Notes: The Saturn Ion was a compact bundle of hurt wrapped up in a cheap, plastic shell. With so many defective components and a safety rating that a bicycle would be ashamed of, it’s a blessing this car only lasted five model years.

The 2003 (and 2004) Ion was cursed with GM’s flawed attempt at a continuously variable transmission, known as the VTi. It had such a high failure rate that a class-action lawsuit was filed against GM, eventually prompting a settlement and a warranty extension. GM discontinued the VTi for the 2005 model year – surprise, surprise.

The 2003 Ion was also part of one of the largest and most controversial recalls of all-time. A defective ignition switch in millions of GM vehicles could accidentally turn the car off and disable important safety components like the power steering and airbags. The problem resulted in at least 13 deaths, but what made it worse was that GM knew about the issue for 10 years before doing anything about it.

So was the transmission warranty extended? Yeah. Was the ignition switch recalled? Eventually. Is this car safe to drive? Not really. Honestly, you’re better off looking elsewhere.


really awful
Crashes / Fires:
1 / 0
Injuries / Deaths:
0 / 0
Average Mileage:
82,872 miles

About These NHTSA Complaints:

This data is from the NHTSA — the US gov't agency tasked with vehicle safety. Complaints are spread across multiple & redundant categories, & are not organized by problem.

So how do you find out what problems are occurring? For this NHTSA complaint data, the only way is to read through the comments below. Any duplicates or errors? It's not us.

2003 Saturn Ion drivetrain problems

drivetrain problem

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2003 Saturn Ion Owner Comments

problem #18

Aug 092016


  • 104,065 miles


I was driving and my transmission I bought from GM only 14 months ago went out. It was remanufactured and the part cost me $5,513.63 dollars. I only drove approximately 9,000 miles and they said it was 12 mo. Or 1 year so they can't help me. I would expect a remanufactured transmission to last more than 9000 miles and asked if I was the first to have failure at so low mileage and he replied yes. I feel I've been cheated as a consumer. GM parts told me that part is covered 3 years or 36,000 miles however customer service said that's wrong. I was only at 14 months when it went out and at 9000 miles it is so unfair because it is suppose to be like a brand new transmission. All GM is about is making money and not about the satisfaction of their customers. Car was in motion when it went out.

- Rohnert Park, CA, USA

problem #17

Aug 072016


  • 215,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion equipped with a manual transmission. While stopped at a traffic light, the transmission failed. The contact was unable to shift the vehicle into gear. The contact stated that the clutch pedal was depressed, but the vehicle failed to shift into gear. The failure was intermittent. The vehicle was not diagnosed nor repaired. The manufacturer was notified of the failure. The approximate failure mileage was 215,000.

- Bertram, TX, USA

problem #16

May 132016


  • 158,990 miles
When I am driving, my car will suddenly seem to slip out of gear, the RPM's will continue to rise while the car starts to slow down and can no longer accelerate. I then have to pull over and turn the car off and restart to "reset" the car and it seems to drive normal again. This usually happens at higher speeds, like while I'm driving on the interstate, but can and has happened at lower speeds as well. I have two children and am expecting another child in July and no longer feel safe driving this vehicle. I feel that this should be a safety recall given the large amount of people who have had the same or similar problems with the transmission in these cars. This happened earlier today, but has happened on a regular basis for over a year.

- Parrish, FL, USA

problem #15

Oct 262015


  • miles


My car feels like a death trap. To start off with only one of my windshield wiper motors work. When I first bought the car from a single individual the passenger side wiper appeared to shake a little more than the driver side. As if it was working a little harder to keep up with the other wiper.. and then less than a month after purchasing vehicle it stopped working all together. Now I only have the driver side wiper that I use. Also when I go to turn on the blinker, go over a railroad track, make a turn iorn vehicle, or sometimes just sitting still. The wiper will start working without me having turnned it on. At first it would just come on for 3 or 4 swipes and then automatically stop again. But now its doing it more frequently and sometimes it will not stop swipping whichis very aggravating causing scratches on my windshield and wearing my one wiper down faster than it should be. Along with these problems my car has also been idleing extremly high upon cranking and while changing gears it acts as if it gets stuck between 1rst 2cd and 3rd. Also when I try to increase speed for passing or to make turns it sometimes just causes it to bog down more instead of increasing my speed it sounds as if its gonna blow up the engine.

- Rome, GA, USA

problem #14

Jan 102015


  • 136,000 miles
Coming to a stop in heavy traffic alarms and lights went off, the car lost powering and wouldn't go into gear finally when the gear engaged it would only stay in first gear. Luckily we were able to pull off the busy highway and get safely to the side of the road with no accidents or injuries.

- Ortonville, MI, USA

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problem #13

Dec 292014


  • 157,280 miles
I received a letter from Saturn today 12/29/2014 with the letter stating December 2014. In the letter it states the following " this letter is intended to make you aware that your vehicle's transmission shifter may not properly transmit an electrical signal that allows the ignition key to be turned counter clockwise past the accessory mode to the "lock" position after the vehicle has been shifted into park. If this occurs, the ignition key cannot be removed from the ignition cylinder without depressing the manual release plunger located on the underside of the steering column as described in the owners manual. A key left in the accessory position for an extended period of time may result in severe battery drain and a possible no start condition.

- Lyons Falls, NY, USA

problem #12

Aug 172014


  • 33,000 miles


The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that the key failed to turn to the on position and the transmission failed to shift into park from reverse or drive. The contact had to make several attempts to get the vehicle to shift into park and remove the key. The contact had to wiggle the key back and forth, apply force to the shifter and turn the wheel back and forth to remove the key. The vehicle was taken to an authorized dealer. The technician diagnosed that the shifter and cable needed to be replaced. The vehicle was not repaired. The manufacturer was notified of the failure. The approximate failure mileage was 33,000.

- Stroudsburg, PA, USA

problem #11

Dec 272013

Ion 4-cyl

  • 114,341 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that the vehicle failed to shift into park. The contact mentioned that due to the failure the key became lodged in the ignition switch causing the battery to drain. The vehicle was taken to the dealer for a diagnostic testing. The technician diagnosed that the bitsi cable failed and as a result, the shifter needed to be replaced. The vehicle was repaired. However, the failure recurred. The manufacturer was notified of the failure. The approximate failure mileage was 114,341. Updated 12/9/14 the consumer was informed the part was not available. Updated 03/03/15

- Tacoma, WA, USA

problem #10

Jan 242014


  • 70,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that while driving 25 mph, the transmission failed and was unable to shift gears. In addition, all of the warning lights illuminated. The failure occurred numerous times. The vehicle was towed to the dealer. The vehicle was not diagnosed or repaired. The manufacturer was not notified of the failure. The approximate failure mileage was 70,000.

- Las Cruces, NM, USA

problem #9

May 282004


  • miles
Periodically the Saturn will lunge fwd will stopped or even driving the rpms spike while driving. Breaks will not stop this issue. I've put my car in the ditch to miss major wrecks..this has been going on for yrs. Also the losing power when turning has happened but not as much as the accelerator sticking. Bought a new car just for my kids to be in they aren't allowed in the death trap Saturn. Wish someone would investigate these problems because they keep getting worse as the yrs go by. Have had the vehicle since it was new..would even be willing to show anyone these problems if they would sit in this death warrant.

- Hamiton, MT, USA

problem #8

Feb 192014


  • 189,000 miles


On 4 separate occasions (different dates, most recent were 1-26-2014 & 2-19-2014) engine revved and car accelerated by itself without gas pedal depressed. Most serious occurrence, car accelerated, brakes had no effect (pushed to the floor), ran red light, went off road, slammed transmission into park to stop. Shut off car, then started it again, and it ran normal. Took car to mechanic. No computer codes. Nothing mechanical was found to be wrong. This is an extremely serious safety issue due to the inevitability of a collision with something or someone.

- Newtown, CT, USA

problem #7

Jan 012013

Ion 4-cyl

  • 100,000 miles
I am not sure if the power train is the transmission, but this car will downshift on its own, causing it to loose speed incredibly fast almost to the point of stopping. I found out there was a recall on this transmission, but GM now says there was not. Even though when I first called, the gentleman that answered said that the symptoms fit the recall stats. When I was able to talk with the person that was handling the claim, she said it was past 8 years, and they could not fix the recalled problem. I have had more than one garage, and transmission company tell me that this transmission is on a recall, just by checking the VIN #. GM now refuses to fix it and denies saying it was on recall. The auto dealer I bought it from says they can't do anything about it, even though they have sold other Saturn, same year. I spoke with the girl there that "enters the vins into the system to see if there is a recall on the car"...and she knew nothing about this car, although it has 4 other recalls listed for this year and model. Other important facts, I first called a local Saturn dealer, and they blew me off saying it was just "stuck" (the transmission) I kept driving it thinking I was wrong it was stuck like they said, whatever that meant. It got worse, I ended up calling GM as referred to by many garages and auto parts stores, and they acknowledged the recall on tranny, then flipped it around. While driving this car whether it is on the highway or a street, it will suddenly almost stop without hitting the breaks, as it will downshift on its own. This almost caused more than one accident. The car cannot be driven, I was never told about this problem when I bought the car.

- Kutztown, PA, USA

problem #6

Sep 012011


  • miles
2003 Saturn Ion. Consumer writes in regards to vehicle recall issues the consumer stated the vehicle was purchased new and she was never informed of a recall regarding the body control module which she was having problems with. The consumer stated the problem first started when the driver side window dropped when she closed the door. Then it would not stay up. Then half of the dash went black. The next window would go up and down on its own with no contact of any type. Then the controls to the electric windows stopped working completely and the electronic lock/opening device would not open the doors any longer or lock the trunk. The consumer was informed she would have to pay for a diagnostic test. The consumer also stated there was also a problem with the transmission. The vehicle did not react to being in park, so therefore, she had difficulty removing the keys from the ignition. The O2 sensor and the ignition switch had to be replaced. The consumer stated the transmission was never properly replaced. On one occasion, the vehicle stalled and the steering locked up.

- Janesville, WI, USA

problem #5

Aug 022011


  • 105,000 miles
My Saturn Ion has developed a transmission problem and I called GM and received a special request number and 48 hours later was contacted and after answering a few questions I was told that my car did not qualify for anything. The reason they gave was because the car has a salvage title. I had the car inspected by the state of mn and now have a prior salvage title. The damage to the car was cosmetic and has nothing to do with the poor transmission that GM sold to the public. Since then I have heard nothing but bad news stories about this transmission--someone needs to be accountable.

- White Bear Lake , MN, USA

problem #4

Apr 262011


  • 76,889 miles
I was traveling approximately 40 mph when the power steering lamp came on and the power steering failed. After pulling to the side of the road, and turning the vehicle off, I restarted the vehicle and the power steering was restored for about 20 minutes. The days following this, I encountered several power steering failures until I had the power steering box replaced on May 10, 2011. I researched the internet and found many other 2003 Saturn Ion's owners had experienced the same failure. I contacted a GM representative and asked for reimbursement. I was told that there was no recall for the power steering for my year and make of car. I had also complained about my transmission because I had declined repairs on my power steering. Winegarden Pontiac informed me that they would not further check the cause of transmission problems because the power steering failure presented a safety concern. I had the power steering box replaced at a cost of $537.94 minus the $127 diagnosis fee! I strongly feel that a recall should be in place for the power steering failure, and all who had the problem corrected out of pocket, should be reimbursed at GM's expense. The power steering failure has contributed to an accident in houston Texas! I would not like to have human life lost before this problem is given serious consideration! updated 06/08/11

- District Heights, MD, USA

problem #3

Jan 222007


  • 30,000 miles
Does not crank, does not start in cold weather & leaves you stranded.

- Dix Hills, NY, USA

problem #2

Jun 302003

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 150 miles
Almost from day one, the traction control does not turn off. The dealer says they hooked up a computer to see if it turned off and they said it does, but, as soon as I left the dealer, I hit the button to turn off the traction control and I spun the tires and the traction control kicked on and the car had no power pulling out into traffic. Yet the dealer says there is nothing wrong.

- Hellertown, PA, USA

problem #1

Jun 152003

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 1,984 miles
I bought a 2003 Saturn Ion 3 March 17, 2003. Within 2 weeks the car had a cracked cylinder with coolant leaking into the engine. Saturn Corp. Recalled the car. The purchase of [xxx] was canceled 4/17/03 and I purchased a 2nd 2003 Saturn Ion 3, [xxx], on 4/17/03. The 2nd car from the beginning had transmission problems shifting between gears, jerking up and down from 30 mph to 70 mph, kicks when started, rattles loudly in reverse, and steering problems coming out of turns. The car has been in service 4 times (bumper to bumper warranty. Information redacted pursuant to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(B)(6).

- Davie, FL, USA

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