DRIVE: ‘Ion: Say It With Me' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

DRIVE: ‘Ion: Say It With Me'

Every week our car-shopping adventure starts out pretty much the same. We have the best of intentions, planning a Car Driving Day soon after the most recent JFP has been printed and distributed. That's the day we promise—really swear—to go to another dealer and see another car.

Car Driving Day comes … and it's raining. Or I'm sick. Or Ms. D is busy. Sometimes we decide that it's actually very important that we get tons of extra work done well into the evening so that we can have an unspoiled time test driving a car tomorrow. Then we vigorously mess with our e-mail for about 20 minutes and head out to dinner and to hear some music.

Would you purposefully go to a car dealership every week?

Finally, Saturday rolls around, and we need to have the magazine done by Sunday night. In fact, it's not just Saturday that's rolled around, but Saturday evening. Around 6 p.m.

"Let's go!" I yell up the stairs. "If we get there as they close we can't drive the car!"

"I'm coming!" Ms. D entones, grabbing every frickin' bag she can put her hands on. She's making a point—she doesn't want to do this, so she fully plans on bringing entirely too much reading material. As if it'll take a day and a half.

"It won't be that bad," I say, as I shoulder one of her bags and coax her out the door. "We'll just go to the Saturn dealership." She doesn't exactly beam at the thought, but there's a glimmer.

I love Saturn dealerships, and I've been looking for a good excuse to buy a Saturn for at least 10 years. Oddly, the no-haggle, no-pressure approach doesn't seem entirely to be a gimmick. Nearly every Saturn salesperson I've dealt with—I've dealt with quite a handful, and I haven't yet bought a Saturn—has been pleasant and friendly.

This is in contrast to a salesman who, a few weeks ago, helped me look at a highly regarded brand of Japanese automobile known for its refined craftsmanship. The problem: as he explained the finer points of the car's engineering and the company's impressive warranty, he wouldn't stop spitting chewing tobacco all over the pavement. Lucky Ms. D wasn't there.

When we got to the dealer to check out the 2003 Ion, Saturn's new series of sporty economy cars, we weren't disappointed. The service was friendly, informative, and we even got a key to take the Ion out on our own.

The Ion is a redesign—based on GM's new Delta platform—but it's also an update to the popular S-series coupes and sedans that preceded it, particularly the sporty SC2 coupe, with its low-slung looks and clever third door for easier access to the rear seats; the Ion Coupe now features two rear "suicide" doors that allow easy access.

We drove the Ion•2 Sedan, which means the trim level was slightly upgraded. Ours had a standard-issue CD player, power doors, crank-down windows and a five-speed manual transmission. In other words it's basic transportation—but transportation that you can get into for just over $14,000. Suddenly, crank-down windows don't seem like such a problem.

With the 5-speed, the 2.2liter, 16-value four cylinder engine generates 140 horsepower and 145 lb-feet of torque—which gives the car enough power that you need to find a sweet spot in your shifts to keep from jerking the car around. 0-to-60 in eight+plus seconds is the Car and Driver estimate; fuel economy is great, at 33 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg around town. Seat comfort is mediocre—Ms. D. tossed the seat for nap-ability and found the angle was good, but the headrest uncomfortable, requiring a car pillow at all times.

Saturns are kinda weird. They're basically Detroit's best competition for Japanese cars—Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans—so they take some cues from those brands. The Ion team worked hard to reduce road noise and increase ride satisfaction. At the same time, they made the Ion bigger than the SC series, giving it the biggest trunk in its class (15 cubic feet). Heck, that's bigger than the medium-sized Honda Accord.

But then there's the styling. Ms. D thought the Ion looked like it was trying a bit too hard to be cool, and she wasn't quite swayed by the interchangeable rails and interior panels that can be used to personalize the Saturn's look "like my Nokia phone," she said, which she's left in a relatively tame electric blue.

I like the Ion's lines, even if it has more lines than your average sedan, and I like the way it felt to drive. My biggest concern was the instrument cluster located in the center of the dash. I love looking at good gauges (I'm an even bigger fan of trip computers and mpg estimators) and, as a driver, I like to own them, not share them with others.

My favorite Saturn feature: buying it at a Saturn dealership. "Are they built by union people?" Ms. D asked, as she always does. This time I could proudly say yes. And in the South, no less, I said, appealing to her particular brand of patriotism. I asked, once and for all, if this might be the inexpensive way to fix our automotive woes.

"What was it called? The Ian? Who names a car Ian?"

Now she's just mocking me.

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