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Saturn handles itself on track

General Motors of Canada states that the car "will introduce Saturn to sport compact enthusiasts." When thinking of the sport compact market, visions of highly customized but barely driveable Honda Civics clustered in the parking lot of the local Krispy Kreme come to mind, their twenty-something owners showing off the latest mods.

Today's young automotive enthusiasts spend huge sums of money personalizing their cars (for better or worse), and major manufacturers are vying for a piece of the action with quick and stylish yet usable factory hot rods.

I am slowly exiting the sport compact demographic. As such, I approached the Saturn Ion Red Line like a father readying himself to test out a child's new toy – memories of my own dad careening recklessly down the driveway on my sister's newly acquired pogo stick came flooding back.

Traversing the frost-heaved back roads that surround Shannonville Motorsport Park, the pogo stick analogy quickly became irrelevant as the sporty Saturn's suspension did a surprisingly fine job of smoothing out most surface imperfections.

Even abrupt, mid-corner bumps did little to toss the Ion from its projected arc. GM's exhaustive testing of this chassis at Germany's fabled, suspension-crushing N??rburgring has obviously paid off. At a moderate-to-brisk pace on the road, the body of the Ion Red Line stayed flat as cornering forces rose.

Given its sport compact aspirations and road-holding abilities, the Saturn's ride is truly impressive.

I was able to further exercise the handling of the Red Line through the tight turns of Shannonville's Nelson Circuit.

Understeer was noticeable only in the tightest of corners, where the front end wanted to drift wide of the apex.

A dedicated lift of the throttle or a sharp jab of the powerful disc brakes brought the nose back in line, and never threatened to unsettle the rear end.

The electrically assisted steering is nicely weighted and, with only 2.88 turns from lock-to-lock, it's sufficiently quick for the racetrack.

Feedback through the steering wheel is not generous, but the driver can easily sense the front tires clambering for grip when accelerating hard out of bends.

Incidentally, that is the only situation in which any form of torque steer could be detected, and only through a mild kick in the steering wheel. The Red Line's equal length half-shafts, which drive the front wheels, should be given credit here.

The engine's 205 hp is well suited to the size and 1,329 kg weight of the car and made short work of the tiny straights.

One of the most important aspects of any car considering itself a sport compact is its styling. Here, GM took the somewhat bland, somewhat quirky body of the Ion Quad Coupe and transformed it into a street racer.

The long front overhang is disguised by a deep chin spoiler, and the rear is graced with a tasteful wing (although two other look-at-me versions can be ordered from the options menu). Flared fenders and handsome 17-inch polished alloy wheels finish the package.

At just over $27,000, the Red Line is an expensive Saturn Ion.

But given a level of chassis sophistication worthy of more upscale machinery, let alone some homespun Honda, and excellent straight-line performance, the Red Line is a performance bargain.

A clever and usable automobile among showy sport compact toys.

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