Model year 2007 will mark the start of a new era at Saturn. The GM division goes into its 15th year with a vastly expanded lineup of products, including the sporty new Sky, the attractive new Aura sedan, the Relay minivan, the Vue hybrid SUV, the Outlook large SUV, and the Red Line performance models.
Saturn appears poised to move upmarket into a position above Chevrolet and Pontiac, a long way from where it started. For customers, that means more choices, one-price, no-haggle car shopping, and one of the best dealer networks in the country.
The Sky convertible represents Saturn's first thrust into the sporty end of the spectrum, the Ion Red Line sedan notwithstanding. The Saturn Sky is built on GM's new Kappa platform shared with the Pontiac Solstice (and Opel GT in Europe). This new rear-drive, four-cylinder platform gave Saturn an opportunity to quickly enter this market segment, the $25,000 open-air car, which includes the Miata and the powerful Honda S2000.
The Saturn Sky comes standard with 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. A Red Line model will be added later in the model year with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine rated at a whopping 260 horsepower, more than a 50 percent increase over the standard engine. The Red Line version will come with special front and rear styling, high-performance tires, and recalibrated suspension, among other items.
Saturn Sky ($23,115)
The Sky nose looks like a boxer leading with his chin, but the overall look is sporty, with peaked front fenders, big forward-leaning vents in the front fenders, and twin head nacelles like the Solstice's in the body just behind the cockpit, leading to a short rear end with small, tasty corner-mounted taillamps. With very few details changes, this design will be sold in Europe as the Opel GT roadster.
The Sky looks pretty cool with the top down, not so cool with the flying-buttress top up. Stowing the top requires popping the decklid with the key fob, which also unlocks the pins that hold down the rear section or buttresses. Then you have to get out of the car, fold the top down into the cargo bay, push it down a couple of times until it is fully nested, then walk around to the back of the car and slam the decklid down with a good amount of force from the center of the lid so that both sides will lock down. The Saturn top has more noise insulation than the Solstice top, so the interior is quieter, but in all three of the cars we tried, there were significant air leaks between window glass and top seals on both sides of the car.
Given the restrictions imposed by sharing the GM Kappa platform, we think it's a pretty successful execution of a new Saturn design, with only a few niggles, like the tiny SKY badge hung out there in left field instead of centered under the Saturn logo on the decklid where we think it belongs.
Storage inside the cabin is limited. The glovebox is small, and there are no door pockets. The storage bin between the seats has an awkward push/twist lock instead of a simple pushbutton, and that bin doesn't hold much either. There are storage pockets on the back side of the seat backs and storage nets on the rear wall, but the seatback latch is buried in the darkness and it's hard to use. In a new twist on cupholders, they are mounted between the seatbacks below the storage bin, which forces you to use your outside hand to park or retrieve your drink, reaching across your body. Weird, but it works.
The bucket seats are comfortable enough for short runs, and offer good lateral support but little thigh support for the long haul, and they don't have enough built-in adjustability for tall folks, limited by the short length of the cockpit. The seatback rake adjuster is a wheel, not a lever, and it is in a very tight space between the side of the seat and the door, nearly impossible to use with the doors closed.
The cargo room in the Sky is barely adequate for a single person's weekend getaway, let alone a fun couple's. There's only 5 cubic feet of space under the decklid with the top up, only 2 cubic feet with the top stowed, and the shape of the space is interrupted by a huge domed area in the center to accommodate the rear axle assembly, so the space isn't conducive to anything but soft, pliable luggage that can be squished around to fit. Maybe it's time for decklid-mounted luggage racks to make a comeback.
We have been trying to like the GM Ecotec engines for years, with few positive results. The 2.4 version is undersquare (a bigger stroke than bore), with a very high power peak of 6600 rpm, and that means you have to wind it up through the gears to have any fun with the car, and that winding produces loud, thrashy noises under the hood which we find not much fun to listen to shift after shift. The noise problem extends to a low, somewhat blatty exhaust note as well. If you stay out of the throttle all the time, we think you'll still have difficulty reaching EPA's estimated highway mileage of 28 mpg. In short, it's not a free-revving engine such as the one found in the Mazda Miata.
The engine, mounted longitudinally in the chassis and leaned over at a 10-degree angle, has electronic throttle control, variable valve timing and most of the other modern conveniences, but it just doesn't make enough power or torque down low where you need it. The clutch actuation was fine, and the fat little short-throw shifters in our test cars were smooth and slick with a little bit of notchiness here and there.
The handling capability of the Sky is very, very good, with an eight-foot wheelbase and a five-foot track width, 53/47 front/rear weight balance, and four meaty 245/45-18 tires supporting its nearly 3000 pounds of weight. We thrashed the Sky heavily on some California wine country mountain twisties, and it was wonderful fun to toss around, far better than we expected. Saturn says the Sky will pull 0.9g on the skidpad, which is world-class for a car in this price class. The steering is pretty accurate and nicely weighted. The ride quality is what you would expect from a short-wheelbase car with big, fat heavy tires and wheels, smooth and pleasant on good pavement, but a bit harsh on railroad tracks and bad pavement.
One of the attributes we like best about the Sky is its powerful, progressive braking, with very little slop at the top of the pedal before deceleration starts. These are big discs brakes for such a small car, and they work very well and very consistently.
The Saturn Sky is a nice cruiser. It looks cool and sporty and would be a good commuter car. It isn't the best choice for tall drivers, however. And, as with any two-seat sports car, luggage space is at a premium. Buyers benefit from the Saturn dealer network.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Northern California.