- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Sounding too much like what a set of hippie parents would have named their flower-child daughter in the free-love 1970s, Sky is the newest entry from Saturn. Saturn, the youngest of General Motors’ car-building divisions — if you don’t count Hummer that was adopted rather than conceived — remains the most independent of all GM brands.

It offers a unique buyer experience with a passive sales approach and a one-price strategy. Right out of the gate it earned high marks for customer service and continues to be praised in that regard by its loyal owner base — this in the face of GM’s neglect of the brand during its early years.

Something akin to learning to swim by being rowed out into the middle of a lake and tossed overboard, Saturn made due with dated, unrefined cars during its infancy. It survived and has been rewarded with contemporary product as illustrated by the appealing Sky.

Saturn chose not to confuse the issue and has restricted Sky to a single trim level. Priced at $23,690 with freight, it arrives with a five-speed manual transmission. Plunking down an additional $850 will qualify you for the five-speed automatic. This is a tad more expensive than its cousin, the Solstice, but some of the Pontiac’s options — like the sound insulation layer in the convertible top — are Sky standard features.

Sky could have been more expensive.

In addition to borrowing from Solstice, Saturn sorted through the GM parts bin for other bits and pieces. For example, the inside door latches are from Chevrolet Colbalt, the interior vents come from Daewoo and the seat underpinnings are courtesy of the Opel Corsa

Where the Solstice is all soft and round, the Sky is sharp corners and angles. The two roadsters have no exterior sheetmetal in common. The Sky’s technology-influenced styling takes advantage of some new advancements in sheetmetal hydroforming. Several exterior components, as well as the door inner panels, were fabricated this way. All hunkered down on 18-inch alloy wheels and rubber, the Sky is a head-turner.

Sky’s basic DNA is shared with Solstice. That is, most of what you don’t see is common. Technology such as the hydroformed frame rails extending the length of the car, the four-wheel independent suspension that includes coil-over gas-filled Bilstein monotube shocks at each wheel, the 177-horsepower 2.4-liter four, the rear-wheel-drive architecture, as well as both the manual and optional automatic transmissions are shared.

While it won’t have you hysterically laughing for joy as you pull into your driveway, the busy little Ecotec four provides sufficient velocity to make the drive interesting. Rowing the transmission yourself adds to the enjoyment and the five-speed manual operates efficiently. The automatic transmission tempers the driving experience, but works smoothly enough; however, there is no driver-shiftable mode. Purists won’t find that a big loss.

Fuel economy is a little disappointing for a four-banger. The Environmental Protection Agency rates manual-equipped versions at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. With the automatic, in-town driving improves by 2 mpg, but loses 2 mpg on highway cruises.

Saturn has built on the shoulders of the Solstice suspension. While basically the same architecture, the Sky’s version is bit tauter. It has more rear suspension travel and there are jounce bumpers at every wheel designed to gradually stiffen as they are compressed. The overall affect is very composed and balanced handling. An antilock brake system controlling discs on all four wheels is standard. Curiously, neither traction control nor stability control is available.

Glancing into Sky’s cockpit, there is little in common to be found with Solstice. The center stack with its three-knob ventilation system controls and Saturn-brand audio controls make this easily identifiable as a proud member of the Saturn family. A twin-tube gauge pod sits directly in front of the driver. The dashboard gently wraps around the front of the cabin. Passenger room is healthy with enough front legroom to let 6-foot-plus drivers slide behind the wheel. The seats are wonderfully supportive with meaty side bolsters. There is enough room in the pencil box-sized trunk for your sack lunch and a ball glove, but little else. Two cubic feet of trunk space is all you get with the top down.

Manually operated, the top is not as easy to raise and lower as some competitors. Both exercises require the driver to exit the car. It’s not difficult or particularly time-consuming, but does require more driver participation than usual. When lowered, the top is totally hidden. In its raised position, the top is remarkably effective defending against road noise.

A full range of power accessories is standard along with cruise control, air conditioning and keyless remote entry. Upgrades such as leather seating, redundant steering wheel-mounted audio controls, XM satellite radio and a better audio system are also available.

Miata owners probably won’t be trading in their Mazdas for the Sky — yet. However, when the 260-horsepower Red Line turbocharged version arrives early next year, it may be a different story. It won’t be difficult to wait, either, because the Sky production run is sold out until the end of 2006. So if you want either version, best get in line now.

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