In an effort to become more respectable, I have purchased a reasonable car.  By respectable, I specifically mean “not spending stupid amounts of time, money, and emotional frustration on the result of poor automotive decisions”.

After looking around my area for some time, I ended up getting a 2004 Saturn On.


Er.  Ion.


My purchase of this vehicle was motivated more by needing a vehicle than coming to a carefully reasoned decision that this vehicle is the automotive equivalent of a helpmeet.  It does, however, meet several of my automotive purchase rules (some of which are mentioned here), and several others not mentioned at the link.

For practical vehicles:

1) Get a car that people know how to work on.  Oddball chassis design specific to the model will bite you when the shop jacks up your car on its own cooling lines, or somesuch.

2) Get a car that is common enough to have a ready supply of parts.  You don’t want to end up having to source the last transmission cover in the U.S. for your car.

3) Don’t get the first model year.  Obvious.

4) Getting the best engine package available can be really cool, and safer (better suspension tuning, more power).  It can, however, imply that the manufacturer is stretching what the car can do, and what can fit in the car.  It will cost more money down the line.

The Ion fits rules 1-3, and that’s about it.  It is a stripper model, with the basic engine, a rental-like interior, and a previous owner who was evidently indifferent to body scratches.  I don’t believe, however, that it was a rental.  Firstly, it lacks the tell-tale pen marks by the ignition, where the renter has to turn the car back on to check the mileage and marks the console with their pen.  (Every rental I’ve been in over the last few years has this.)  Secondly, and far more important, it’s a manual car.  This latter accounts for much of the difficulty I found in getting a used car.

In the used car market, you have to take what you can get, and if you are in a region that is not fond of what you want, you’re done.  In my area, stick cars seem to be common only for cheap, efficient cars, and performance cars.  The Saturn is one of the former.  Manual transmissions are simpler and (I believe) more mechanically efficient.  One does have to worry about clutch wear, but, as I was reminded yesterday, a manual trans makes up for a multitude of sins, even if coupled to a 2.2 liter NA four.  Every shift is the chance for that little frisson of happiness at a mechanical task done well.

I also kind of like the front end of the car; it has a sort of “robotish” look.


When I get a car, I budget $100 for a few things.  I get the Haynes manual, which is usually not great but better than nothing, and cheap at $20.  I get the best headlight (bulbs) the store has, because, as previously mentioned, I can’t stand bad visibility, and I’m willing to pay the $50 required for a maybe 50% improvement in that area*.  I’ll get wiper blades if needed, and a bottle of this stuff:


As recommended by none other than Mopar Action‘s tech editor Richard Ehrenberg, this stuff, unlike many additives, works.

Despite looking like some sort of XTreme mixer for vodka or cognac, it behaves somewhat disturbingly, since it’s raison d’etre is its low surface tension.  It has no “legs” as the wine folks would say.  It sloshes quickly and leaves no drops on the bottle wall.  You add it to your coolant, and it reduces bubble size at the point where the coolant flow meets the hot metal of the engine.  Typically, the coolant boils a bit there, and the resultant bubbles reduce heat transfer.  Smaller bubbles = better cooling = better thermodynamic efficiency = less entropy = staving off heat death of the universe.  Also your engine bay runs cooler, extending the life of non-metallic parts.  (I’ve had a $3 plastic fixture failure cause months and $100s of damage).  It drops the temp by a claimed 8 degrees or so in a 50/50 antifreeze/water mix.  I figure it is cheap insurance.

I’ve got a few quibbles with the car so far:

The tires are harder than most.  I keep sounding like a boy racer accelerating from a stop.

The shifter is a bit notchy, especially going between 2 and 3.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not the Hurst in my other car.

The headlights are held in by a rediculous pin arrangement that no doubt works well in California or wherever it was designed, but is already corroded here.  I shouldn’t need to use PB Blaster on my headlight retention mechanism.

It has a shift light that is permanently set to “granny mode”, nagging me to upshift in the name of efficiency at 2200 rpm, in 4th gear, going 40 mph uphill.  I can’t turn it off.  I feel guilty not shifting, and angry at it glaring at me like the Eye of Sauron every time I leave the car in low gear a second longer than some sort of EPA guideline indicates.

All in all, though, if the Ion is reliable for 5 years, I’ll be happy.  And driving manual.

*update: please note that the better parts store headlights also have considerably reduced lifetime as compared with standard lights.  As is often the case, the better burns a quarter as long.

Comments are closed.