By on September 1, 2015


TTAC commentator Anomaly149 writes:

Sajeev, here’s one for you:

I have a CVT-equipped 2004 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe with ~140,000 miles. While you can write a book on the things that are weird with the car (key won’t release from cylinder sometimes unless you push this button inside the steering column, sometimes the neutral safety switch actuator machine-guns when stopped at a stoplight, it eats front sway links like it’s a contest, etc.), so far it’s been reliable and efficient.

The thing I’m worried about is the longevity of that CVT. I’ve read a lot of bad things, and recently the transmission has started “shifting” hard from a stop. Sometimes the vehicle starts moving from a stop with a fairly violent jolt, even if the gas pedal is barely pressed. The problem is very intermittent, but has been getting a little more frequent. The dealer says they find nothing wrong. Is this worth investigating? Do they even make repair parts for these CVTs anymore?

I’d love to keep the car running a bit longer, but the last thing I need is a dead transmission on an hour-long commute.

Sajeev answers:

Wow. You got 140,000 miles out of a VTi transaxle: the centerpiece of terrible ideas leading up to GM’s decision to burn 2 billion to NOT buy Fiat.

No surprise TTAC did the Death Watch thang, but Farago himself couldn’t imagine a world where Fiat dusts off a classic move, hostile takeover style.

Does anyone remember the VTi and the lawsuit? Repair or rebuilding is out of the question: consider yourself lucky and shop for a new vehicle. Or perform a gearbox swap with a Delta-bodied GM product with a more conventional auto or manual transmission, if you are the “save and restomod” type. I did quite like the Cobalt XFE I tested way back — it was super-cheap fun!

And don’t laugh, an ION Quad Coupe is the AMC Pacer of the last decade: the restomod route isn’t totally stupid, especially if you can cram LS4-FTW into the Delta’s engine bay. A more believable 5-speed automatic swap sounds pretty sweet.

I’d do this in a heartbeat. Parts will be dirt cheap, especially if you buy a complete car on Craigslist. Take out the gearbox, spend a weekend swap, scrap the rest and lose less than a grand on the deal.

Or just sell it now while it runs, telling the new owner about the swap and it’s future as the next AMC Pacer.

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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22 Comments on “Piston Slap: Justy-fied Freestylin’ over CVTs, Part V...”

  • avatar

    I think an LS4 Ion QuadCoup would be hilariously awesome (in a good way).

    I mean, there’s no way that would be easy to do if you don’t have a well-equipped garage (or relative that owns a shop) but the best way to learn is by doing, right?

  • avatar

    It can not be worth much, so I say run it until it dies but start the lookout for a good use car, it may take a while to find one in what ever price range you have but your saturn is running now so you have some options.

  • avatar

    I am not familiar with CVTs. However if it has a filter it could be partially clogged. I would suggest a fluid change and filter (but not a flush) as maintenance.
    Because the value of the car is low, keep up with ALL fluid changes and drive it until the car dies. Start saving money for that day in the future when you need to buy another car.
    You may be surprised how long it lasts.

  • avatar

    When did you last change the transmission fluid? I’d give that a shot if it’s been awhile.

  • avatar

    I would agree that changing the fluid might be an easy place to start. By the description, the problem would likely be in the torque converter since this has no other clutches.

  • avatar

    Average trade in on NADA is $1600, trading it in at a dealer would be a good option as long as its still mobile. Maybe someone on Craigslist would want to do a tranny swap, but I wouldn’t be hopeful about that. Drive it until it dies is always an option, question is, will the OP get 1k of value out of it before it croaks?

  • avatar

    Restomod a Saturn Ion? That makes as much sense as putting marble floors and Viking appliances in a 30 year old mobile home.

    My two cents: change the CVT fluid and filter, then drive until it dies. Consider every day that this neglected orphan from GM’s darker hours continues to run a small miracle.

    Virtually anything you end up replacing the Ion with will probably be a huge improvement in comfort, style, and safety. You may wonder why you did not ditch the Ion a long time ago.

  • avatar

    Saturn veteran here. I dumped mine in 2010 and should have earlier. I doubt changing fluids at this late date represents anything but an acceleration of the CVT death sentence unless you have been changing them right along. YMMV but I liked AMC very much. Just not the Pacer and I would hate to be stuck with one now.

  • avatar

    Nope, wait til it fails then scrap it and buy something that isn’t a Saturn. No more money or thought put into this aging pile of plastic.

  • avatar

    150,000 miles on a Saturn CVT? This has to be the black swan of transmissions. 50,000 was considered one of the good ones. I’d say change oil and run her til she blows.

    (The idea for an Impala sourced transverse LS swap sounds awesome, in a bizarro sort of way)

  • avatar

    “The 2003 and 2004 Ion Coupes were available with the VTi continuously variable transmission or a Getrag F23 5-speed manual.”

    MY03 Saturn Ion Coupe “Level 2”

    07/22/15 LAKELAND Regular $3,100 76,152 Above SILVER 4G A No
    08/20/15 SO CAL Lease $1,600 97,259 Above SILVER 4G A Yes
    08/12/15 CEN FLA Regular $400 160,665 Avg RED 4G Yes
    08/13/15 ST PETE Regular $900 173,428 Avg BLUE 4G A Yes
    08/19/15 TUCSON Regular $1,100 174,615 Avg BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/26/15 NJ Lease $300 177,733 Below BLACK 4G 5 Yes

    MY03 Saturn Ion Coupe “Level 3”

    07/23/15 PHOENIX Regular $1,900 88,351 Avg ORANGE – A Yes
    07/07/15 ARENA IL Regular $1,700 95,846 Avg BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/27/15 CHICAGO Regular $1,600 117,592 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/04/15 RIVRSIDE Regular $1,900 128,911 Avg SILVER 4G A Yes
    06/30/15 NYMETSKY Regular $700 159,650 Below BLACK 4G A Yes

    So in MY03, we have CVT autos doing 159K, 128K, 117K, 174K, 173K

    MY04 Saturn Ion Coupe “Level 2”

    08/11/15 BALTWASH Regular $2,500 59,598 Above BLACK 4G 5 Yes
    08/06/15 PHOENIX Regular $2,000 68,927 Avg SILVER 4G A Yes
    08/27/15 PHOENIX Lease $2,400 69,587 Above BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/19/15 CEN FLA Regular $2,400 73,550 Above BLUE 4G A Yes
    08/26/15 DTNA BCH Regular $2,600 73,563 Above BLUE 4G A Yes
    08/27/15 EL PASO Regular $750 99,028 Avg BLUE 4G A Yes
    08/05/15 CEN FLA Regular $1,000 105,225 Avg BLACK 4G 5 Yes
    08/25/15 STATESVL Lease $3,600 110,477 Above RED 4G A No
    08/12/15 SF BAY Regular $1,000 110,796 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/20/15 DETROIT Regular $1,400 121,593 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/26/15 UTAH Regular $1,200 126,560 Avg WHITE 4G Yes
    08/13/15 PALM BCH Regular $700 128,568 Below BLUE 4G 5 Yes
    08/05/15 NY Regular $1,500 129,145 Avg SILVER 4G A Yes
    08/05/15 NEW MEX Lease $2,000 133,457 Avg BLUE 4G 5 Yes
    08/13/15 CENT CAL Regular $1,500 133,993 Avg WHITE 4G A Yes
    08/04/15 STATESVL Lease $500 137,638 Below BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/27/15 PALM BCH Regular $1,100 138,888 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/05/15 NEW MEX Regular $1,050 156,976 Avg BLACK 4G M Yes

    MY04 Saturn Ion Coupe “Level 3”

    08/14/15 FT LAUD Regular $1,000 63,396 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/27/15 DETROIT Regular $2,500 64,277 Above BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/04/15 PHILLY Regular $3,000 65,785 Above BLUE 4G 5 No
    08/04/15 CEN FLA Regular $2,000 92,269 Above SILVER 4G A Yes
    08/03/15 NC Regular $900 104,701 Avg RED 4G Yes
    08/05/15 NEW MEX Regular $1,100 106,060 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/19/15 CALIFORN Regular $1,500 115,136 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/04/15 PHILLY Regular $2,500 118,557 Above BLACK 4G A No
    08/21/15 HRSNBURG Lease $850 131,212 Avg SILVER 4G A Yes
    08/17/15 CENTPENN Regular $1,250 132,715 Avg RED 4G A Yes
    08/12/15 FT MYERS Regular $400 142,909 Below BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/20/15 NORTHSTR Regular $1,550 146,420 Avg GREEN 4G 5 Yes
    08/11/15 DARLNTON Regular $700 146,482 Avg BLACK 4G A Yes
    08/05/15 FT MYERS Regular $900 146,883 Avg BLUE 4G A Yes
    08/18/15 OHIO Regular $750 181,841 Avg SILVER 4G Yes

    In MY04, we have 133K, 137K, 138K, 146K, and 146K.

    The higher mile (>120) autos do between $700-1500 in both model years. 174K was the highest an automatic did in both years, and several got around 150K. I’d say you have 10-20K more left in the car at the most. I say if you can con a dealer out of 2K in trade on something new, go for it. Otherwise you have a $1,000 car with a little bit of life left.

  • avatar

    #1. Check the fluid level yourself, if low, add fluid (I’m sure it is special stuff).
    #2. Begin looking for a replacement capable of a reliable, fuel efficient, 100 mile daily commute. (Corolla, Civic, Yaris, Fit)

    I would not spend more than a dime on it nor would I unload it on some unsuspecting victim. Drive it until it dies then recycle.

  • avatar

    Look at how low that hood is. I miss visibility.

  • avatar

    Update on the car: A few days back, I hit the gas at an intersection and…. Nothing. Car just sat there. Cycled the power, and now it drives fine, but I’m done with it. I don’t want to get stranded in Detroit. Guess its time for a new car.

  • avatar

    The dealer says they can find nothing wrong in what, the sense that they all do that right before they die?

  • avatar
    Joe K

    Don’t look at me, I own a Justy with a CVT. Well alright. Justy is a far different animal then this, but does it have any sort of switch on the accelerator pedal? I would have to dig into a FSM to see how this beast works, and it’s amazing it still works without you cracking one open for this long.

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