By Eric Peters on 5.5.06 @ 12:06AM
Sometimes, a car company’s most inspired creations come at times of greatest desperation — sheetmetal Hail Marys on which many hopes are pinned. The magnificent Studebaker Avanti comes to mind. (It didn’t save the company, of course — but it is one of the few things most people remember about Studebaker some 40 years since the company closed its doors.)
Saturn (and parent company GM) are in a not dissimilar position today: major money troubles, plant closing and layoffs, drooping sales, even rumors of possible bankruptcy. But the drop-dead gorgeous 2007 Sky roadster is definitive proof some people within the company very much want there to be a Saturn five (or even two) years from now.
This car radiates passion (someone must’ve slipped the corporate suits some Rohipnal and stuffed them in a closet while it was being developed) and, beyond that, a commitment to getting all the details right. Both have been absent for far too long from too many GM branded vehicles for far too long — and GM is currently playing a very hard price for that.
But this one’s not like that at all. When you see for the first time you’ll want to know what it is; then you will want to drive it. And when you do, you will very likely want to drive it home. In contrast to some of the half-steps and missteps of the past, the only cheesy thing here will be your grin after spending a few hours behind the wheel.
SKY SHARES ITS BASIC mechanical underthings with the also appealing Pontiac Solstice — including its standard 2.4 liter, 177-hp DOHC four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission and rear-drive chassis/suspension components — but receives its own unique exterior and interior cosmetics, as well as more “upmarket” content (see details below).
Sometimes, this in-house sharing is not especially helpful to either car — for example, the last (and unsuccessful) generation of the Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird, which was retired in 2002 after several years of flaccid sales. Sometimes, however, GM does the corporate two-step so well that even though the twins may spring from the same loins and have much in common, the finished machines complement rather than duplicate one another. The first generation 1967-‘69 Camaros and Firebirds come to mind.
And like the early Camaro and Firebird, both the Sky and the Solstice incite rubbernecking wherever they go.
But each will appeal to a different type of buyer.
Of the two, the Solstice is more the leather jacket/muscle shirt type. In black especially it is low cut and mean-looking. In red, it’s as torrid and sweaty as a well-thumbed Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Even its exhaust note is more on the raspberry side — while the Sky’s pitch is less obstreperous, thanks to different mufflers.
The Sky is equally swanky, too — but it’s less the strip club contender, more the high-heeled fashionista.
A striking wide-mouthed front end treatment with swept back, projector-stype headlight assemblies, side scallops that extend from the bottom of the front quarter panels back into the doors, where the sheetmetal flows into provocatively arched rear quarters and a tail capped off by high-definition cat’s eye tail-lights. Twin “speed cones” behind the driver and passenger seatbacks further define the Sky’s dramatic roadster stance. Detail touches such as the twin chrome-finished air vents at either side of the low and wide clamshell hood, the exhaust cutout in the lower rear fascia and one of GM’s bar-non best interior layouts in years round off the package. (See it in silver with the matching two-tone black/red leather and “piano black” trim plates to appreciate it fully.)
Though not an expensive car (Saturn wants just $23,115 and there’s only one trim level) the Sky could easily pass for a bigger-bucks exotic — or at the very least, be parked with confidence next to a Mercedes-Benz SLK or BMW Z4. It’s also a viable alternative to comparably priced/powerful/capable roadsters such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata — the first time that could be said of any American brand car without the sayer being suspected of taking large checks from General Motors. The Sky offers a similar driving experience for about the same money but with a much higher “wow” quotient. Miatas are nice cars — but they are also as common as Keds. No one notices them anymore. In the Sky, you’ll get thumbs-ups, questions, praises galore. If you need a date and are looking for a conversation starter, here’s your ride!
One final point of order:
Buyers doing some cross-shopping may notice the Sky’s base price is about three grand more than the $19,915 base price of its cousin, the Pontiac Solstice. The reason for this is that the Sky starts out with substantially more equipment (including air conditioning, 18x8-inch wheels, power windows and door locks, ABS, keyless entry and a better stereo with a CD player and six speakers — all of which cost extra at your Pontiac store). Pretty much the only big ticket options on the Sky are a 5-speed automatic transmission, limited slip rear differential, an upgrade audio system and that stunning two-tone leather package (worth every penny).
If you drive the Sky and then take a spin in the mechanically similar Solstice, you’ll also notice the Saturn’s ride is noticeably gentler; this is courtesy of tuning that allows greater suspension travel under load. Some roadsters (notably, the S2000) can extract a heavy toll on your tailbone after a couple of hours of driving — but the Sky is a partner you can live with all day long without pining for a quickie divorce.
THE SKY’S 2.4 LITER “ECOTEC” ENGINE is not as race car feeling as the 8,000 RPM-plus S2000 (which comes alive like an angry rattlesnake above 6,000 RPM, when the variable cam timing gets aggressive) but is in real world terms a better all-arounder. There’s serviceable torque (166-ft.-lbs.) on the bottom end — where the high RPM-intended S2000 is limp as overcooked linguini. That means easier stop and go driving — including low-speed put-putting in second or third gear without needing to downshift and rev the engine to 4,000-plus just to get moving. And the Sky’s 177-hp is a solid seven horses stronger than the Miata’s 2-liter, 170-hp engine. (Power freaks who need more, fear not. In a couple of months, the Sky red line will be available — with turbocharged, direct injection engine, 260-hp and 5-second 0-60 capability. No firm word yet, but the estimated price of the package will be in the neighborhood of $4,000 over the base Sky’s $23,115 MSRP.) A six speed would be nice, though. Still, the 5-speed’s ratios seem well-placed to work with the 2.4 liter engine’s power curve and you’re rarely more than one gear away from where you need to be for any given condition. Fifth is a pretty steep overdrive you’ll find you often don’t even need until you’re over 50 mph.
Zero to 60 mph takes 7.2 seconds through the standard 5-speed manual (the automatic version is only about two-tenths of a second slower, according to Saturn).
Handling-wise, there is plenty of lateral grip (.90 g on the skidpad) to make the car fun to toss around pretty aggressively — and though the steering’s not quite as nicely weighted the Miata’s or as stiletto sharp as the highly focused S2000’s, it is precise, imparting communicative road feel that works well with the way the suspension’s set up. The Sky is fairly easy-going and takes more work to provoke it into a tail-out skitter than some other roadsters — and snaps back compliantly just by easing off the throttle a tad if it does begin to get loose. Overall, it’s a nice mid-point between the S2000’s higher but sometimes abruptly “there” limits (which can really wake you up if you haven’t got some track time under your belt) and the too-soft two-plus-twos out there like the attractive but kind of squishy Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Now if only people shopping Mazda Miatas and Honda S2000s will give it a fair shot at their business.
That’s pretty much the only rub.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.
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