Superchargers, Turbos and Yes VTEC: A Look Back at Saturn's Performance Cars of the 2000s
2019 is a year of many automobile anniversaries, some larger than others. But not to be overlooked is that it has been 10 years since GM's 2009 restructuring which saw the end of brands like Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn.
Saturn was a brand with a very interesting history going back to its first car in 1990 and having a distinct identity from the rest of GM but eventually losing its product differentiation before being killed off after the recession of the late 2000s.
Saturn may have never had the enthusiast appeal of other GM brands, but over the course of the 2000s the brand did a release a trio of performance-oriented vehicles under its "Red Line" badge and they all proved to be rather notable in their own way. Now a decade after Saturn built its last car, the Red Line vehicles might not be highly-sought after classics, but they are certainly worthy of recalling.
Saturn Ion Red Line
First released in 2003 the base Saturn Ion was a compact car with some rather unique elements including a center-mounted instrument cluster and rear clamshell doors on the "Quad Coupe" model.
But things got really interesting in 2004 with the release of the Ion Red Line.
Designed to compete against sport compact cars like the Honda Civic Si and Ford SVT Focus, the Ion Red Line shared its supercharged Ecotec four-cylinder engine with the Chevy Cobalt SS. It made 205 horsepower and came mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
Road tests showed the Ion Red Line reaching 60 miles per hour in the low six second range, which was rather quick by 2004 standards and still a respectable figure today. Its roots-type supercharger was also known for delivering an abundance of low end torque in an era when most of its competition was naturally aspirated.
Beginning in 2005 a Competition Package was offered for the Ion Red Line which included a steering column-mounted tachometer with a shift light, unique wheels and most importantly a limited slip front differential. Again, this is something most high performance front-drive cars have today but it was pretty big deal back in the mid 2000s.
2007 was the last year the Ion Red Line would be built, as the Ion was replaced in the Saturn lineup by the Astra. A hot hatch version of the Opel-based Astra was never offered, and two years later the Saturn brand would be axed.
Saturn Vue Red Line
The Ion wasn't the only Saturn model to get the Red Line treatment in 2004.
In a rather unusual move, Saturn also debuted a high performance Red Line version of its Vue small SUV.
The most unusual thing about the Vue is that in 2004 its V6-powered variants including the Red Line didn't use a GM engine but a Honda one. More specifically, it was a a J35 SOHC VTEC V6 that made 250 hp and 242 pound feet of torque. Honda also supplied the transmission and the Red Line could be had in either FWD or AWD.
The Red Line version got several of its own special tweaks to separate form the standard Vue including a stiffer, lower suspension, re-tuned steering, 18" wheels and more aggressive bodywork.
With performance-oriented SUVs and crossovers becoming increasingly common these days, the Vue Red Line almost seems like it was ahead of its time. It never sold in large numbers when new and today they are an even rarer sight on the road.
Saturn Sky Red Line
Last but not leas we get to real sports car of the trio—the Saturn Sky Red Line.
The Saturn Sky was a two-seat, rear-drive roadster that went on sale as the sister car to the Pontiac Solstice for the 2006 model year. In standard form the Sky was a decent little roadster and first sports car ever to wear a Saturn badge, but the Red Line version the truly desirable one.
The Sky Red Line got a turbocharged Ecotec 2.0 four cylinder that made 260 hp and 260 pound feet of torque and could be had with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.
To further build its performance credentials the Sky Red Line also got more aggressive suspension tuning and a limited slip rear differential. It could hit 60 miles per hour in 5.2 seconds, which again is a respectable number more than a decade later.
Will the Saturn Ion Red Line, VUE Red Line or Sky Red Line ever become true classic cars? It's hard to say, but at the very least an interesting footnote to the story one of America's most short-lived but also interesting automotive brands.
Want some more late 2000s nostalgia? Check out our list of five favorites from the sometimes forgotten era.