NHTSA — Engine And Engine Cooling Problems

2003 Saturn Ion (Page 1 of 2)

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.


definitely annoying
Crashes / Fires:
0 / 1
Injuries / Deaths:
0 / 0
Average Mileage:
37,315 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 (Page 1 of 2)

problem #33

Oct 182011


  • miles


The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that when the vehicle was first started, the timing chain would exhibit an abnormally loud noise. The noise would cease once the engine was warm but could still be heard as the contact attempted to accelerate. In addition, the vehicle would become resistant to starting attempts in colder weather. The dealer advised the contact that both of the failures were common, but was not under recall. The vehicle was not repaired. The failure mileage was unknown, but the current mileage was 113,000. The VIN was not available.

- Berea, KY, USA

problem #32

Feb 092012


  • 88,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that while driving approximately 35 mph, the vehicle decelerated and stalled on the highway. The manufacturer was notified, but denied any assistance with repairs of the failure. The dealer was unable to diagnose the failure. The vehicle was not repaired. The failure and current mileages were 88,000. The VIN was unavailable.

- Penwick, WA, USA

problem #31

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 #30

Apr 022011


  • 100,000 miles


The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. While driving in reverse approximately 2 mph, the contact heard a loud noise coming from the engine and suddenly the engine warning indicator began to illuminate. Also, there was smoke emitting from the exhaust pipe. The vehicle was towed to an independent mechanic where they replaced the spark plugs, ignition control module and coil. The failure mileage was approximately 100,000.

- Minneapolis, MN, USA

problem #29

Mar 022010


  • 64,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. While driving at 30 mph the contact noticed that the vehicle would stall. The dealer was contacted and the contact was informed that the mileage was high and they did not have enough complaints from NHTSA to recall the vehicle. The contact has also experienced problems with the power steering when driving at a speed of 15-20 mph. The contact took the vehicle to an authorized dealership and they informed her that the electric power steering motor needed to be replaced.the approximate failure mileage was 64000 and the current mileage was 74500.

- Columbus, OH, USA

problem #28

Jan 202010


  • 77,230 miles
Car will not start in cold weather. This began 3 months ago at the beginning of the winter season, unfortunately the first day of a new job. This happened a number of times until I was let go for showing up late to work (apparently, a car that problematic was inconceivable). I had the battery replaced, but that didn't help. This happens sporadically, but mostly in the early morning or late evening when it's coldest outside. This past week alone, my car wouldn't start 3 times. I've done some research on the internet and have found hundreds of complaints of the same problem in Saturn Ion's (2003-2006 models). Some complaints have suggested it's the ignition, the passlock key, or an electrical issue, and my mechanic is looking into the fuel pump. The problem is that the diagnostic doesn't read a problem if the car is starting, which seems to be the case by the time the mechanic's shop opens (weather conditions are fairly good in southern California on most days). The other day, my car had stalled while driving in heavy rain conditions, thankfully on a small residential street, because it did not want to restart. It took 10 minutes to get the car going again. You can imagine how disastrous this situation could have been while driving on the freeway or busy city road. This is an extremely dangerous issue that must be taken seriously by GM. I have also made complaints to the ftc & to Saturn. From what I've read online, replacing the part doesn't even help because all of these Ion parts are faulty. Please see to it that consumers are protected. Thank you.

- Long Beach, CA, USA

problem #27

Jan 132010


  • miles


Car won't start when the temp is below 20 F, have to wait 10 min for anti theft to reset and then try again. Some times have to try 3 or 4 times. Dealer say it's a know problem and I have to replace the ignition switch at my expense.

- Old Orchard Beach, ME, USA

problem #26

Jan 012005

Ion 4-cyl

  • 88,500 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion which was purchased in 2003. She stated that in cold weather conditions, the vehicle would not start and it would stall intermittently. The dealer replaced the ignition switch at the owner's expense; however, the repair did not correct the failure. The vehicle continued to stall in cold weather and the manufacturer advised getting the ignition switch replaced a second time at the owner's expense. The failure and current mileages were under 88,500. Updated 01/29/10. Updated 02/01/10.

- Rutland, MA, USA

problem #25

Dec 182009


  • miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The vehicle was in the dealers possession when the timing belt broke. The manufacturer stated that the repair cost should be divided between the contact and the dealer. The current mileage was 64,000. The VIN and the failure mileage were not available.

- East Hampton, MA, USA

problem #24

Nov 262009


  • 40,000 miles
Timing chain broke on our 2003 Saturn Ion. Very dangerous and costly.

- Lindenhurst, NY, USA

problem #23

Oct 012004


  • 5,000 miles


2003 Saturn Ion will not start if weather is under 50 degrees. This has happened since purchasing the car in 2/2004. The Saturn dealer states they have had numerous complaints but is not a recall. Car does eventually start however it sometimes takes up to 20 minutes and I have been stranded at work, unable to arrive at work on time and have been stranded in dangerous areas of town.

- Dayton, OH, USA

problem #22

Jun 162009


  • 115,796 miles
On 16 June, 2009, I took my 2003 Saturn Ion in to have a faulty ignition switch replaced. The dealership did a 29 point checkup which I did not authorize. The total of the bill was $2424. One of the recommendations is that I replace my timing chain. I questioned how they knew my chain was bad, since they couldn't examine it. The repair associate stated based on his experience and that he could hear it "rattle". I asked the associate how long before my chain would need to be replaced. He said within six months. Though later he recanted his statement, to say that I have maybe up to six months but it can go at anytime. I had my switch replaced. I didn't drive a total of nine miles from the dealership and my timing chain snaps! I refused to allow them to repair my car. The head had four bent valves. Saturn wanted me to buy a new head for $885 as part of their new estimate to fix my damaged engine, which totaled $2442. This facility, Saturn of york, should be investigated. My Saturn had 115796 miles when the incident occurred. I use mobile one. My father had changed the oil within a month of this incident. My oil level was good, contrary to their 29 point inspection saying it was low and dirty. Suggesting I also have an oil change.

- York, PA, USA

problem #21

Apr 202009


  • 128,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. The contact stated that the vehicle would not start. The vehicle was towed to an independent mechanic and the timing chain was determined to be the cause of the failure. The vehicle was not included in a recall. The contact feels that the manufacturer should pay for the repair. The current and failure mileages were 128,000.

- Twin Lakes , WI, USA

problem #20

Jan 152009


  • 33,500 miles
Re: 2003 Saturn Ion: Buy date 5/03. Nov,2003, Saturn sent bulletin # 03-06-123-001, entitled loss of coolant/no external evident. Sent solely to all parts managers and tech's. condition: Some customers may comment that the low coolant light comes on with no external leaks visible. Cause"this condition may be caused by porosity in the aluminum of cylinder head casting. Car has 34000 mi. Warranty is 100,000 mi, or 5 years. The latter expired may, 2008. I am positive no recall to cust's was sent. Ask that you verify from Nov. 2003 to present that no recall was issued. Problem began about 500 miles ago. After repeated incidents, my local mech. Went on the computer and found the above mentioned bulletin. I am 86 yrs old, have emphysema, on oxygen 24/7.nearest family member is 400 mi. Away. Car is only mode of travel due to disability. Been warned by local mech. Not to take any trips due to fire danger.

- New Rochelle, NY, USA

problem #19

Feb 122009


  • 98,000 miles
On 3 occasions this winter, my 2003 Saturn Ion has failed to start. After the first 2, the battery was replaced. I now doubt the battery was faulty, because the problem seems to be intermittent and the engine would roll over, but not start. This morning (about 35 degrees), I attempted to start the car and it was very sluggish and would not start. I attempted to charge it and ended up walking my daughter 5 blocks to daycare and calling a ride to work. When I returned home 3 hours later, it still did not want to start and then ran sluggish. Online searches indicate hundreds of reports of a faulty ignition module. That will be my next repair/replacement. The car has 98000 miles. We previously owned a 1995 Saturn SC2 for 10 years with 150000 miles and no trouble.

- Belding, MI, USA

problem #18

Dec 012008


  • 55,000 miles
I purchased a used 2003 Saturn Ion level 1 in April of 2006. Beginning this winter (approximately early December 2008), my car did not start. Initially, it would simply click, but all electrical was working properly, and there was no drain of power upon attempting to start the car. A few hours later, my husband tried to start it, and it turned over as if there was no problem present. Since then, it has very randomly done the same thing - first try, nothing but electrical comes on, but after waiting anywhere from 5 - 30 minutes, the car will start only to die immediately, and then finally, the engine will turn over, and the car will run perfectly. This winter has been brutally cold, and I have a young son. Luckily, he has never been with me when I have encountered this issue while away from home - sitting in a non-running vehicle for up to half an hour in below-zero temperatures is not only dangerous to me, but *extremely* dangerous for him. I have even had occurrences of this when stopping at the store for a mere 10 minutes (after my car started perfectly to get there), only to come out and find my car completely useless. This particular night the temperature was literally 10-below-zero), and it took me a solid half hour to get it started again. I have discovered countless complaints regarding duplicate situations online from many, many Ion owners, as well as other models of Saturn. The fact that Saturn has not issued a recall for what is apparently remedied by replacing the ignition assembly and housing appall me, even though they address it as "not being a safety issue." When taking into consideration that I, as well as thousands of other Ion owners, could be left stranded far from any help or means to attain assistance, at any random time of day or location, in even the absolute worst of weather conditions makes me disagree completely with the assumption that it does not impact the safety of Saturn owners and their families. It deserves a recall.

- Beach Park, IL, USA

problem #17

Jan 102008


  • 67,600 miles
Oil started leaking on Saturday, took to shop on Sunday, they thought cracked head gasket. Went to Saturn dealer on Monday, they could not id leak, directed me to bring back in a couple days. Today they identified cracked cylinder head. Car has only 67,000 miles and has never overheated to the best of my knowledge. Block is cast iron, cyl head is aluminum. Quoted cost to repair: $2600, not under warranty and not covered by dealer.

- Coon Rapids, MN, USA

problem #16

Dec 022008


  • miles
I had the car in March 2008 from a certified dealership, and needed a head gasket in less than a year. If the car was certified how the car can have a major problem so much. I haven't had any accident, or any other problems with the car. Then the light blew out in the dash board.

- Parkville, MD, USA

problem #15

Jun 102006


  • 33,000 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. When the heater is operated, the vehicle would idle extremely high. The failure has been occurring since fall of 2006. The contact stopped at a traffic light and the failure recurred. Suddenly, the vehicle accelerated without the accelerator pedal being depressed. The dealer was unable to duplicate the failures. The manufacturer stated that if the dealer could not duplicate the failures, then nothing could be done. The VIN was unknown. The failure mileage was 33,000 and current mileage was 74,300.

- Ft Wayne, IN, USA

problem #14

Jul 042008


  • 86,789 miles
Engine is overheating, I have replaced thermostat, water pump, and it seems that it is related to the timing belt on the vehicle.

- Solon, OH, USA

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