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AMR Review: Saturn Red Line

Saturn Drew A Line
First of all, let me just say that this is a move Saturn badly needed. Well, perhaps first I should say what the move was. You see, Saturn, GM's "nice" division, has long been known for one thing and one thing only, a great dealer experience. Sales and service customer satisfaction levels place Saturn in the upper echelon with Mercedes and Lexus. What they were not know for, however, was their cars. And, unfortunately, that really remains the case. If you've never been in a Saturn, don't worry, you are literally not missing anything. Perhaps the VUE deserves more credit than that, but overall, these cars are not the pride of the auto industry. There, I said it plain and simple. Sorry if I offended you, but these cars offend me. I was in an SC2, SL2, ION and VUE, and noticed an improvement in the ION over the SC and SL it replaced, and liked the VUE a bit. But, for the most part, especially with the sedan and coupe, they were just horrible cars. I know, that sounds cras, but that's the feeling I got after sitting in them. It's not unlike the disgust I felt for the Infiniti G35's interior (in beige, at least), only magnified.

Man, do I sound mean or what? What was wrong with them is a good place to start. Well, for one, the cars weren't terribly well engineered. At least not from a performance or good-impression-making standpoint. Mediocre is a nice way to describe the engines, transmissions, steering and suspension. I'm not going to touch exterior styling because that's highly subjective (though I will say I don't like it. The VUE is rather nice, but the other cars are ugly in my opinion). Where the cars definitely fall apart is inside. Aside from abysmal material quality, everything about the interiors screams ugly and cheap. Shapes, textures...yuck. The seats are the epitome of the opposite of comfortable with their ultra-thin cushioning, short rear bench (you will feel it in your thighs), and low-end-looking colors and patterns. Rental car fleets should be embarrassed to have these things on their lots, and that's saying a lot. When the Kia Rio presents a possibly nicer interior, you know you've got a problem on your hands. Again, I'm being harsh, but I'm trying to make a me.

GM certainly upped the ante a little bit with the ION and VUE, but, unfortunately for the ION, not enough. So, we're left with dull cars that don't handle well and look and feel cheap. Hey, at least the financing was good.

So, what can they do? Sit still and die? Well, that's what they were doing for a long time. Then the Red Line strategy emerged. Like many other makers have found, adding power can do quite a bit to help your situation, especially when anemic power is a major contributor to how you got to your current situation. Enter the Saturn ION Quad Coupe Red Line and Saturn VUE Red Line. With the VUE, I use the term "Saturn" loosely.

VUE To A Kill
Saturn started with their fairly well-received VUE, and began the upgrade process. According to their website (which is not well designed, I may try to find vehicle specs in there, I dare you!), 10 changes were made, namely:

  1. 250 hp @ 5800 rpm, V-6 engine
  2. 242 lb-ft of torque @ 4500 rpm
  3. Sport-tuned suspension with performance springs and struts
  4. Standard Anti-lock Braking System
  5. Available all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive
  6. Lowered vehicle profile
  7. 18" alloy wheels
  8. Fascia and side-rocker ground effects
  9. Chrome exhaust tip
  10. Tinted rear glass

Quite a comprehensive set of changes Saturn engineers made, no? Well, yes and no. I mean, yes, they are, but giving the engineers credit for everything isn't fair. I'll give them the cosmetic changes and the suspension changes, both of which are great. What I can't give them is the best part of the car, the engine. You see, that's not a GM V6 in there, it's a Honda V6. If you've driven an Odyssey or Passport, then you know all about this 3.5L V6. Here, it is tuned for 250 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque. It moves the plastic-bodied VUE quite well...just 7 seconds from 0-60.

That's faster than the base VUE running a worthless 2.2L four-banger that need 10.6 seconds to get to 60. However, topping out the non-Red Line range is a 3.0L GM-sourced V6 that delivers more reasonable performance, certainly in line with the competition. Of course, this version's handling isn't the same as the Red Line's as the latter rides far lower and runs on bigger 18" rims. Don't misunderstand, the half liter of displacement bump is not tantamount to throwing an R badge on your car and thinking it will be faster. The Red Line is definitely faster, and has a much better power delivery than the 3.0. Honda knows what they're doing with engines. I don't think anyone can debate that.

Be it a Honda heart or not, the VUE Red Line is a great deal at about $25k, and it offers fairly good space and great performance for an SUV. It suffers in deep snow and off-road because of its low ride height and big wheels and tires with a performance focus. Also, oddly enough since this is the performance VUE, you can only get the car with a 5 speed automatic. Still, if you're looking at the VUE, at least get the V6, but definitely think about the Red Line. I know I would (of course, I wouldn't think of getting a VUE, so it's a moot point).

Neon ION
Oh, what to do with the ION. Sure, it's better than the original SC coupe. How about throwing a Roots-type supercharger on the little 16 valve engine? Sounds good to me. This brings horsepower up to 205, and drops 0-60 time to 6.3 seconds. Not bad at all. Price? About $20k. Not bad, but not amazing, either. It's ok. Now, here's what they've added...surprise, Saturn lists 10 additions for the ION, too:

  1. 2.0-liter, supercharged and intercooled Ecotec engine
  2. 205 hp, 200 lb-ft of torque
  3. Performance springs, struts and stabilizer bars
  4. Close-ratio, 5-speed manual transmission
  5. Short-throw shifter
  6. Oversized 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
  7. High-flow, performance-tuned exhaust system
  8. 17" forged alloy wheels with 215/45Z17 tires
  9. Unique fascia and side-rocker ground effects
  10. Custom design RECARO Sport Seats

Now, a little more detail. When I said throw supercharger on the engine, I didn't mean to downsize the engine first. The base ION runs a 2.2L engine, but the Red Line has a 2.0L engine. Of course, they still got 60 more hp into the Red Line than the base model, so maybe it isn't so bad. But, when you look at the ION's competitors, this starts the problems. The Neon SRT-4 is typically put up against the ION Red Line, and always wins because of the sheer power of the thing. It's got a bigger engine that, even with turbo lag, can nail the ION. The Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and former Mazdaspeed Protege weren't much different. I won't even mention the Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evolution (for one thing, they cost a lot more). Displacement matters.

Is it all bad? Not at all. The ION surprised GM-haters with its handling. I typically use the term "drives like a Buick" to demean a car. To have a car that handles so oppositely from a Buick come from the same parent company (a company that never seems to get handling right, if you ask me) is a huge feat. To have it come from bargain-basement Saturn is a whole other thing. Where the Neon is just harsh (not stiff so much as harsh), the Saturn is stiff and precise. The Neon does not blow away the ION on many courses because of the handling superiority of the ION. The Neon still wins always, but not by the margin its power would suggest. So kudos to the folks at Saturn on this. Also, I have to give them credit on the wheels. They went with forged alloys, which are lighter and stronger than the more typical cast variety. Nice move.

Trouble is, it's still an ION. The interior still isn't great, and the styling, while better than the old SC and better than the ION sedan, still isn't great. The Quad Coupe idea is great, though. Look at how it's being aped by Mazda in the RX-8. So, would I recommend this car? Well, again, if you were looking at an ION Quad Coupe, yes, I would. Would I ever recommend you look at an ION Quad Coupe? No. I would always recommend a Scion tC over the ION, especially once the supercharger package comes out. You'll be looking at a 2.4L supercharged Toyota that looks awesome, drives well, and is built beautifully. Also, Scions aren't really negotiable price-wise, so it isn't like you'd be missing out on Saturn's historic only selling point.

The Final Review
Great cars, the Red Lines? Hardly. Very good cars that blow away the cars on which they're based? Arguably. "Blow away" may be too strong, but they are certainly better, especially with the ION. From what I've heard from VUE Red Line buyers, that car should do well. The ION will probably struggle more because of its competition which features arguably better styling, better performance and better build-quality. Good luck to 'em, though.


A Very Different Kind of Car, But A Different Kind of Company?

Managing Editor

Coming from GM's historically economical and practical brand, the Red Line is definitely a huge departure from the norm. It's also huge news. With the ION Red Line, Saturn attempts to stake a claim in the sport-compact market. While it has the power, the ION simply just does not impress the consumer inside. A more comfortable, driver-oriented and better-built interior can be had for your $20,000 with sport-compacts such as the Scion tC, Mazda 3, and Nissan Sentra SE-R - not to mention the widely-acclaimed Acura RSX (Base Model). Saturn's performance tuning has done a lot to improve the dynamics of the ION, but with consumer focus increasingly becoming concentrated on a quality interior, it may not be enough.

The VUE Red Line is an interesting vehicle. Available AWD, 250HP V6, 5-speed automatic (should be a manual, but better than an economy 4-speed unit) sport suspension and standard 18 inch alloys, all for around $26,000 (or less if you factor in current rebates). It sounds like a steal, right? Well, if you aren't concerned about the badge on the grill, severe depreciation and the styling is your cup of tea, it actually is. This is pretty much the most performance you'll find from an SUV in this price range. Personally, I want to like the VUE, but I just can't get past the styling. It reminds me of the late Isuzu Axiom, which severely flopped in the market. Unfortunately, the same down-market material that decorates the ION's interior also makes up the interior in the VUE - yet another reason it doesn't totally warm my heart. Again, these are just my personal tastes, but if you're listening Saturn (or even GM for that matter), improve the quality of your materials, make the styling less tacky and you've got a big winner in the VUE Red Line.