Saturn's new roadster sets a style and performance high water mark for the brand. It's not so much a maxi Miata as a Corvette junior petite. BY AARON ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN WING June 2006 The “different kind of company with a different kind of car” that General Motors launched in 1990 with a $3 billion shower of cash and a sickly sweet marketing campaign soon became the same old company selling last year’s car. A decade slipped away before Saturn produced a second product line, the lackluster L-series. The subsequent Vue and Ion have only smoldered, and the division’s engineering and marketing bureaus, once independent, have been fully absorbed into the monolithic mother ship. The revolutionary notions that were espoused in the glowing Hal Riney ads — a separate company within GM of eager young minds, the teaming of disputatious labor and management, the one-price dealers — wound up feeling mostly like missed opportunities. Here comes the 2007 Saturn Sky, and with it, Saturn’s long-foretold revival goes back onto the front burner. The Sky arrives not a minute too soon. Although GM appeared to give up on Saturn, the division’s dealers — who are generally liked by customers, or at least those filling out J.D. Power and Associates dealer-satisfaction surveys, where Saturn consistently rates with Toyota, Honda, and even Lexus — didn’t give up. The dealers moved 213,657 Saturns in 2005 against competitors with better reputations and better cars with better resale values. And now GM is taking a renewed interest in its giant ball of gas. Saturn, the official transportation of coupon-clipping pensioners and unemployed psych majors, will become a distribution network for urbane Opels from the Continent. Saturn never saw the sun shining so bright, never saw things goin’ so right. At least, that’s the giddy feeling people get when first gazing at the Saturn Sky. After they ask who makes it. After we respond. And after they say, “Really? Saturn?” It’s true. GM product czar Bob Lutz smote the earth and up sprang the pipsqueak Kappa platform, a fascinating potpourri of hydroformed steel tubes and stampings, aluminum control arms, and GM-parts-bin bits. The Kappa is now experiencing cell mitosis. First it sired the Pontiac Solstice roadster (December 2005), and now it gives life to a Saturn cub-Vette. The Sky, assembled alongside the Solstice in Wilmington, Delaware, is 3.9 inches longer than the Pontiac but otherwise virtually identical dimensionally. It is the Sky that will sell in Europe as the Opel GT, having been styled in GM’s Coventry, England, studios by Simon Cox, the chief artiste behind Cadillac’s 2001 Cien show car. The Sky takes up where the Solstice’s clean, orbicular shape leaves off. Extra design trinkets include forward-canted side vents, faux hood vents, multiple grille openings with dashes of chrome, and a rear undertray with incorporated backup light. The headlights and the taillights are busied with proliferating lenses — the Sky has projector-beam headlamps, the Solstice doesn’t — and chrome spears. The lonely “Sky” badge adrift on the rump looks like an afterthought. Why couldn’t it have been neatly embossed on the bumper? If the Solstice strikes you as too unorthodox, too unembellished and original to be a GM design, the Sky is happy to restore your sense of normality. Saturn intends the Sky to rise above the Solstice (don’t worry, the next cars, the Galileo and the Kepler, will explain everything), in that the Sky’s base price of $23,690 is $3200 higher than the stripper Solstice’s. The extra nip gets you air conditioning, ABS, cruise, power everything (except the top, which is manual in all Kappas), keyless entry, floor mats, an alarm, and OnStar for a year. Taken together these options cost $3355 on the Solstice, which also doesn’t have the Sky’s fancy swabs of “piano black” interior trim to spruce up what is otherwise a concerto in hard plastic. The Sky has other differences. The exhaust is slightly quieter, the top insulated with another layer of acoustic material. A more Stay-Puft ride results from a longer suspension travel and shorter jounce bumpers. The refinement is turned up a notch over the Solstice, and it’s noticeable. Over pavement holes the Sky’s suspension lets the body down with softer landings. Lumps aren’t as obtrusive. Dig into the throttle, and the burring from the DOHC 16-valve 2.4-liter four is more muted, its 6900-rpm redline less of a raspy thrash than in the Solstice. GM’s Ecotec swings a big stroke and will never be confused with a zingy sports-car engine. In the Sky, the harshness is better hidden. At 2940 pounds, our phone-book-yellow Sky was 63 pounds more massive than our last Solstice tester and 515 pounds more portly than our last Mazda MX-5. No shocker then that the Sky demanded 7.3 seconds to make 60 mph and wouldn’t be bullied to its 88-mph quarter-mile in less than 15.9 seconds. Flog as we might, we couldn’t duplicate our last Solstice sprint times (6.7 seconds to 60 mph, which somehow matched the MX-5 it was being compared against). We’ve run the clock on three Kappas now and believe the Sky’s performance to reflect the effort buyers can expect from the rated 177 horsepower. Those who require more fun in the sun can wait for Saturn to uncork the Sky Red Line this fall, equipped with a 2.0-liter turbo making 260 horsepower. Pontiac will have its Solstice GXP, and prices should start in the higher 20s. Until then, the Sky’s chief assets will be its looks and stiff chassis, which kept the car flat and planted while chasing hairpins in the Santa Monica Mountains behind Malibu. Compared with a Mazda MX-5, or indeed a BMW X5, the Sky feels wide and the seats set deep in the body. The vibe, enhanced by the view forward of bat-wing fenders, is distinctly Corvette without the V-8 thunder. Steering feel, critical to a roadster’s street credentials, proved worthy of tight roads with fast-changing cambers and pitching pavement. The large wheel jigs and tugs just enough to keep drivers on the tires’ wavelength. The Sky turns with commitment and holds a tight line through corners with no squealing or sloppy body motions. Gerbil-grade power means frequent downshifts and long periods with the pedal buried. A shifter that slides precisely and feels better than a pickup truck transmission has a right to is close enough to the wheel to be flicked with a fast hand motion. Danger is virtually unknown. When the grip breaks, it does it gradually, predictably, and in sports-car style from the rear. Catch the little slides with a little gas and a little countersteer, and push on with one big grin. Eventually, a few clouds catch up to the Sky. Saturn small-car product manager Steve Mertes says styling is the No. 1 reason for purchase of a convertible. That overarching fact is perhaps why GM sacrificed common sense in a few places. The interior has tidy forms but ergonomics on par with a game of Twister. The window buttons and mirror control reside closer to your elbow than your fingers and require an uncomfortable wrist wrench to operate. The cup holders are almost useless, the gauges too small and dark in the bottom of their tubes. Assuming your right arm doesn’t have quadruple joints, you’ll have to corkscrew around and open the small cubby between the seats with your left hand — a move called the John Denver, in honor of the singer who died while attempting the same thing in his airplane. Top down, the twin fairings of the trunklid cast a striking profile, and the cabin is nicely insulated from wind. But the top’s design and operation may put you in too foul a mood to fully enjoy it. First, someone must get out to operate the top, an imposition MX-5 owners will smirk at as they two-finger their tops from the driver’s seat. Also, the Sky’s top never stacked neatly, having to be pushed down against its will in order to get the lid closed. Because waterproofing the Sky depends on the interference fit of miles of thick rubber seals, multiple slammings were required of the trunk and doors before anything would latch. At times the Sky feels less like a car than an overstuffed suitcase. Speaking of which, you can leave those at home. GM claims five cubic feet of trunk space with the top up, perhaps with a supercomputer adding up all the odd crannies around the carpeted mound that is the fuel tank. Unless your bag can deform into the shape of a poster tube, it’ll be no more welcome in the trunk than it would be around a coffin already in its hole. Complaints duly noted, the Sky drives well despite its weight and catches stares under blue skies. Many will find more to love in the crafty MX-5, but the Sky’s styling and standard features make it the first sunny patch in Saturn’s long winter of discontent. THE VERDICT Highs: Son-of-Vette styling, handles as if it were lighter, many comfort items standard. Lows: Toilsome top; slam and slam again doors; dude, where’s my trunk? The Verdict: Sky pilots will love the looks and handling but may chafe at the compromises. COUNTERPOINT MITCH McCULLOUGH The Saturn Sky looks like fun. Okay, I prefer the clean, pure design of the Pontiac over the sporty and aggressive styling cues of the Saturn (never thought I’d say that), but I like the Sky. The handling is balanced, and there’s plenty of grip, but the weight of the car and the softness of the suspension mean it squats and dives. It lacks the agility of the Mazda Miata, and heel-and-toe braking and downshifting are awkward. But it’s a nice cruiser. Drop the top, and life is good. It manages driveway transitions and bumpy roads comfortably and feels more refined than the Solstice. For that reason, I’ll take the Saturn over the Pontiac. (Never thought I’d say that, either.) BARRY WINFIELD After long anticipating a drive in Pontiac’s Solstice, I was fairly disappointed by the car when I drove it during the ’06 10Best Cars evaluations. To my mind there was not a single aspect of the car that had been executed correctly. But this Sky seems an altogether different proposition. Despite a similarly coarse and buzzy engine, a somewhat heavy and obstructive shifter, and the same tight cockpit confines, the Saturn version feels altogether better integrated. The revised ride-and-handling compromise lends a new sense of harmony to the car. It ain’t an MX-5, but it’s okay. 2007 SATURN SKY Vehicle type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door roadster Price as tested: $25,850 Price and option breakdown: base Saturn Sky (includes $575 freight), $23,690; Monsoon audio package (includes 6-CD in-dash changer and 7 Monsoon speakers), $890; Premium Trim package (includes leather seats, steering-wheel audio controls, metal sill plates, and stainless-steel pedals), $750; XM-satellite-radio capability, $325; extra-cost paint, $195 Major standard accessories: power windows and locks, remote locking, A/C, tilting steering wheel, rear defroster Sound system: Monsoon AM-FM-satellite radio/CD changer, 7 speakers ENGINE Type: inline-4, aluminum block and head Bore x stroke: 3.46 x 3.86 in, 88.0 x 98.0mm Displacement: 145 cu in, 2384cc Compression ratio: 10.4:1 Fuel-delivery system: port injection Valve gear: chain-driven double overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder, hydraulic lifters, variable intake- and exhaust-valve timing Power (SAE net): 177 bhp @ 6600 rpm Torque (SAE net): 166 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm Redline: 6900 rpm DRIVETRAIN Transmission: 5-speed manual Final-drive ratio: 3.91:1 Gear, Ratio, Mph/1000 rpm, Speed in gears I, 3.75, 5.2, 36 mph (6900 rpm) II, 2.26, 8.6, 60 mph (6900 rpm) III, 1.37, 14.3, 98 mph (6900 rpm) IV, 1.00, 19.5, 123 mph (6300 rpm) V, 0.73, 26.7, 110 mph (4100 rpm) DIMENSIONS Wheelbase: 95.1 in Track, front/rear: 60.7/61.4 in Length/width/height: 161.1/71.4/50.1 in Ground clearance: 3.6 in Drag area, Cd (0.42) x frontal area (20.0 sq ft, est): 8.8 sq ft Curb weight: 2940 lb Weight distribution, F/R: 53.1/46.9% Curb weight per horsepower: 16.6 lb Fuel capacity: 13.6 gal CHASSIS/BODY Type: unit construction Body material: welded steel stampings and hydroformed steel INTERIOR SAE volume, seats: 50 cu ft luggage, top up/down: 5/2 cu ft Front-seat adjustments: fore-and-aft, seatback angle Restraint systems: manual 3-point belts, driver and passenger front airbags SUSPENSION Front: ind, unequal-length control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar Rear: ind, unequal-length control arms with a toe-control link, coil springs, anti-roll bar STEERING Type: rack-and-pinion with hydraulic power assist Steering ratio: 16.4:1 Turns lock-to-lock: 2.7 Turning circle curb-to-curb: 34.9 ft BRAKES Type: hydraulic with vacuum power assist and anti-lock control Front: 11.7 x 1.0-in vented disc Rear: 10.9 x 0.5-in disc WHEELS AND TIRES Wheel size/type: 8.0 x 18 in/cast aluminum Tires: Goodyear Eagle RS-A, P245/45R-18 96V M+S Test inflation pressures, F/R: 29/29 psi Spare: none C/D TEST RESULTS ACCELERATION: Seconds Zero to 30 mph: 2.5 40 mph: 3.9 50 mph: 5.5 60 mph: 7.3 70 mph: 10.2 80 mph: 13.1 90 mph: 16.6 100 mph: 21.9 Street start, 5–60 mph: 7.7 Top-gear acceleration, 30–50 mph: 16.7 50–70 mph: 12.4 Standing 1/4-mile: 15.9 sec @ 88 mph Top speed (drag limited, C/D est): 123 mph BRAKING 70–0 mph @ impending lockup: 174 ft HANDLING Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g Understeer: minimal FUEL ECONOMY EPA city driving: 20 mpg EPA highway driving: 28 mpg C/D-observed: 16 mpg INTERIOR SOUND LEVEL* Idle: 53 dBA Full-throttle acceleration: 79 dBA 70-mph cruising: 73 dBA *From Pontiac Solstice, C/D, December 2005. The Sky couldn’t be tested for sound because the rear glass was shattered after we lowered the top and overpacked the trunk.