Would you like your roadster with creases or curves? Now that the Saturn Sky has arrived as a sister model to the Pontiac Solstice, General Motors offers you a choice of body designs. And the choice largely does come down to design, because the Sky drives exactly like the Solstice.
The Sky's exterior comes to us by way of the Vauxhall VX Lightning concept car, which was penned by the highly talented Simon Cox in 2003. The Saturn retains the VX Lightning's creased motif, where the Solstice is all gentle curves. The question of which is better looking comes down to personal taste. Certainly, the Sky got a lot of admiring attention during our time with it in Southern California. To our eyes, the Sky has a bit of a baby Corvette look about it-in the headlights, the front fender vents, and the sharp fender peaks. It would have made an interesting Chevy, but of course it's a Saturn (except in Europe, where it will be the Opel GT). We say "of course" because we've all known about the Saturn Sky ever since the eponymous, and identical, show version appeared under the lights at the 2005 Detroit auto show; we do not say it because putting the Sky in the Saturn lineup strikes us as an obvious move.
But it's perfectly logical if you're Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak, who can look deeply into your eyes and tell you that the Sky "at last fulfills the promise of Saturn." Here we'd been thinking that what Saturn promises is a homespun alternative to a Japanese small car, one that's sold in a straight-shootin' dealership where everybody gets the same fair shake. But that's not what she's talking about. Lajdziak means that the Sky is the first Saturn to address what she calls the brand's "opportunity areas"-or what other people might call "weaknesses." Lame styling, cheap interiors, and mediocre performance have characterized the brand's offerings since day one. Here, at last, is a Saturn that breaks the curse.
Just as the Sky's exterior design sets it apart from the Solstice, so, too, does the interior. The Saturn roadster gets a whole new dashboard and console, and it uses lots of chrome and shiny black surfaces. There is a measure of sparkle that's lacking in the Pontiac, but some unpleasant bits remain: crude edges at the top of the door panels and in the door-handle cut-outs and hard plastic on the center tunnel. More frustrating is the lack of any place to put stuff (apart from beverages-there are three cup holders). There is one compartment behind the driver's right elbow, but that's it. There is, however, plenty of space for (two) people, and the soft seats are well shaped. GM's new three-spoke steering wheel is a winner, and we love the way the view over the hood is framed by the front fender peaks.
While the Sky shares no exterior body panels with the Solstice, it does have the same racy fairings behind the headrests and therefore must use the same convertible top design as the Pontiac. The top stows under the rear-hinged trunk lid, and it leaves the Sky looking super-sleek. But the bummer is that raising and lowering the top is kind of a pain, requiring you to get out of the car. This is not an operation that can be performed at a stoplight.
The Sky also is saddled with the Solstice's greatest shortcoming: a nearly useless trunk. The gas tank is plopped in the middle of the space, forcing you to pack around it. Don't think about using the Sky for a getaway weekend, unless you're going alone and your duffel bag can ride shotgun.
Much better to use this car for a day trip, as we did, leaving from San Diego heading east and north to Mount Palomar. As you slog through the suburban sprawl, the Sky's quick, short-throw shifter and easily modulated clutch are your friends, but the visibility with the top up, typical of convertibles, is not. Riding around with the top up on the freeway also highlights the noise and coarseness of General Motors' Ecotec 2.4-liter four. With 177 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque fighting against 2933 pounds of roadster, we had to keep our right foot buried to merge and run with the stampeding hordes on San Diego's multilane freeways. Push the Ecotec much past 3500 rpm, and it sets off resonances that vibrate various cabin bits. The upcoming turbocharged Red Line version [see sidebar] should give the Sky more brio, but GM really needs to send the Ecotec to finishing school.
When at last we stopped, stowed the top, and started up the sinuous road that climbs Mount Palomar, the Sky brightened considerably. Just like the Solstice, this is a car that loves corners. In fact, the most impressive thing about the chassis tuning is that it hasn't been dumbed down for Saturn duty. True, there is one minor change: the rear bump stops have been shortened, allowing for a bit more suspension travel and greater compliance. This is more of an evolution than a retuning, and Bruce Kosbab, the chief engineer of both the Sky and the Solstice, suggests that the change is likely to eventually be made in the Pontiac as well.
Without driving the two cars back to back, we really couldn't feel the difference. The steering effort is just right, and the pedals are well-positioned for heel-and-toe work. There's way more grip than there is power, so big oversteer is not really on the menu, except in the wet. (Traction control and stability control are both absent.) Even without electronic help, the car mostly just hangs on, and when you do finally overwhelm the tires, grip goes away slowly and is easily recovered.
In the end, the Sky is another bright light in the roadster firmament. Whether it dilutes the Solstice's specialness or merely offers buyers an alternate look is something armchair product planners can argue about over beers. We can say that it drives every bit as well as the Solstice, which is very good indeed. Even the base price difference of more than $3000 proves largely academic, because Saturn includes many of the niceties (air-conditioning; power windows, locks, and mirrors; antilock brakes; keyless entry; cruise control; and others) that would add a couple grand to the Pontiac's bottom line. The choice between the two cars really comes down to a style statement. So ask yourself, do you speak with creases or curves?