar; hence the reason the entire sport-compact class is a bit of a pudgy, bespoilered eyesore. The Red Line is no exception. Strike that. It’s a poster child for the book “why bad things happen to bad car designs.”
For one thing, the ION Red Line’s proportions are all out of whack. In typical GM fashion, the car’s glowering front and rear fascias are hung way-the-hell out past the wheel arches. For another (you need another?), the doors’ budget-Bangle flame surfacing looks, well, Bungled. Spoiler? You bet it does.
Speaking of gaps, the Red Line exhibits a grade of exterior finish rarely seen outside of The Beijing Auto Show. Wide, uneven crevices separate the Red Line’s composite body panels, and its paint wears an unhappy orange-peel glaze. Saturn fans wax rhapsodic about their cars’ ding- and dent-resistant properties, but it’s easy to see why GM is phasing out Saturn’s plasti-panels. From quite a distance. Of course, GM could have mastered the technology, maybe even experimented with “memory” plastics. But, um, no.
Predictably, the ION’s third-world quality extends to its interior, a curvilinear mishmash of rainy-day gray plastic, mushy switchgear and crude mold partings. On the plus side, GM’s Performance Division fitted the Red Line with a phenomenally supportive set of Recaro seats, wrapped the steering wheel in thick leather and attempted to make the gauges more legible. Unfortunately, said gauges reside in the center of the dash, frustrating their efforts. And there’s no dead pedal. Or center armrest.
You can’t help but cringe upon stepping into this austere, amateurish cabin. That GM thought it price-appropriate is frankly insulting. But then you turn the Red Line’s key, its 2.0-liter, 205-horse supercharged four barks to life, and something strange happens: the nasty little bastard starts to grow on you.
It doesn’t happen immediately. On a brief hop around the block, you mostly notice the surprisingly heavy steering, the stiff, slack-feeling clutch, the incessant rattling of the Quad Door assembly and the engine’s tendency to hang onto revs as you shift.
But then, a smug punk in a Civic blips you at a stoplight. That’s when the fun begins. Bury your foot in the (short, wiry) carpet and GM’s blown Ecotec proves itself a proper Yankee torquer, thrusting eagerly off the line and swelling to near-WRX intensity as the tach needle climbs. The Red Line is free of the driveline histrionics that often accompany cheap forced-induction setups. Sixty mph rolls up in two smooth, linear surges, totaling 6.1 seconds.
The Red Line’s chassis snaps to attention when pressed. The steering, while always leaden in its effort, provides surprisingly sharp, pointy path control. The helm tracks your intended line as unshakably as the Orient Express. Sharp corners reveal superb front-end bite, taut brake-pedal feel, and tight, well-judged damping. Torque steer is conspicuous in its absence.
In truth, only one interface creates disharmonious hoonery: the Red Line’s five-speed manual. This “close-ratio” version of the Saab 9-3’s gearbox feels heavy and clunky in the hand. Its ratios are, in fact, quite tall. Fortunately, the Saturn’s mighty-mite four isn’t picky about what gear it’s in.
In all, the Red Line engenders a sort of base schoolyard satisfaction that’s especially irresistible to shut-in writer types. Every stoplight and switchback becomes a feel-good underdog victory. Want to land that longed-for punch on the class bully? Just sidle up to an Si, GTI, or RSX, aim your sling at Goliath, and swing, baby!
Still, there’s little question why more buyers haven’t warmed to the Red Line. Its aesthetics are embarrassing. Its image is contradictory. And its Fisher-Price interior begs the question, “wouldn’t you really rather have a Lada?” That Saturn could render a fast, nimble, fun-to-drive sports coupe with a $19,770 MSRP utterly undesirable is testament to the brand’s long-standing lack of ambition and product focus.
If Saturn can turn the metaphorical corner like the ION Red Line turns a real world bend, there may be hope for the Tennessee-born brand. Unfortunately, according to our own Jehovah Johnson, the ION’s tuners were away from their desks when the Sky Red Line was tweaked. Oh well. I guess enthusiasts are still better off shopping elsewhere. Like always.