Sky High

The new Saturn Sky roadster is a well-priced winner. Is this an aberration or an indication that GM is finally producing cars that can compete against imports?

Slide Show

Everywhere I went while I was test-driving the new Saturn Sky roadster, gawkers would gather and ask me about the car. Upon learning more, the response was always the same: "I can't believe it's a Saturn."

Once the doyen of dull designs, Saturn has come up with a genuinely exciting vehicle in the Sky, a dynamite-looking two-seater convertible based on the hot-selling Pontiac Solstice (see BW Online, 10/14/05, "Solstice: A Brawny Beauty"). Designed by former Hummer stylist Clay Dean, now General Motors' (GM) design director for small and midsize cars, the Sky is part of a broad effort by GM to give Saturn a more exciting, up-to-date lineup (see BW Online, 04/12/06, "Saturn's Second Lift-Off").

Encouraged by GM vice-chairman Robert Lutz, the designers built a European feel into the car, while also giving it an overall look reminiscent of a Chevy Corvette (see BW Online, 11/09/05, "Corvette Z06: Fast Wheels for Strong Hearts "). Eventually, the Sky is expected to be sold in Europe by GM's Opel unit.


  Order now if you want one: Lutz has said that both the Solstice and Sky are already sold out in the U.S. for this year. One reason is GM is only scheduled to produce around 20,000 Solstices and 10,000 Skys for the year. Another reason is these cars offer great value for their sticker prices (though with supplies short, some dealers will undoubtedly try to demand a premium). The Sky starts at $23,690, or $24,540 with an automatic transmission, vs. $20,490 for the Solstice. But the Sky comes with a lot more standard gear, including air conditioning, steering-wheel mounted cruise control, power windows and mirrors, among other features that are optional on the Solstice.

The Lutz influence can be seen in the way the headlights and taillights nestle into the body, the upgraded interior materials, and relatively expensive standard hardware that you wouldn't have found on an inexpensive GM car in the past, such as the chrome air inserts in the Sky's hood. Both cars also have very distinctive cowlings on their rear decks that rise up behind the headrests, a winged convertible ragtop, and an unusual reverse-opening clamshell hood and trunk-lid. The big 18-inch wheels on both models are set way out at the corners of the body, giving the cars a solid, stable look and ride.

Design-wise, however, the Sky is far from an exact clone of the Solstice. The Sky has a stronger, more aggressive-looking front end, with different headlights and dark grillwork and vents. The Solstice's interior echoes the car's curvaceous exterior design, while inside, the Sky has more of a cockpit feel.

However, the piano-black surfaces and chrome accents in the Sky's interior are very striking for an inexpensive American car. My test car had a two-toned interior in red and black leather -- which, combined with the chrome interior door pulls and chrome-topped gear shift knob, the shiny black metal center console, and panels in the doors, was very daring -- and totally un-Saturn-looking.


  Some of the Sky's performance indices match its daring looks. From 60 mph, it's rated to brake to a full halt in a mere 116 feet, for instance. At, 2,860 lbs., however, the Sky is nearly 400 lbs. heavier than the new Mazda MX-5 Miata (see BW Online,09/30/05, "The MX-5: A Gripping Experience,"), and its standard four-cylinder engine only delivers 177 horsepower. The result is that the Sky, like the Solstice, is slower off the mark than the Miata.

There's also more give in the Sky's steering than I remember the Miata having. The shift throws on the Sky's stubby manual shifter are pleasantly short, but there's a bit of Detroit muscle car-style looseness to the shifting. I recall the shifting in the Mazda as being noticeably tighter.

If you want more speed, put in an order now for the Redline version of the Saturn Sky, due out this fall. Expected to start at $26,000 to $28,000, it will have a more powerful 260 hp engine and is supposed to jump from 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds or 5.4 seconds, much quicker than the basic Sky, which takes 7.2 seconds to go from 0 to 60.

The Sky's manual top is easy to get up and down, although you have to get out of the car to do it. There's a very cool mechanism that causes the wings on the back of the ragtop to pop up when you want to open the trunk or lower the top. The trouble is, as with the Solstice, the top folds down into the already tiny trunk.


 The Sky has slightly more trunk space than the Solstice (5.4 cu. ft. with the top up and 2 cu. ft.with the top down, vs. 3.8 cu. ft. and 1.4 cu. ft. in the Solstice). But with the top down, there simply isn't enough space for the luggage a couple would take on a weekend jaunt.

Even by sports car standards, there's also too little storage space in the Sky's interior. I had to pay a highway toll right after picking up my test car, and couldn't figure out what to do with the coins and wad of dollar bills I got in change. The Sky has no storage bin in the center console, as most cars do. Later, after some searching, I found that there are little troughs at the base of each door (hardly a convenient location), and pockets on the seats for holding maps and books. There's also a small storage area with a door on it on the rear wall of the passenger compartment.

The Sky has three cupholders, one that pops out of the center console on the passenger side, which is convenient if you're the driver (if you are the passenger it jabs your left knee). Two additional cupholders pop out of the back wall of the passenger compartment, which means you have to twist quite a bit to reach them. In my test car, the rear cupholder kept popping open on its own, which would probably lead to it getting broken fairly quickly because of its flimsy plastic construction. The storage box and its door also are made of cheap plastic.


  Other disappointments: There were two noticeable air leaks in my test car's ragtop, one directly behind the driver's left ear -- very annoying. I also found it hard at times to get the trunk lid to close properly.

The Sky is rated to get 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway with the standard stick shift, 22 and 26 with the automatic. In a stretch of 376 miles of mixed highway and local driving I got 23 mpg. The main options include an upgraded sound system with a six-CD changer ($890) or an MP3 player ($590), XM Satellite (XM) radio ($325), and a premium trim package that adds leather inserts in the seats, stainless steel pedal covers, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls on it ($750).

My bottom line: It will take another generation and a redesign for the Sky to really match the quickness and handling of the Miata, which first came out in 1989 and defines the inexpensive sports car segment. But, boy, the Sky is a beauty, and a very credible all-American alternative to the made-in-Japan Miata.

Click here for the slide show

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.