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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.