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Saturn builds a better Solstice

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Vehicle Tested:

2007 Saturn Sky 2dr Convertible (2.4L 4cyl 5M)

Price It!!

First Impressions:

Better-looking and better-equipped, the Saturn Sky delivers a more complete roadster experience than its Pontiac cousin.

* Improved ride quality over Solstice

* Solid list of standard features

* 18-inch wheels and tires.

Saturn builds a better Solstice

By Ed Hellwig Email | Blog

Date posted: 05-14-2006

We're barely 10 miles into our test-drive of the 2006 Saturn Sky roadster and we already like it better than its Pontiac Solstice cousin. Why are we so sure? Because Saturn set up the test-drive 450 miles north of our office, in the wine country of Napa, California, so instead of spending two hours in an airport and one hour at 30,000 feet we jumped into our long-term Solstice and drove up. Two hours into the seven-hour drive we knew the Pontiac's hits and misses. By the time we arrived in the historic town of Healdsburg, we could draw the tread pattern of its tires in our heads.

Honestly, we expected the Saturn Sky to feel very much the same as the Solstice. After all, the two-seater is a mechanical twin to the Pontiac, sharing its rear-wheel-drive Kappa platform, its 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine, even its huge 18-inch wheels and tires. But now we're behind the wheel, and the Sky is proving its independence with each passing mile.

Shallow side of improvement

We'll admit to being swayed by the Sky's looks. With all original sheet metal, the angular Saturn is more masculine than the swoopy Pontiac. From its aggressive front end to the creases of its wheel arches, it has attitude the Solstice doesn't. It's a design language borrowed from Opel, GM's German subsidiary, and Saturn will use it in all of its upcoming products in an attempt to remake its image as a more upscale brand.

It works well on the outside and even better on the inside. Tom Wallace, vehicle line executive for performance cars at GM, told us flat out, "there's money in that interior." It's obvious as the wider variety of finishes and contrasting colors give the Sky's cabin a more premium look. That was the plan all along according to Vicky Vlachakis, the designer at GM's West Coast studio responsible for the interior. "It's part of Saturn's new design philosophy. We wanted an upscale appearance, so we added materials like the piano black trim, soft-touch door inserts and chrome accents," she explained.

We're not big fans of the shiny black stuff, but the Sky's symmetrical dashboard design is a big improvement over the one in the Pontiac. Vlachakis also lifted climate-control knobs from the Hummer H3, added metallic center console trim and installed chrome door pulls. It puts the Sky on par with the Mazda Miata, but there's still too much cheap gray plastic to call it better and, like in the Solstice, its window switches are just too hard to reach and its cupholders nearly useless.

A slightly softer Sky

Without our 450-mile primer in the Solstice, the Sky's minor suspension changes would be difficult to pick out. Almost all the hardware is the same, but shorter bump stops allow the suspension to travel further before it's interrupted. The shocks were revalved to take advantage of the extra movement yet, according to Bruce Kosbab, chief engineer on the Sky, "it loses none of its handling ability."

We've heard that one before, but Bruce isn't blowing smoke. On smooth roads you can't tell the difference between the Sky and Solstice. The Saturn has the same high level of grip and the same tendency to understeer when that grip runs out. It's only on rough roads where you feel the difference in the Sky's setup as it soaks up bumps that would cause sharp jolts in the Solstice. The difference is subtle, but one we appreciate after becoming so well acquainted with the Pontiac's occasional harshness.

A lack of on-center steering feel is still a problem, although it makes the Sky a comfortable cruiser in a straight line. Bend into a turn, however, and the feedback bumps up to more acceptable levels. There's plenty of power in the easily modulated brakes and all Skys come standard with ABS.

Chrome trim makes the shifter for the standard five-speed manual look better, but it's hardly slick through the gates: certainly not bad enough to make us consider the optional five-speed automatic. Tall gears make constant shifts unnecessary, although second gear is too short and third too tall for moderate-speed switchbacks.

With 177 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque from its Ecotec four-cylinder, the Sky feels reasonably quick. The last Solstice we tested ran from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and with only an extra 73 pounds on board, the Sky shouldn't be more than a tenth or two slower. Like the Pontiac, however, the engine is so coarse near the redline we're short-shifting more often than not. Saturn engineers may have retuned the Sky's exhaust for a more mellow tone, but with all the racket the engine makes it's hard to hear the difference.

Premium price

Base price for the Sky is $23,690. That's significantly more than the Solstice, but it buys more standard features. It's part of the premium story Saturn is trying to introduce with the Sky. Most of the stuff is pretty basic like air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; floor mats; and foglights. Then there are the more traditional upgrades like keyless entry, cruise control, a driver information center and OnStar.

Another worthwhile addition is the standard insulated liner for the convertible top. It not only does a good job of reducing wind noise with the top up, it covers up all the exposed mechanical linkages that sit ominously close to your head in the Solstice.

We wish we could say the top was easier to put up but it's still a three-step process that requires getting out of the car to finish. A button on the key fob releases the rear hatch; you then pull the top up, reclose the hatch and snap down the roof buttresses. It took a few tries before the hatch would close all the way and the buttresses never look well fitted, even when snapped in properly.

A slightly different hatch design opens up a little extra cargo room compared to the Solstice (5.4 cubic feet versus 3.7 in the Solstice), but there's still not enough room to carry anything more than a soft duffel bag. With little additional cargo space in the interior, the Sky doesn't make for much of a weekend getaway car.

Saturn does it better

Although the Sky costs a little more than the Pontiac, from behind the wheel it's worth it. Between the upgraded interior and the more refined feel on the road, the Sky delivers a roadster experience you won't grow tired of down the road. A lesson we didn't forget during the seven-hour drive home.

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