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General Motors Shows Off New 'Ion' Compact Car - 2003-04-23


The world's largest automaker, General Motors, established the Saturn division as the company's small car import fighter and to try some new ideas. The newest Saturn comes from the self-styled "different kind of car company."

The new car is called the Ion. Saturn's marketing manager for the Ion, Matt Armstrong, said the model it replaces had a long run.

"The predecessor to the Ion, our S-series, was produced for over 12 years. And we did a number of updates or 'refreshes' to the vehicle during its life-cycle. And, actually, when we retired it last year, it was still one of the top-selling vehicles in the United States," he said.

While still a compact car, the Ion is longer, wider, taller and more powerful than the S-model. Its price range is between $12,000 and $16,000. That brings it, says Matt Armstrong, head-to-head with some popular cars.

"With the Ion, we're really going after some of the import vehicles, such as the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Nissan Sentra but we also look at domestic vehicles like the Ford Focus," he said. The Ion retains the plastic fenders and doors of the previous model for their resistance to dents and rust. Another Saturn feature is no-haggle pricing. But recently, Saturn appeared to depart from the policy by offering customer incentives.

"Our philosophy of treating all customers the sam - it hasn't changed. We have offered special financing in the past, but we still maintain our no-haggle approach to selling," Mr. Armstrong said.

But the proof is in the driving.

"Well, for a new vehicle, it doesn't stack up very well at all," said David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, a widely-read American magazine that tests consumer products of all kinds. "It has a reasonably good platform. The ride is good. The braking is good. Engine performance is reasonable for its class. But it's the interior, sort of seating and attention to detail that really let it down."

Saturn's policy of "the customer first" has made a lot of friends since the cars first hit the market back in 1990. The brand has consistently tested well for customer satisfaction, but its cars have lagged behind the competition in quality and refinement. And critics of General Motors have accused the parent company of "starving" Saturn for new models to put money into other divisions and products.

Still, Saturn survives, while GM has killed its Oldsmobile division. Maybe Saturn really is a "different kind of car company."