NHTSA — Engine And Engine Cooling: Engine Problems

CarComplaints.com Seal Of This Might Hurt

CarComplaints.com 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:
0 / 0
Injuries / Deaths:
1 / 0
Average Mileage:
23,213 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 engine problems

engine problem

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2003 Saturn Ion Owner Comments

problem #14

Oct 272010


  • 92,000 miles


Engine goes into high idle RPM, 1500 to 2200 RPM, after being driven a period of time at high speed. If you shut off engine and restart engine idle resumes to 800 RPM, but if driven engine idle will go back to high idle again. Dealer reprogrammed (PCM) power control model as per Saturn fix alert of 4/2004; but this did not work.

- New Windsor, NY, USA

problem #13

Jan 162009


  • 75,300 miles
During every cold season since the purchase of 2003 Saturn Ion, there is a problem with starting the vehicle in cold weather (usually when below 25 deg F). This seems to be an intermittent problem. How the problem manifests is as follows: In cold weather, when trying to start the vehicle, engine frequently (at least 25% of the time) will not "catch" and run- just turns over. If immediately trying to start it again after a first failed start, engine turns over slowly and dies (similar to dead battery symptom, however battery has been checked and found to be ok). After letting the car sit for 5 minutes after a failed attempt, trying again may result in a moment of what appears to be fuel getting to the engine, and more engine turning, however engine stalls. After repeated waiting and start re-attempts (often 5- 10 times, and an elapsed period of time of 30- 60 minutes of re-attempts, the engine will frequently start and remain started. However the inconvenience of a 30-60 minute delay is disconcerting, and on some cold mornings, repeated failed attempts causes battery to drain and need for "jump starting" the car, at owner expense and inconvenience. An internet search on 2003 Saturn Ion cold starting problem indicates a pervasive and systematic problem in ignition switch design, however Saturn has not yet acknowledged this design flaw in a formal recall. Today, repairs have to be made at owner expense ($200-300 replacement ignition switch seems to be the feedback). See website www.carsurvey.org/viewcomments_review_97727.html my request of the NHTSA is that you urge Saturn to issue a formal recall for this problem immediately. Please respond with your inputs and intended approach on this situation. Also, if you are aware of other agencies that I should contact about this problem, I would greatly appreciate.

- South Hadley, MA, USA

problem #12

Dec 162008

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 72,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that the vehicle failed to start in cold weather. It takes approximately 30 minutes or less for the vehicle to start. The vehicle was taken in for inspection, but they could not find any failures. The manufacturer stated that no recalls were available. The failure and current mileages were 72,000. Updated 020209 updated 02/03/09.

- Old Bridge, NJ, USA

problem #11

Dec 232008


  • miles


Car will not start in temperatures near 32 degrees or less. Ignition switch and battery have already been replaced. Car starts to crank then stalls out and service light comes on. Must wait 10-15 minutes to try again. If lucky it will start on 2nd try, otherwise 3rd. This has been going on for past 3 weeks when temps dropped.

- Manassas, VA, USA

problem #10

Jan 062007

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • miles
Vehicle will not crank or start after car is turned off after driving a short or long time. Service light comes on when you try to start the vehicle. After letting it set for about 20 mins the vehicle then starts and shutoff again and it takes about five tries to get it started again.

- Johnsburg, IL, USA

problem #9

Dec 292006

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 35,500 miles
My Saturn Ion 3 had 4 occurrences of service vehicle's message in the last 24 hours since Dec 29, 2006. When I turn the key, the engine doesn't turn over. The message windows shows "service vehicle" and the "security"/pass lock symbol on the dash keeps flashing. I kept trying turning the ignition, nothing happnened. The after approx. 10 minutes, the car started and ran great as if nothing happened.

- Grand Blanc, MI, USA

problem #8

Jan 272006

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 46,000 miles


Driving under normal conditions on the highway, check engine light came on and within seconds smoke began billowing out both ends of the vehicle. The engine has been confirmed to have a hole in the block, rendering the vehicle inoperable until it is replaced. The vehicle is in the dealership shop and is awaiting an adjuster from the car company to inspect it before they will begin to repair it.

- Rogue River, OR, USA

problem #7

Oct 202004


  • Automatic transmission
  • miles
The vehicle stalled while driving on the freeway and going down a hill. The vehicle accelerated up to 5,000 RPM's and would not go down until the vehicle was on a flat surface. Provide further details.

- Castaic, CA, USA

problem #6

Dec 012003

(reported on)


  • miles
Consumer complained about intermittent stalling. It occurred almost every other week. Consumer stated vehicle was driven approximately 350 miles per week. Took vehicle back to dealership on 3 separate occasions, but dealer could not resolve the problem.

- Canyon Country, CA, USA

problem #5

Aug 162003

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 98 miles
Within 1 week of purchasing vehicle, engine light was coming on and car would shake. Brought in to dealer and they ran a diagnostic test which determined nothing was wrong. Within 2 days engine light continued to come on, sometimes staying on steady and sometimes blinking. Vehicle will start to shake and will not accelerate. When going down hills (even small ones) vehicle will suddenly feel like the brakes have been put on and vehicle jerks forward. The car feels like it's about to stall out when trying to accelerate. When opening the trunk it was very hot and you could not put your hand down in it. Called dealer to make another service appt. This week.

- Braintree, MA, USA

problem #4

Mar 292003

Ion 4-cyl

  • miles


Vehicle stalled while on the highway causing the steering wheel to lock up. The vehicle would lock up as if it was turned off. After the vehicle was received back from repair, it had become difficult to gain speed, and shift gears automatically(especially problematic when in lower speeds), and would randomly begin to shake.

- Ludington, MI, USA

problem #3

Jun 302003


  • miles
Engine light appeared on instrumental panel, vehicle was taken to the dealer, and they could not duplicate the problem. The following day manufacturer called the consumer not to drive the vehicle at all. Dealer kept the vehicle for 3 weeks.

- Davie, FL, USA

problem #2

Apr 012003

Ion 4-cyl

  • 4,000 miles
New Saturn Ion 2003 stalls while driving down highway, steering column locks up, must stop suddenly to restart and gain control of car.

- Ludington, MI, USA

problem #1

Jan 102003

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 80 miles
Dear administrator: I purchased a 2003 Saturn Ion 2 on December 28, 2002. I reported to both the Saturn corporation and the dealership that sold me the vehicle that the vehicle wasn't safe after driving the vehicle for 80 miles. The dealer agreed to fix the vehicle, so I took the vehicle in and the dealership on 4 seperate occasions, two of which the dealer refused to accept my vehicle. On January 10, not two weeks after the purchase of the vehicle, Saturn kept the vehicle for nearly one week. After the loan was approved on the vehicle, the dealership returned the vehicle to me and said the vehicle was free of defects. After nearly being killed in the vehicle twice because the vehicle stalled on the freeway when I attempted to accelerate, I took the vehicle to the Saturn dealership in cerritos, California. The dealership where I purchased vehicle refused to honor my warranty, refused to accept the vehicle and told me that they would not accept the vehicle. I had 1,200 miles on car and I had not had the vehicle in my possession for 30 day because the vehicle had been in this dealership's auto repair shop for 5 days. When I was nearly killed in the vehicle for the last time, I was forced to have the defective vehicle towed and left at the dealership. Saturn refused me tow service on this vehicle, although I have purchased tow service. Saturn is now in possession of the vehicle and has been since February 1, 2003. The Saturn of cerritos, manager, Mr. Vance threatened me on February 1, 2003, and told me that I returned the vehicle that Saturn would return the vehicle to americredit, the company that financed the car and would have my credit ruined - if I did not keep the defective vehicle. The Saturn corporation manager, donna lansfield, also threatened me and in an unprofessional, threatening manner attempted to force me to retrieve Saturn's defective vehicle that nearly killed me twice now.

- Seal Beach, CA, USA

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