- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

There’s been so much trashing and bashing of General Motors that anybody could be forgiven for thinking that the company will go under any day.

But in the midst of all the gloom and doom, there are luminous spots. Cadillac continues to do well. The Chevrolet Corvette is still an American icon. And even Pontiac, the so-called “damaged brand,” has a hit with the new Solstice sports car.

Now there’s the Saturn Sky, a fraternal twin of the Solstice and the first salvo in a blitz of new products that are intended to revitalize GM’s youngest brand.

Alone among the car companies, Saturn has hewed to a policy of jawboning its dealers to sell their cars without the price dickering that often is so demeaning to the customers. That determination continues with the new Sky, but it’s going to be difficult to enforce. If the Solstice experience is any precedent, Sky buyers will jam the doorways, checkbooks in hand.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the 2007 Saturn Sky comes close to inspiring lust. Individual taste being what it is, there obviously will be beholders who prefer the looks of the Solstice — or even the established and refined Mazda MX-5 Miata. But there’s no question hordes of people will look to the Sky.

Though the Solstice and Sky share their chassis and drive train, none of the exterior body panels, and only a few of the interior parts, are shared.

From the front, the Sky presents a strong, hunched-shoulder look. It’s like staring at a defensive end ready to pounce on an unwary quarterback. The muscular mien continues around the sides to the haunches and rear. You’re forced to conclude that this is a handsome, rather than pretty, sports car.

The Sky brightens further in the cockpit, where the designers have managed, within engineering and cost considerations, to break up vast expanses of vinyl coverings with beautiful materials such as black piano-finish accents. The overall impression is that of an expensive car.

But the Sky is not. It starts at $23,690, which includes most everything you’d want in a sports car: antilock brakes, air conditioning, GM’s OnStar communications system, a stereo system, remote locking and decent cloth upholstery.

Add leather-faced seats, an upgraded audio system with XM satellite radio, as well as a few trim items, and you’re still looking at just $25,355. For an additional $195, you can get the test car’s drop-dead yellow paint job.

The Sky is powered by a 177-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that gets its power to the rear wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission. It’s the same setup as on the Solstice, and is adequate to the traditional task of small roadsters, which places a premium on precise handling, with decent though not blistering power.

The five-speed feels stiff but positive, and the clutch engagement is high. But it’s easy enough to get used to, and far preferable to the automatic, which sometimes feels sluggish. With the five-speed stick, the Sky can reach 60 mph in slightly more than seven seconds, according to Saturn’s test results. The automatic is marginally slower.

The standard Sky excels in roadster motoring: a sunny day, with the top down, modest speeds on a twisting, rural two-lane road, with lots of shifting up and down, and point-and-shoot moves around the curves.

The Sky’s engineers modified the rear suspension slightly to provide a bit more compliance and a slightly better ride than in the Solstice. It imports a satisfying feel. As you point the Sky into a curve, the rear end settles down and plants itself. The feel goes right to your buttocks as you power through the curve.

Negatives on the Sky are the same as those on the Solstice. There’s only a tiny bit of luggage space — about 5 cubic feet — with the top up, and almost nothing with the top down. You can squeeze a few jackets and other soft items into the 2 cubic feet of space, but don’t figure on carrying any luggage.

The manual top works easily enough, but it requires getting out of the car. You also have to walk around it to snap the sail panels back into place.

With the top up, there’s some booming from wind and road noise, although it is muffled somewhat by an acoustic layer built into the fabric top.

Two dumb features from the Solstice are also present in the Sky. The doors will not unlock until you remove the ignition key or clumsily reach over your left shoulder to pull up the lock button. And you can’t reach the knob to adjust the rake of the driver’s seatback unless you open the door.

These are, however, small penalties to pay for a fun car that will not make much money for dealers or GM, but will doubtless put a glamorous sheen on the entire Saturn lineup.

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