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NEW CAR REVIEW
Sky raises Saturn's limits as sporty style hides nitpicks
 
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) – When it comes to new two-seat roadsters, the sky is the limit. The Saturn "Sky" hits the limit in eye-stopping beauty, which should make it popular despite a few things that fall a couple notches short of the limit.

The Sky is Saturn’s 2007 version of the recently introduced 2006 Pontiac Solstice. Bodywork and styling are remarkably different, with the Sky being a few inches longer, while the two cars share the same kappa platform and 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine.

As two-seat, open-air roadsters go, the market is pretty wide open. In the $40,000 realm, there are the BMW Z4, Mercedes SLK, Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, and the rarefied Lotus Elise, but closer to $30,000, the Honda S2000 is pretty much the only choice. In order to keep the price down to a reasonable under-$25,000 bracket, there long has only been one choice – the Mazda Miata.

It was a worthy move by General Motors to make the Solstice for 2006, aimed at the Miata’s sports-roadster-on-a-budget market segment, and directly opposite a new third-generation Miata.

The new, more feature-filled and stronger Miata is a gem, a much tighter, quicker and more sophisticated car than the first-off Solstice. But I had to give some Car of the Year points to the Solstice ahead of the Miata.

The Miata is a substantial improvement over an already excellent vehicle, while the Solstice is a breakthrough vehicle as the first GM product in decades that is fun to drive for reasons other than enormous engine displacement.

The Solstice’s shortcomings are the lack of anything resembling trunk space, a top that is as busy to put up and down as the Miata’s is simple, a five-speed stick where the Miata offers a six-speed, and a 2.4 engine that can’t beat the highly sophisticated 2.0 in the less-expensive Miata, and an overall feeling of looseness compared to the extremely tight Miata.

GM officials said a six-speed isn’t offered in order to keep costs down, so unfortunately a concession is granted to the Miata right out of the box. Still, the Solstice design wins big points for appearance.

Now along comes the Sky, and it purposely has been made a little bigger, heavier, more stylish, and presenting an entirely different appearance.

It is perhaps even more stunning to look at, with a frontal appearance that like a combination of the new Corvette and the newest Camaro concept car shown off at this year’s auto shows. The rear also has a very attractive and more geometric shape than the Solstice.

The Sky is intended to carry the heavy load of altering Saturn’s entire persona for the coming generation.

Saturn has entrenched itself with first-generation vehicles and outstanding dealership conduct, and the plan for the future, as GM confronts major financial problems, is to taper Saturn’s independence and make it something of a U.S. outlet sharing elements with GM’s German Opel operation.

 

With that in mind, the Sky is very similar to the new Opel GT.

The Sky will start at a base price of just over $23,000, which is about $3,000 more than either a basic Solstice or a basic Miata. After loading on a few options, the test-drive Sky stickered at $25,130.

In styling, on a 10-1 scale, I would give the Miata an 8.0 – because it’s very good, but not much of a variation from the previous model – and the Solstice a 10.0; but with the Sky now coming over the horizon, so to speak, I might give the Sky a 10.0 and drop the Solstice to 9.7.

While I wasn’t invited to the Sky introduction, so my first exposure to the car was a gleaming silver Sky from the Midwest press-car fleet for a week’s test drive. When the car showed up, it dazzled the whole neighborhood.

On my first walk-around, I had to admit it was attractive from every angle, although the neat little chromed vents on the hood are phony, and my theory is that if it’s not functional, why bother?

When I looked inside, I saw the high-gloss black -- "piano black" they call it – panel on the top of the dashboard’s center-stack, and a shiny silver panel surrounding the floor shift lever. But the shift lever – it was an automatic!

Now, automatics rule the industry, but in a sports roadster it almost seems sacrilegious to install an automatic, at least for first exposure. The Miata can be obtained with an automatic, but it has neat little paddle-shift manual overrides on the steering wheel, which is not available on the Sky. The automatic is a five-speed, with fifth adding a lower-rev cruising gear on the freeways.

  In "D," stepping on the gas at takeoff produces a fairly load roar that doesn’t seem to be matched by the enthusiasm of the car’s launch. My wife, Joan, went off for her first drive in the car and called back on her cell phone. "This car groans," she said. "When you step on it, it groans!"

I suggested putting the shifter in "4," which holds the transmission in the first four gears and gives the car a much better attitude, as well as ratio, for city and residential driving. With 177 horsepower, I’m sure the stick version would run as well as the stick Solstice, and closer to the quicker Miata. The automatic Sky definitely can’t keep up to that group.

Anyway, driving the Sky is impressive. It steers well around corners and holds the road pretty well, thanks to its wide and low stance, although the lighter and more agile Miata would still be the autocross choice.

The Sky shares some shortcomings with the Solstice, and adds a couple of its own. I was unable to put the top down for the first couple of days because of the kind of drizzly rain that open-air sports stadium proponents seem to have forgotten about. Coincidentally, I was heading from Minneapolis to Duluth for the weekend, and returning in time for a senior men’s baseball practice.

To get into the trunk, hit a switch in the cockpit or key fob and the little fabric-top points that meet back on the neatly styled buttresses behind the two seat backrests snap to attention, straight up, and the clamshell-opening lid unlatches.

You have to get out to flip up the lid, and see a massive carpeted thing over the fuel tank, and precious little room around it on both sides and at the rear. I filled all crevices with my computer bag, my baseball glove and spikes, a ball bag, one batting helmet, and two selected bats.

Snap the top back down, and walk around the car to button down the two fabric top points, and we’re off.

In the North Shore sunlight, it was time to shoot some photos so I drove up on Skyline Drive, and flipped the rear lid up, unlatched the top, and folded it carefully back and into the receptacle, above the gear I had stowed.

 

But the lid wouldn’t close. After several careful attempts, I moved the helmet, the glove, the spikes and the ball bag into the passenger seat, and only then was there room to put the folded top down deep enough to close the lid securely.

The fact sheet says luggage space is 5.4 cubic feet with the top up, and 2.0 with it down. Those figures might work, as long as none of the items you’re stowing are larger in diameter than a folded-up newspaper.

Interior issues also proved to be less than ergonomically sound. The instrument panel has only speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, and while they are all located well, they are housed inside bright silver bezels, and the fuel gauge is down a tube. Daytime glare from the bright silver surrounds made it difficult to see the fuel gauge at all.

Sitting in the cockpit, the diagonal door grip is comfortable to grab, but because of its location, the switches for the power windows are mounted rearward from that grip, on the armrest. I’d slide my arm back to operate the switches, and my elbow hit the end of the armrest indentation before my fingers got to the switches.

Without the skill to operate the switches with my elbow, I had to put my elbow up at ear-height and reach straight down, as if trying to put myself into a hammerlock, to open or close the windows.

If a shorter arm might have helped work the window switches, much longer arms are required to reach either the storage box located on the back wall between the two bucket seats, or the dual cupholders that pop out directly under that cubicle. A single cupholder pops out of the center console on the passenger side.

My other ergonomic issue is so bizarre that I am declaring it a remarkable coincidence of anti-ergonomics.

Driving along with the top up, on a fairly bright day, I found myself repeatedly glancing up at the rear-view mirror, each time realizing there was not some vehicle that had suddenly materialized behind me, but instead merely a reflection in the rear-view mirror that was bright enough to catch my peripheral vision.

Finally I decided to trace it. I could clearly see the reflection of the shiny silver gearshift lever surround – which is located directly down from, and perpendicular to, the rear-view mirror. So how did the reflection get from there to there?

It’s easier to comprehend if you’re into billiards, because this required a four-cushion bank shot. First, normal brightness coming down through the windshield hits the silvery surround, and reflects almost straight back up, where it hits the windshield, and reflects straight back.

With the top down, it would continue on into infinity…or Infiniti, if someone was driving one behind you. But with the top up, the reflected glare ricochets off the almost-vertical rear window, bouncing slightly upward as it caroms almost straight back forward – directly into the rear-view mirror, from where it flashes directly into the driver’s eyes.

Remarkable.

Even if a Ford insurrectionist had infiltrated GM’s design studio, he couldn’t have been clever enough to create this scenario with such fiendish precision. When a new model has such shortcomings, you wonder if any full-size human evaluator ever sat in one to see if all was well. If so, has such an evaluator been "reassigned," or possibly institutionalized for sadistic tendencies?

Despite those complaints and criticisms – call them nitpicks – I like the Sky overall. I’m sure I’ll like it a lot better with the five-speed manual. I personally prefer little engines that overachieve, and when the sticker price rises to near $30,000, the Honda S2000 enters the picture, with a four-cylinder that stirs up 240 horsepower and performs at a whole ’nother level.

I’ll have to check out the Sky again with a stick, and still again when the car gets a Red Line upgrade this fall, with a turbocharged 260 horsepower version of the basic Ecotec, firmer suspension, and a limited-slip differential.

We’ll have to wait and see if they solve the window switches. And you may still have to decide whether to take your wife or a couple of small duffel bags, because you can’t fit both. That remains the nagging memory of the Sky:

It’s extra frustrating when a car that is a perfect "10" in styling and appearance has such nagging shortcomings. I thought we had left the style-over-substance plateau a couple of decades ago.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.