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Expert Reviews 1 of 11
By Joe Wiesenfelder
June 20, 2006
If a racy two-seat convertible doesn't fit within your concept of Saturn, you've figured out why the company introduced the 2007 Sky. Saturn has been begging parent General Motors for more — and more exciting — models since it was founded, and GM has finally responded with the first sister of the Pontiac Solstice.
Since the Solstice went on sale last spring, it has been too hot to remain a Pontiac alone. GM needs more hits, and Saturn needed a kick in its showrooms.
Like the Solstice, the Sky has plenty of room for improvement, but this head-turner looks like a steal for under $24,000. Exterior The Solstice might have started this fire, but my experience driving a Sky suggests that it burns twice as hot. The car's daring, more angular design inspires frequent rubber-necking and mouth-breathing. Many cars evoke strong reactions when seen for the first time, but I've become adept at discerning the "Oh, look, something new" reaction from the "Great googly-moogly!" response. A car's appeal can be measured in thumbs, and I got so many thumbs-up during my week in the Sky that I felt like I'd been transformed into a freakish alternate universe populated by Roger Ebert clones. The thumb-ometer reading was about as high as I've measured.
In terms of exterior styling, the Sky comes complete, with few optional adornments. The only ones to speak of are chromed versions of the 18-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler that is so superfluous it appears in almost none of Saturn's marketing photos. More appealing than the Solstice, the Sky often brings to mind a smaller Chevy Corvette. At half the price, it inspires disbelief. The Sky has a couple of clear advantages over the exquisitely refined Mazda MX-5 (formerly known as the Miata), its toughest competitor. The MX-5 is perceived more frequently as a woman's car, which, empirically, hamstrings any model in the market. The Sky's styling is more gender neutral. The look is what sells this car. Period. Ride & Handling In terms of overall performance, the Sky's ride and handling are where it shines the brightest. It rides a bit softer than the Solstice, but there's not a dramatic difference. The structure is nice and rigid, and roadholding is very good. My test Sky had the standard, and currently only, tires, Goodyear RS-A all-seasons rated P245/45R18. They're good tires — and they'd better be. Replacing them directly costs $226 per tire, according to Tirerack.com. The most affordable alternatives cost $148 each.
Saturn cites the rear-wheel-drive car's weight distribution as 52/48 (front/rear), which gives it just enough of an understeer bias to keep it predictable and safe. I have some issues with the drivetrain, but overall you can control the car's dynamics with judicious use of the accelerator.
My test car's steering wheel, a leather and chrome-appointed option, had a satisfying feel, and there's just enough steering feedback when you want it. The power assist is also appropriate. This is a conventional, hydraulic rack-and-pinion system. Electric power assist is now proliferating in the market, but I haven't been impressed by GM's attempts. The Sky is better off without it.
Anyone who's interested in a sportier ride can look for the Performance Suspension Kit, a $1,577 dealer-installed option that includes firmer shock absorbers, bushings and stabilizer bars. When it comes out this fall, the turbocharged Sky Red Line will have firmer springs and the like. Going & Stopping The Sky's weakest aspect — also true for the Solstice — is its drivetrain. As the table below reveals, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder's torque is modest and, more important, it peaks at 4,800 rpm — pretty high for an engine with a 7,000 rpm redline.
Saturn Sky Engines
Sky Red Line
turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
177 @ 6,600 rpm
260 @ 5,300 rpm
166 @ 4,800 rpm
260 @ 2,500-5,200 rpm
premium unleaded (91 octane)
premium unleaded (91 octane)
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway, mpg)
manual: 20/28 auto: 22/26
manual: 21/30 auto: 19/27
You have to get the engine revving pretty high to get appreciable power out of it, and as my Cars.com colleague Mike Hanley put it, it's not very enjoyable getting there. As shown, the Sky Red Line should alleviate this problem with a huge bump in horsepower and torque, both available at significantly lower engine speeds. Saturn estimates a 0 - 60 mph time of 5.5 seconds, compared to the base Sky's 7.2 seconds. Despite all this, the manual Red Line gets better gas mileage.
I tested the five-speed manual, and the short gearshift is one of its better features. Beyond that, I experienced the same disappointments that I did in the Solstice. In some cars, a sixth gear is nice to have, but the Sky really needs it, in part because of the scarce torque at low revs. First gear feels too high, which I suspect will lead to undue clutch wear because you have to allow a good amount of slippage to fully engage it from a standing start.
Gear ratios aren't something I often think about, but when you feel like you're seldom in the right gear for any situation, something's up. It also seemed like there was too much space, in terms of ratio, between 2nd and 3rd. The Sky is more than drivable, but taken against the average manual — and particularly the competing MX-5 and Honda S2000 — this transmission falls short. As for the automatic, presuming it's the same as the Solstice's, I don't have high hopes. Modestly powered engines and automatic transmissions are the worst combination, and the Solstice I drove did nothing to disprove that. It was resistant to kick down, and there was no clutchless-manual mode, which I usually dislike, to save the day.
Finally, the engine noise is rough and ... noisy. It seems better than the Solstice, but you especially hear it when the top is up, masking the wind noise. I've always found four-cylinders buzzy and whiny, but this is noise I'm talking about, not sound. It begins with ignition and never ends, and it really makes the car seem cheap. This has become a broader problem in GM's cars, in my opinion. GM Powertrain is a world-class drivetrain supplier, but the common noise, vibration and harshness levels betray what quality lies beneath.
As for the brakes, they're highly effective four-wheel discs with standard ABS. Traction control is not offered, but one can add a limited-slip differential. The Inside Most roadsters aren't as cramped as you might think, because they're not trying to share space with a backseat. Still, interior space is a principal complaint about the MX-5. Ostensibly, this gives the larger Sky an advantage. I was surprised to find that, by the numbers, the Sky actually has smaller seating dimensions than the MX-5 — except in the most important one: headroom. The Sky's is 38.4 inches where the MX-5's is 37.4 inches. For tall drivers, this can make or break the deal. At 6 feet tall, I would have liked more legroom, but it was workable.
The manual soft-top definitely sacrifices function for form. It looks good when raised, with winglets that extend aft on each side of the rear window. These extensions pop up when one pushes the trunk release button on the remote control. The trunk lid can then be lifted from the front in clamshell fashion. A single, centered top-release handle above the windshield makes visor-flipping unnecessary and means you don't have to sit in the seat to reach a separate side latch. The top then can be lowered relatively easily into the trunk — leaving little room for anything else. Raising the top is the same in reverse, with a final, annoying step of pushing down and latching the winglets by hand. There's no avoiding a walk to the other side of the car.
Observers give the Sky's interior quality mixed reviews. Does the rich exterior set expectations too high? Considering that the car borrows from the GM parts bin, a justifiable cost-saving measure, I think it comes out all right. The materials are hard to the touch, though, and while I like the move away from faux metal and toward piano-black lacquer trim, it's all concentrated on the center control panel, which doesn't work for me.
Typical of this class, the seats are manual, with no height adjustment, but I was able to see well over the hood. Likewise, the rear window is immediately behind the driver, so the rear view with the top up isn't bad.
The noise level with the top up is also typical, though the quality of the drivetrain sound, as mentioned, is unpleasant. When the top's down, turbulence in the occupant area is acceptable. A windscreen that mounts behind the head restraints, a $295 dealer option, is intended to combat the blast of air to the back of the noggin.
The Sky needs more covered, lockable storage so you can leave it parked with the top down. Only the glove compartment locks; the cubby behind the driver's right shoulder does not. The cupholders are flimsy beyond belief, but I suspect they'll survive because they're practically unreachable. Very clever, Saturn. Safety The Sky hasn't been crash tested, and being a low-volume convertible, it's unlikely to be — at least by our preferred source, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety equipment includes dual-stage frontal airbags. The seats have integral head restraints, but typical of high-back sport seats, they aren't adjustable. They should be high enough for most drivers.
The big safety disappointment is the absence of side-impact airbags. While they aren't available in the more expensive S2000, they are now standard in the MX-5 and the Mini Cooper Convertible, where they are designed to provide head and torso protection. Side airbags have proven critical in occupant safety, and they're perhaps most needed in small, low-riding cars like the Sky.
Also absent from the Sky is an electronic stability system, though it's promised for the Sky Red Line. Such systems are standard on the Cooper and S2000 and optional on the MX-5.
GM's OnStar, which is standard with a year's Safe and Sound service, is included. In the event of a crash, it notifies OnStar, which can dispatch emergency services. Safe and Sound also can unlock the car remotely, provide roadside assistance, track the car if stolen and diagnose mechanical problems. Cargo & Towing When the top is up, Saturn says, the trunk offers 5.3 cubic feet of storage volume, the same as the MX-5 and just above the S2000's 5 cubic feet. The first problem is the trunk's shape, which might accommodate 5.3 cubic feet of ice cubes or mixed nuts, but not much luggage that I'm familiar with. When the top is down, roughly a backpack's worth of space remains, though the top must be lifted to reach it. Note that the other two cars mentioned give up zero trunk volume when the top is down. Their stacked roofs don't look as sleek, for what that's worth. Features All standard and optional features can be explored by clicking on the buttons at the upper-left of this page. Additional dealer options include all-weather floor mats and mud flaps and a $299 tonneau cover that spans the entire interior to keep debris out when the top is down. (Why someone would leave the top down only to then cover the interior is a real boggler.)
My test vehicle had the optional premium Monsoon stereo. While it was great to have the steering-wheel-mounted controls and the auxiliary audio jack, located right on the stereo's face, this isn't the best stereo I've heard in a convertible. More distortion-free power is needed for top-down highway driving. Sky in the Market Saturn has said that it will produce as many Skys as possible at its Wilmington, Del., assembly plant, and that the supply of Red Line variants will not be artificially limited. If buyers demand more Red Lines than base models, Saturn will build them. Still, the Sky and Solstice are low-volume cars, so waiting lists will likely grow — along with their asking prices.
Comparisons to the MX-5 are inevitable, and though it seems unfair in a sense to match the Sky against a car that's enjoyed more than a decade of refinement (as the Miata), it has some significant shortcomings that you can't ignore. The Sky will get by on its looks alone, but it won't be a true phenomenon until its interior and performance match its stunning design.