Saturn ION Red Line Review

P.J. McCombs
by P.J. McCombs

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.

P.J. McCombs
P.J. McCombs

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  • Bignrichguns55 Bignrichguns55 on May 03, 2009

    I have an Ion Redline 2004 and i absolutly love this car. it has great stock power and bang for the buck and i actually like the look and style of the car. The seats are definitly the best looking thing on this ride. Compared to the cobalt ss from 2004 to 2006 i believe this car beats it out style wise. the headlights look better the suicide doors are nice and the gauge cluster is not as distracting as one may think. All reviews made on this car have decided to destroy the ions whole reputation because of that. And the design is safe as well. I was driving in the pouring down rain and slid and put the car on its side and I got out, pushed it back over on four wheels and drove it. No damage was done to the car. The rims are sleek and stylish. the sound of the super charger is great. However the looks and design are strictly opinionated on taste. Different people like different cars. I love this car. However, everyone is clear on the fact that it is pretty quick. GM made an ecotec power guide providing an over 600 hp set up for the engine.

  • Th3St1g Th3St1g on Sep 03, 2011

    Ok I do realize this is a 4 year old post, but I purchased a 2005 Ion Redline brand new in 2005. My friend bought a 2006 Civic Si, from the factory, both stock I had 3 car leads on him by the end of second gear. I am almost infuriated at the fact everyone except 3 or 4 people have never driven/seen/or owned a REDLINE Ion. Not the Ion 3, not the Vue, this is a page for the REDLINE edition. A REVIEW FROM AN ACTUAL OWNER OF A 2005 ION REDLINE: Interior: The interior is head and shoulders above the Ion-3's, it is on par with the Cobalt SS's. You are spending 20k on a car new, and now about 8 to 9k on a used Redline, do not expect Mercedes Benz interior. The Recaro front AND rear seats from the factory are excellent if you are not the typical overweight American. I have "fluffy" friends who hate my seats. Myself (being 6'3" and 175 pounds) find the seats damn near perfect. Females find the seats wonderful. My friends who are in decent shape constantly comment on how the seat feels as if it was "a direct mold of their back" and how it supports you perfectly. The center gauge pod took all of one hour of getting used to it. And after that 60 minute trial period, I wish every car had this. It makes scanning ridiculously easy due to the fact I can check my side and rear mirrors, still be paying full attention to what is happening in front of me, and then check my gauges in the blink of an eye. Exterior: Yes, it is made of plastic. Yes it is dent resistant. Is my paint in pristine condition after 7 years and 78k miles? Yes. I have no fading, no scratches, no blemishes on a 7 year old DAILY DRIVEN vehicle. Then again I am meticulous and wash the car every week and wax it every 2 weeks. The body lines took a little while to grow on me but now I smile every time I look out my window and see it in the driveway (Keep in mind thats a smile thats endured for 7 years). I have not noticed any major spacing of body lines that is as obnoxious as every other post has claimed. I have owned a 1998 Camaro SS that had bigger problems with its front bumper and the hood lines than my Redline does (it was never wrecked). The suicide doors function fine and I have never noticed any major rattling, and when I did I simply pulled over, opened the rear doors and closed them again, and that stopped it everytime. Apparently if you don't shut the door completely it doesnt latch, and then your front door doesnt latch correctly and this causes rattling. It is also amazing how the RX-8 (which I have also personally driven) was praised up and down for its suicide doors, which are almost the exact same, they even have the same spacing between the body and the rear door as the Redline. Performance (my favorite part): From the factory it was an amazingly sporty car, I would grin ear to ear when a Civic Si, RSX Type-S, S2000, GTi, RX-8, base WRX, or a Lancer Ralliart would pull up next to me and absolutely laugh in someones face who decided to pull up next to me in a Scion tC or a Miata. Now this is when the vehicle was still factory "205 fwhp" that was drastically underrated. Being as OCD as I am, I had the car Dyno'ed on a dyno-jet when it was stock. These are generally known to be a bit liberal and I laid out 224fwhp. The simple addition of a ZZP header/downpipe, and a Magnaflow catless exhaust put me at 257 fwhp. The factory headers/down pipe are ridiculously restrictive and this freed up tons of power in the midrange. After these simple bolt-ons, I was hooked, I had never seen a car take to mods the way this one did and I've owned an EVO 8. I then began researching, found the coveted GM buildbook. Ordered a ZZP stage 1 and 2 upgrade, which is a tune, #60 injectors, 3 inch pulley, and the raise of the redline from 6500rpm to 7000rpm. ZZP stage two put me at 281 fwph and at this point I only have 300 for header, 120 for downpipe, 299 for stage 1 and 400 for stage 2, making a grand total of $1100 to bust any stock Mustang GT, Camaro SS, EVO, STI, M3, Older Corvette Grandsports, and I had left the realm of Civics, Celicas, RSX's, and pretty much any other 4 cylinder. I left it there for almost 2 years then the clutch started giving out on me. I replaced this with a GM Heavy duty clutch and pressure plate, and the Fidanza 8.5 lb flywheel. This lightweight flywheel completely corrected the engine's inability to drop the RPM fast enough (issue others were complaining about) and made shifts crisp, exact, clean, and reliable. After this clutch I got back to it, and started pushing for the realm of extreme. I went ZZP stage 3, shot up to 291 whp. Then a 75 shot of Nitrous from Nitrous Express. Which put me at 387 whp (I assume this was from the cooling effect of the Massive ZZP Heat exchanger that came with stage 3). At this point I was pulling on C5 and C6 Corvette Z06's, I busted a Viper R/T and dropped that guys jaw. And for this performance I paid probably a total of $4000 aftermarket on a vehicle that cost $19,000. (I am excluding my once a month trips to the dyno everytime I added a modification.) And I am not a straightline guy for the most part, when I took it to VIR (Virginia International Raceway) in the summer of 2009 I was destroying S2000's, Miata's, STI's, EVO's, and M3's in straights and holding my own with BMW M3's in turns. So do the math $23,000 for a 400 crank horsepower car that no one knows what it is, and is daily driven with no problems, or $23,000 for a new Civic Si that looks pretty bad, and is only putting out 200 crank horsepower. All in All: This is the best vehicle I have ever owned, the only thing I have had to replace in the car was a clutch and that was due to the fact I was over 60 whp and 55 ft. lb. of torque over factory. The LSJ motor loves being at 5000 rpms, it has an exhaust note that purr's and with an intake the supercharger announces its presence. All around sporty and fun to drive in factory trim and quick with $1100 to get to stage 2, and unbelievably fast at stage 3 with nitrous. Also unbelievably reliable at stage 3, which I cannot say about my SRT4, that I traded for this Redline. So before you knock on a car, talk to someone who has driven the car in all trim packages, and all performance levels. If you dont own the car, have never driven the car, dont talk about how bad an Ion 3 is. This is not an Ion 3, it is the same as saying well a Neon is a crap car so the SRT is also. The only thing the Ions and the Ion Redlines have in common is the same as a Neon and a Neon SRT4, and that is they share the same chassis. Completely different cars than their "little brother" versions. I have not once ordered any parts for an Ion-3, none of them fit in my vehicle or are compatible, I have to go to GM and special order parts for a REDLINE!! Only downside I have is my oil changes cost about $80 if I do them myself due to needing 7 quarts of 5W-30 Mobil 1 Synthetic, My 1994 Porsche Carrera only uses 2 more quarts and it uses that much to cool nearly EVERYTHING in that vehicle. So keep in mind the maintenance can be pricey, but if you pay the extra dollar and do it all right, there is no reason you wont make it to 200k miles with no problems. Hell I'm Stage 3+ for the past 2 years with no problems. My rant is over, if any of you are interested in a Redline or Cobalt SS/SC, I give you the two thumbs up to go for it. I have never been this happy with a car, and will NEVER sell it.

  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.
  • TheEndlessEnigma A '95 in Iowa, I'm thinking significant frame and underbody rust issues.