NHTSA — Power Train: Automatic Transmission 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 / 0
Injuries / Deaths:
0 / 0
Average Mileage:
32,021 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 transmission problems

transmission problem

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2003 Saturn Ion Owner Comments (Page 1 of 2)

problem #31

Sep 012012

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • miles


2003 Saturn Ion. Consumer writes in regards to transmission problems and seeks vehicle reimbursement. The consumer stated when he backed the vehicle out of the garage, and put the gear in drive, the vehicle would not go forward. The consumer backed the vehicle back in to the garage. The next day he tried it, and the vehicle went forward. The vehicle was taken to the dealer, but they were unable to find a problem. From September 2012, until January 2013, the consumer had problems with the vehicle going forward. Each time, it would work again after letting the vehicle sit for awhile. Then on February 23, 2013, the vehicle would not go into reverse. After letting the vehicle sit for about four hours, the shifting worked. After driving three blocks, the vehicle stopped and the shifting went out again. The vehicle was towed to an auto repair shop. The repair shop informed the consumer the transmission had failed and the parts alone would cost $3,982.58.

- Rib Lake, WI, USA

problem #30

Jul 122010


  • 90,000 miles
Was stopped at a red light; when it turned green, car did not accelerate. Had to be pushed off to side of road; turned car off, then re-started it. It drove a short distance, then had no power, but was able to coast safely to side of road. Car was towed to gas station. Mechanic checked fluid level was good and did not have burnt smell. Tried to start car again - made low winding noise and would not go into gear. When gas pedal was pressed, the speedometer moved. Mechanic said it needs new transmission. Car has 90,000 miles.

- Freehold, NJ, USA

problem #29

Jun 252010


  • 74,085 miles
The contact owns a 2003 Saturn Ion. While accelerating onto a highway at 40 mph, the vehicle began to abnormally decelerate without warning. The vehicle was towed to a local repair facility where a diagnostic test indicated the transmission would need to be replaced. The manufacturer advised they would get back with the contact to determine if any assistance would be provided. The vehicle was not repaired. The failure and current mileages were 74,085.

- Friendswood, TX, USA

problem #28

Apr 042010

Ion 4-cyl

  • 55,000 miles


Transmission failure. There was a safety alert letter issued November of 2009 for 2003 Saturn Ion owners with stipulations claiming that the car had to be in service for 5 years or less to be able to have the part repaired at no cost. No one falls under this criteria considering that this alert was sent out in November of 2009, refer to safety alert #09280. My car has 55,000 miles on it and a transmission is not an expense that a Saturn customer should have to be paying in my opinion. They do offer a 50% off deal where they take care of half the cost. It's a $5000 job and half is $2500, still a very high cost for a problem that should have been considered a recall. I have only had this car for 2 years and to have this problem on a car that I have a car payment on. Please assist the Saturn owners in finding out how this did not become a recall. So many people are having this issue and it seems unfair to have to pay more money for a defect in the Saturn Ion and vue's transmission. Thank you for your time and help in this matter.

- Whitinsville, MA, USA

problem #27

Apr 022009


  • 71,000 miles
I was driving my 2003 Saturn ion2 with 4 cyl and vti transmission with 71,000 miles to work and it felt like it went into neutral and then slowed to a stop. I was almost rear-ended and was stranded on a busy highway. It turns out my vti transmission is defective, there is a class action law suit against GM for it, and it is following the settlement before it has been ruled upon by the judge. They are covering 75% of the repair because I am the second owner. If I was the original owner, they would have covered 100%. I purchased the car from the dealer where it was originally sold and it was a certified used car. I was having transmission noises after I bought the car and in requesting the service records, I found out that the previous owner had transmission problems and work was done for them. I brought the car in and they also did a repair on my transmission (this was prior to it having 36,000 miles and was still covered under the factory warranty). I'm trying to figure out why there has not been a recall on this transmission when all you have to do is do a google search for Saturn vti transmission problems and you will find thousands of people that have had problems. The 75% repair still leaves me paying $1,150 and my car is worth very little because all the car companies know about the problem, which has devalued the car. The worst part of this is that they are putting in the very same defective transmission and again the google search reveals they go bad again and again and again. Can the NHTSA please help me and the thousands of other Saturn owners with this problem? this transmission needs to be recalled.

- Missouri City, TX, USA

problem #26

Jan 092006


  • 69,000 miles
2003 Saturn transmission failed to work properly with around 69000 and Saturn refused to honor my warranty on my car.

- Memphis, TN, USA

problem #25

Jul 032008


  • 23,000 miles


Failed transmission.

- Miami, FL, USA

problem #24

Oct 112007

Ion 4-cyl

  • 90,025 miles
While driving my 2003 Saturn Ion 3 the motor will stall out and loose power while driving it seems like the transmission slips and a new one was put in and it still does the same thing. While driving on highway it does this.

- Bonne Terre, MO, USA

problem #23

Mar 012008

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 2,000 miles
2003 Saturn Ion III disengages in the middle of traffic as if gears have slipped into neutral at speeds from between 20 and 60 mph, so that there is no forward movement suddenly and then re-engages. Almost rear-ended several times also car will not start if turned off for a short time and key locks in ignition. Gears were re-calibrated and ignition replaced, but problems continue.

- Tampa, FL, USA

problem #22

Jan 012007

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 51,500 miles
Will driving down the road the transmission in my Saturn Ion lvl 3 slips and I have to let my foot off the gas and then kick the gas pedal for it to go into gear. It does this all the time when I am driving it. Also when I go to park the car, I put it in park and pull up the emergency brake and I go to remove the key and it will only go as far as acc mode. It will not release. I have to wait 20 to 30 minutes until it releases automatically. I have read online this is a known problem with Saturn and I have been told that they will not fix it. It does this almost every single day.

- Clemmons, NC, USA

problem #21

Sep 122006

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • miles


Since we purchased this vehicle brand new in 2003, the transmission has slipped occasionally upon normal acceleration. We brought this to the attention of the dealership at our regular maintenance appointments, and they told us that this was the normal functioning of the transmission. Fast-foward 3 yrs, 40,000 miles, and the problem has become a threat to the safety of those driving in and around the vehicle. When attempting to make a turn out of a parking lot onto a major road, the car rolled down the hill into the road, but it would not move any farther once on a flat surface. I am lucky that no one was coming too close or fast behind me, or my vehicle would have been a sudden, unavoidable roadblock for sure. This also happened while I was attempting to make a left hand turn with heavy oncoming traffic. People were somehow able to avoid my car, although it was a major hazard to safety. These were terrifying experiences, and I immediately dropped my car off at the dealership that night (I happened to be down the road from the dealer when these events occurred). According to the dealership, the transmission fluid was very dark, fluid pump severely damaged, and the 2nd gear clutch and coast assembly "burned up". the transmission, pump, gears, clutches, and torque converter were replaced at a cost of $1250, which they claimed was a great deal for us, as this was claimed to be a $5500 job. I appreciate their efforts and attempt to rectify the situation, however I am still disappointed in the lack of quality control, and the apparent lack of research and development in the engineering of this vehicle. No one expects to need to replace a transmission in a car with 40,000 miles. My life was put at risk because of a manufacturing error in this vehicle, and I hope that the the NHTSA takes the necessary actions to prevent more lives from being put at risk or lost due to this error.

- Granger, IN, USA

problem #20

Feb 122006


  • Automatic transmission
  • 46,000 miles
: the contact stated while driving 30 mph the vehicle revved at a high rate followed by a sudden decrease. The vehicle was seen by an independent repair shop. The mechanic performed a diagnostic and road tested which indicated a new transmission was needed. The mechanic replaced the automatic transmission and rebuilt the torque converter, which corrected the problem. The contact insisted that the transmission was defective from the factory. The vehicle was 3 years old. The contact had the transmission replaced. Had to pay out-of-pocket expenses in the amount of $2,136. Updated on 05/18/2006. Updated 06/15/06.

- Wixom, MI, USA

problem #19

Jan 012005

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 37,000 miles
I have a 2003 Saturn Ion that is having shifting problems. The car has 52,000 miles on it, and it is out of warranty, my daughter originally had the car, and drove it, without me knowing she was having problems with it shifting. Also there seems to be a vibration in the front end. I am taking it in for evaluation. I have had it in several times for the transmission, but they couldn't find anything wrong. I don't understand GM not doing something about these transmission problems. Also the seat belt locks and you can't get out of it. This is a real safety issue and I hope the address it. You literally have to crawl out of the belt.

- West Lebanon, IN, USA

problem #18

Jul 232003


  • Automatic transmission
  • 800 miles
The consumer stated transmission has never worked properly. The vehicle has been to the dealership multiple times, they stated could duplicate the problem. The problem was duplicated once, and the transmission module was replaced. The consumer has gone through 1-800- my- lemon, and since that, the dealership was not willing to help her anymore. The manufacturer was contacted, and they also claim ed it could not be T be duplicated, so they could not help. There have been multiple things wrong with the vehicle; the gas gauge and other things. The consumer did have the work orders and could send in that information. The transmission would go up to high rpms. It would jerk, and almost shut off. It happed on straight roads as well as hills.

- Ephreta, PA, USA

problem #17

Feb 022005

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 303,000 miles
Driver noticed that the transmission would down shift on its own. Driver took vehicle to the dealer for inspection, and mechanic determined that transmission was adjusted on more than one occasion. However, driver informed the mechanic that the problem still occurred, and had not been resolved. The consumer stated that the engine takes 2-5 minutes for it to idle down from 2500 RPM's. the consumer stated that the defoster on the passenger side failed. The consumer stated that the hood would not always close properly.

- Waterboro, ME, USA

problem #16

Dec 162004

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 18,000 miles
While on local interstate highway, the Saturn Ion 3 quad coupe automatic transmission began to slip. The rpms reached about 6,000 while trying to maintain the speed and pull over to the right. After a brief full stop (while in drive), the transmission engaged properly and did not slip. Upon taking the next exit, the car was placed into park and was idling. Exiting the vehicle, there was a strong burning smell which was quite similar to a clutch slipping in a manual transmission. No fluids were seen dripping and there was no cosmetic damage. The car would not return to drive. Despite pressing the brake as required, the car was 'locked' into park. A strange click was heard from the area near the trunk release button. This was different from the normal click that is heard when the brake is depressed in park. He vehicle was shut off and then restarted. The car would properly enter drive and the abnormal click was not present.the local Saturn dealer replaced the "input" and "output" filters in the transmission per direction of Saturn corporation. Transmission has not slipped again since this repair.

- Vancouver, WA, USA

problem #15

Jul 132003


  • 14,000 miles
Transmission: While driving 25 mph vehicle froze. Consumer could not go backward or forward. She had this problem several times in the past. Contacted the dealer, but the problem still exists.

- Dixon, CA, USA

problem #14

Sep 212004

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 16,000 miles
The transmission on my Saturn Ion quad coupe intermittently disengages or fails to engage when I step on the gas. This is dangerous because if it does not engage while I am pulling into traffic I could be hurt. I took it to the dealer and they said they could not duplicate the concern, but acknowledged there was a problem with these transmissions and a "fix" would be out sometime in the future. I had previously received on owner notification letter re this issue (implying that the transmissions would be replaced if there was a problem.) when I called the company to discuss my concerns, the dealer's response that nothing could be done, and the owner notification letter contents, the response was essentially that if the dealer cannot duplicate the concern, there is no problem--essentially, they said something bad has to happen before they will take action, and the dealer doesn't have time to drive the car until they can duplicate the concern. I think it's wrong and they should fix the problem. This happens at least 2X per day, never in the same place, no rhyme or reason to it.

- Royal Oak, MI, USA

problem #13

Jun 162004

Ion 4-cyl

  • Automatic transmission
  • 4,945 miles
Car hesitates with no warning when taking off from stop. Almost rear ended. Also almost struck from side in intersection.

- Rochester, MN, USA

problem #12

Dec 012003


  • Automatic transmission
  • 100 miles
When making turns, particularly right turns, my wife's new Saturn Ion quad coupe, loses power and hesitates after it gets the turn partially completed. This happens intermittently about once a week so it is tough to duplicate but it has caused her to be nearly hit several times by on coming traffic. The dealership states this is the way the vti transmission is designed to work so there is nothing to fix. Saturn in spring hill did not deny this was how the transmission was designed to work. I asked if there were any service bulletins that would fix this and they said none would actually fix this problem and they had no idea how to fix it. They also refused to provide a written response to my certified return receipt letter even though I specifically requested a written response. People are taking their cars to independent transmission shops to be fixed. Saturn is reimbursing some of these charges but they call it strictly a "customer satisfaction issue". complaints 10049664 and 10049638 sound very similar. I would suggest that you request that Saturn provide all complaints filed with them about the vti transmission, especially where independent shops did repairs. Those owners/independent shops could probably provide a wealth of info about vti transmission problems. I think you will find this is a safety problem and a recall is warranty.

- Fort Worth, TX, USA

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