There are two great things about the new Saturn ION Red Line. Two things any enthusiast would marvel at. Two things that set a new standard for the class and should send engineers from Mazda, Honda, Nissan and Subaru back to their drafting tables. Those two things are the car’s front seats.
Supplied by Recaro, the Red Line’s buckets are sized and shaped to perfection. Covered in a combination of quality cloth and actual leather, they provide any sized driver ideal support and unmatched comfort. They even look cool.
The rest of the car, however, while not without many positive attributes, has a list of problems that keeps us from fighting for the keys. These problems range from the truly unfixable, like the car’s huge 185-inch length, to the fixable, like a tachometer that’s always 800 rpm behind the motor.
In defense of the capable team of engineers that make up the recently formed GM Performance Division, most of the Red Line’s flaws are not their fault. They’re the fault of the boneheads who designed the Saturn ION in the first place.
The ION, in its non-Red Line garb, is simply one of the most disappointing cars we’ve ever driven. It’s slow and crude, with the worst steering since the 1903 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, which was steered by a tiller. So if you consider what they had to start with, the engineers in the GM Performance Division should all be commended for a job well done.
That job was to transform that hemorrhoid of a car into a more refined machine that performs as good as or better than the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V, Acura RSX Type-S, SVT Focus and MINI Cooper S. They did this by supercharging the Red Line’s engine, and tuning its chassis on the famed Nuerburgring circuit in Germany. They even managed to radically improve the car’s electrically assisted steering and keep the price just under $20,000 in the process.
That supercharged engine is a 2.0-liter version of the Ecotec four-cylinder, which is now powering all of GM’s small cars in normally aspirated 2.2-liter form. The Performance Division destroked the engine, lowered its compression ratio from 10:1 to 9.5:1, bolted on a Roots-type supercharger (making 12.5 pounds of boost), stuffed in a Laminova air-to-water intercooler, and underrated it at 200 hp and 149 lb-ft of torque. That’s right, they underrated it. Our Dynojet revealed the truth, which is an impressive 197 hp at the wheels at 6450 rpm and 169 lb-ft at 5250 rpm.
And it would be more if GM’s engineers had more time. Check out the dyno chart. The engine crashes into its rev limiter at 6450 rpm while it’s still building power. Rick Kewley, vehicle performance manager, high-performance vehicle operation, GM Performance Division (holy titles, Batman!), says this is because the engine hasn’t been durability tested above that engine speed. Which is another problem Rick inherited from the original ION boneheads. He gives the same excuse for reducing boost slightly at high rpm. The supercharger is actually spinning fast enough to produce more boost, but the ECU opens the bypass valve slightly to keep peak cylinder pressures down at levels GM has already proven it can handle.
That limiter combines with a too-tall second gear and that lethargic tach needle to sabotage what could be a fun engine. It certainly makes good power, but as it’s set up, it’s nearly impossible to drive hard without running into the limiter. We’re told the limiter will be softened after the car’s first year, but it will remain at 6450 rpm.
What the engine really needs is another 500 to 700 rpm. It would increase its overall output, and keep the engine from falling below 4000 rpm on the 1-2 shift, which is where it really starts making grunt. As it is now, it does fall below 4000 rpm on that gear change due to the gearing in the Red Line’s transmission, and gear spacing that’s mismatched to the blown Ecotec’s power curve.
According to Mark Reuss, the man in charge of the GM Performance Division, the five-speed is based on a Saab transmission from GM’s global powertrain parts bin and has tall gears in Europe to be able to tow with a turbo engine. The problem is, of course, that this isn’t Europe, nobody is going to tow with a Red Line, and the car is not turbocharged. Besides that, it’s ideal for the application.
At the dragstrip, the tall gearing really hurts the car’s performance. It’s a heavy car at 2,960 pounds, but with nearly 200 hp at the wheels, it should be quicker than it is. We managed 0-to-60 mph in 7.1 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.3 at 94.5 mph. And we know the gearing is at fault, because the car runs through the traps in third gear. A limited-slip differential would also help. Kewley says his team is working on one.
Under the Red Line, there are front struts, a beam rear suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars, polished 17x7 wheels and Dunlop SP9000 tires. It’s a combination Ruess says the team tuned conservatively.
It does ride nicely on the highway, and it does manage respectable numbers at the test track. Our test car circled the skidpad at .85g, which is equal to the performance of a Dodge SRT-4, and ran through our slalom at 68.4 mph, which is exactly what the last SVT Focus we tested could manage. But it also reacts sluggishly compared to its competition due to its long 103.5-inch wheelbase, and it understeers more than we’d like. Drive the car hard and it just feels bigger than every other car in its class, which it is—11.6-inches longer than a Subaru WRX.