2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge


Review and Photos
by Brian Early

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Few would have suspected that GM would produce a small, relatively affordable roadster to take on the likes of Mazda’s vaunted Miata. Fewer still would have believed General Motors would do so with a purpose-built rear-drive chassis, while preserving – nearly completely intact – the styling of a concept car.

Yet that’s exactly what happened with the Pontiac Solstice, which was first seen in 2002 as a pair of hand-built concepts (in coupe and convertible styles), and then just two years later, introduced by GM vice-president Bob Lutz in production form, slated for sale in less than two more years.

Of course, it made sense for GM to generate some economies of scale by selling more than one variation. But while GM showed both Chevrolet and Saturn concepts based on the same ‘Kappa’ chassis in 2004, it still came as a surprise that Saturn was chosen over Chevrolet. It appears that after years of neglect, General Motors is finally turning its attention to revitalizing its Saturn division.

Saturn definitely needs the image boost; it’s currently the darling of the style-unconscious, a brand best known for “happy” dealerships and plain, dent-resistant plastic-bodied cars.

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge

The Sky is the industry’s warning shot: GM’s solution to stoke the fires at its “import fighter” division is to more closely align Saturn’s products with those of its European Opel/Vauxhall divisions in terms of style and dynamics. (We won’t count the disappointing Opel Vectra-based L-series, which was blanded-down and “Americanized” too much to stand a hope of real sales success.) The Sky, whose twin is the Opel GT, will be the first to showcase the new design direction.

The Sky’s styling is heavily based on the Vauxhall VX Lightning concept, which was built to commemorate Vauxhall’s centennial in 2003.

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge

Much of that concept’s styling has made it into the production Sky/GT, right down to the centre mounted reverse lamp, which mimics the Lightning’s single tailpipe.

Further, only emblems and some minor detail changes distinguish the GT from the Sky. Certainly the design is a looker. It introduces styling elements, such as the chrome bar spanning the top of the radiator cavity and the general shape and style of the exterior lights – already established on Opels – that will be seen on future Saturn products, like the forthcoming Aura sedan and Outlook crossover.

What the bold looks promise, and what the Sky can deliver, are two different things, though. At the moment, the Sky’s sole engine choice is a longitudinally-mounted version of the 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylinder that sits transversely under the hood of the Chevy Cobalt SS, HHR LT, and Pontiac G6. Known internally as “LE5”, this all-aluminum, variable valve timing equipped engine produces 177 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque, yet weighs just 145 kg (320 lbs).

Unfortunately, it has to move over 1300 kg (2900 lbs) of roadster – approximately 200 kg (440 lbs) more than the less powerful 170-hp 2.0-litre “MZR” mill in its most obvious competitor – Mazda’s MX-5. Consequently, most of the major car magazines report marginally better acceleration times for the Mazda than for the Saturn or Pontiac Kappa cars.

That will change with the late 2006 introduction of the Sky Red Line (and Solstice GXP), which will bring a 260-hp turbocharged and direct fuel injected 2.0-litre “LNF” Ecotec to the table.

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge

My tester featured the latest addition to the Kappa powertrain portfolio, GM’s 5L40E five-speed automatic (all prior Kappas used the Chevy Colorado pickup’s Aisin five-speed manual); it’s the same unit used in all current rear-drive Cadillacs and – oddly enough – some earlier BMW vehicles.

Automatics and sports cars don’t tend to complement one another, and the Sky is no exception. It’s made worse by the omission of any real manual shift capability. The shift quadrant is rather cryptically labelled “P-R-N-D-4-I-L” – a code not elaborated on much by the owner’s manual, except to say that each of the lowest two positions “offers increased engine braking.”

Notable in its absence is the push-button manual upshift/downshift feature that’s found in such performance stalwarts as the Chevy Malibu, which would be an improvement in this application, particularly when automatic MX-5’s have both paddle shifters and a manumatic gate.

On the upside, the 5L40E does a great job of providing smooth shifts, though it can be reluctant on occasion to provide an appropriate downshift. For cruising, it works just fine, almost invisibly in fact.

As befits a roadster, the Sky’s exhaust is tuned to provide a sporty tone. Pair it with the autobox however, and during moderate acceleration you’ll suffer from an exhaust note that sounds much like the neighbour’s kid’s Cavalier – the one with the aftermarket muffler – as it drones and slurs its way gently up through the ratios.

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge

If you mash the throttle down instead, you’ll be rewarded by a raspy snarl between 3000-5000 rpm, accompanied by fast, smooth upshifts. What you won’t get – on dry pavement, at least – is as much as a chirp from the big 245/45/18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A’s. Forget about making a head-turning launch by brake-torquing, either; the Sky’s electronic throttle won’t allow it.

Not that it’s excessively fast once unleashed – my guess is that you can expect 8 second sprints to 100 km/h with an automatic Sky – most of the major car magazines report low seven second passes in the manual version.

The Sky’s chassis is commendably stiff, and it has allowed General Motors to dial in a ride that’s firm without being abusive or skittish over broken pavement. Cowl shake only rears its head when you encounter rough surfaces under firm to heavy braking (you won’t have any complaints about the standard four wheel discs with ABS/EBD, which are easily modulated and very strong).

The wide Goodyears provide excellent traction, terminating in predictable understeer as you push it harder. Be forewarned, however, that it is possible to experience snap oversteer if you generate the right combination of cornering and deceleration forces (as I experienced during a perhaps overly aggressive left turn on an amber light); there’s no stability or traction control system to rescue you either; those features are left solely to the hi-po Red Line.

Skys all use the Kappa platform’s base “FE2” suspension calibration anyway; the more performance-oriented “FE3” set-up that’s available in the Solstice’s new “Club Sport” package isn’t a Sky option. For now, those who favour swiftness of motion over ride comfort will have to either shop at the Pontiac dealer, or wait for the Red Line model, which (like the Solstice GXP) will feature FE3 as standard equipment.

Raising the roof
Raising the roof. Click image to enlarge

As such, the Sky is a lover, not a fighter. It handles capably enough to be a satisfying tourer, and should meet the needs and expectations of most of its owners.

As noted earlier, this car’s natural competitor is the Mazda MX-5; there are precious few other players in the low-cost end of the 2-seater roadster market.

The sixteen years that Mazda has had to refine the Miata/MX-5 versus the short gestation of the Sky becomes clear when you compare the two. The need to exit the Sky to raise or lower the top, and the Saturn’s comically diminutive storage space – particularly top down – are the most obvious (the MX-5 has a real trunk, with an additional well that’s created when the top is deployed), but you’ll quickly notice other details, like the Sky’s vacuum-fluorescent radio and odometer displays, which become invisible in sunlight – the Mazda’s are sunshine-friendly LCD.

2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky
2007 Saturn Sky. Click image to enlarge

Where the Sky trumps the MX-5 for everyday use is in its (more) relaxed demeanour, especially the steering, which not only has a good sense of straight ahead, predictable turn-in, and good feedback, but is far less nervous at highway speeds than that of the Mazda.

The Saturn’s Corvette-inspired hydroformed chassis is at least as robust in feel as the Mazda’s, if not more so, so that can be considered a draw.

In this frequently appearance-driven market, the Sky’s extroverted styling blows the MX-5’s away – the attractive but conservative Mazda looking very much like the evolution of a 16 year-old model that it is. The Sky evokes stares, comments, and queries from passers-by, and with its double-hump fairing trunk lid completely covering the folded top when stowed, it looks much better finished top down than the tonneau-less Mazda.

There’s no question that given time, GM is capable of further refining the Kappa-platform formula (there are hints of a pending Saab version), and the imminent high performance Red Line version promises a pulse-elevating driving experience to match the car’s scoops and swoops looks. Until then, it’s a case of style over substance.

If you plan on driving your car – really driving it; multiple-day road trips, autocrossing, or my-toy-is-my-only-car driving – then Mazda’s more practical, better executed, better aftermarket-supported MX-5 is the way to go.

The Sky should be a purchase of the heart; you can live with the compromises, you’ll buy it because you love how it looks, appreciate that its exaggerated show-car styling eschews the MX-5’s perceived “ladies car” image, or perhaps simply because unlike the MX-5, the Wilmington, Delaware-built Sky is domestic made.


Pricing

  • Base price: $31,665
  • Options: $5,310 (chrome wheels, $950; 5-speed automatic, $1250; XM satellite radio, $325; 7-speaker Monsoon audio, $185; 6-disc CD changer, $755; Premium Trim Package (leather, etc.), $1520; spoiler $325)
  • Freight: $1,045
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Price as tested: $38,120 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives


Specifications

Type 2-door, 2-passenger roadster/convertible
Layout Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
Engine 2.4-litre I4, DOHC, 16 valves (VVT)
Horsepower 177 @ 6600 rpm
Torque 166 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Tires P245/45/18 all-season
Curb weight 1344 kg (2963 lbs)
Wheelbase 2415 mm (95.1″)
Length 4091 mm (161.1″)
Width 1813 mm (71.4″)
Height 1273 mm (50.1″)
Cargo capacity 153 litres (5.4 cu. ft.) top up; 56.6 L (2.0 cu. ft.) top down
Fuel consumption TBD
Warranty 3 years/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 years, 100,000 km


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