COAL: 2004 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe- Bummerland

There are some musical groups that see you through a difficult time in your life, whose songs you can look back on with bittersweet relief. The last three years, starting in 2020, that group has been AJR. One of their songs came to mind when writing about my most recent car.

“Bummerland” was released by a band of three brothers who have a small but rabid fanbase. Since discovering AJR around that time, I have listened to each song they’ve put out, always excited for more. Their music has found its way into my phone and downloaded on my ipod that had most recently been a musical fixture of my 1984 Volvo 240 DL.

My family and I had decided to move to Ohio to be closer to a support network of friends. Cost of living is cheaper, and the environment in the larger cities seemed to be more welcoming overall. In order to fund the move, I made the choice to sell my Volvo, leaving myself and my partner with just our 2004 Honda Element.

It was around this time I met two great friends living in Toledo. The more we talked, the closer we became, and as the weeks went on, we began to discuss my move to their state. They suggested buying me a cheap car since I was without one. My plan up to that point had been to use public transportation until I could afford to get something on my own. They had said that while commendable, life in Dayton would be made easier for that first year if I didn’t have to worry about that kind of thing.

The hunt for a cheap set of wheels was on! I was told I could pay them back once I had gotten settled. After a few false starts I found the car you see at the top of this piece. Now you may be wondering… why? Why an Ion?

The truth is out of the options I had seen, it was the best car I could find. Most automotive reviewers of the time had found the Ion, especially the Ion Quad Coupe, to be very underwhelming if not downright terrible. However, when I looked at user reviews of regular people who had kept their Saturns for hundreds of thousands of miles, it took digging to find people who had bad things to say. These weren’t the greatest cars on earth but they were hardy and in some cases… fun!

My Saturn is a 2004 Ion3 Quad Coupe. The 3 in the name means it’s the highest trim level you could get in the regular Ion line with things like leather seats, a leather wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, sunroof, and power windows. This economy car had some pretty nice things and for the price I paid, and I found myself quite happy. The Quad in the name refers to the fact this coupe has four doors. It, like the Element, has a set of suicide doors behind the driver and passenger doors. It makes it easy to get in and out of and easy to load things in it. I find it funny I am now the owner of two grey cars, of the same year, with a similar door set up!

The driving experience is, in a word… Rowdy. I don’t know how the automatic would be in a car like this (though if the reviewers are to be believed, quite dull), but the five speed manual makes this little car a blast to drive. The 2.2 liter four cylinder tugs the car forward with a surprising amount of pull. At idle the exhaust is so quiet you can hardly hear it when inside the car. However the minute you give it any throttle and stick it in gear the little car growls and skips the tires as you get off the line.

I first drove Apollo (for that is the car’s name) during a vacation where said friends paid to fly me up there to see them for a couple days. The first time I took my car out and whipped it around a corner, I was all smiles. After 300K miles and being a little worse for wear, the little Ion still has some fight left in it.

Back to the title of this piece: Bummerland. At first blush you might think that’s something negative and by extension, the song that shares its name would be too. Part of what I love about AJR is their ability to turn a concept on its head. Bummerland is a song about bouncing back from hard times, about finding joy in the future. When my friends bought me Apollo, a few lines of that song came to mind:

“My friends always pay for my drinks
I can’t afford no nice things
But I hope my bank account gets so low
Even zero
So next year
When I buy that first beer
I’ll be a goddamn hero!”

Those of you that have been following my work know how difficult the last year has been for me. The past twelve months prior to me selling my Volvo had seen my savings account with just $50 in it. Thanks to a recent windfall that situation has changed somewhat. I have money in savings again. The Element got maintenance I had been putting off for the better part of a year. I was able to buy new socks, which when I opened the package for, found myself in tears. Right at that moment I felt like I was alive again. A package of socks was something I couldn’t have afforded a month ago.

Joy and hope are funny things. They are something we choose to give ourselves. At time of writing we are set to move to Ohio in July. Things are still tight, but I am no longer so close to the financial edge. When I sat down in my Saturn for the first time, took it driving around Toledo, I felt the rough little four cylinder running and the worn out gear knob in my hand. I felt that for the first time in so long, I was being given a chance at a new life.

The last day of my trip, I went to an antique store in Maumee. There I found a keychain from Fantasyland, an amusement park that had gone belly up in 1980. Located in Gettysburg, PA it deserves looking into if you haven’t heard of it. When I read the words on it, as it hung from a little pegboard in the corner of the store, I let out a chuckle. KEEP ME AND NEVER GO BROKE, it read. I BRING GOOD LUCK, it followed.

I pulled it off the peg with a sigh, knowing it was perfect for me. My bummerland could use a lucky penny.