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Wasser: Sky's not the limit, only the beginning for new roadster in Saturn's stable

Monday, June 05, 206
Saturn's Sky is the kind of vehicle that can make you as popular as a bottled water vendor on a desert golf course. Park it in your driveway, and reclusive neighbors will come to visit or stop to get a better view while driving past. Pull it into a shopping center, and strangers too lazy to walk 15 feet to the nearest cart rack will journey across the parking lot for a closer look.

A handful of other test cars have attracted similar attention, but the Sky's magnetism is greater than most. This is noteworthy because the Saturn brand, which was launched with much fanfare in 1990 and became an immediate hit, has been languishing for around a decade. The fact that the Sky is sold out until next year is crucial to Saturn because, "The Sky represents the future of the brand," according to General Manager Jill Lajdziak.

Even unrelenting demand for the 30,000-40,000 Skys expected to be produced each year won't ensure Saturn's viability, but the new roadster is the kind of poster child every automaker would love to have. As a social experiment, I asked anyone who went out of their way to get a close look at the 2007 Sky to guess its price and its maker (Saturn badging is very inconspicuous). Only those who previously had seen photos of the Sky knew it was a Saturn, and nobody guessed its price: $23,115 for starters and $26,150 as delivered. Everyone who guessed thought it cost $40,000 or more.

The Sky looks much more expensive and elegant than its corporate cousin, Pontiac's Solstice. I prefer the Sky's more angular and aggressive lines to the Solstice's slippery shape, but both roadsters look great on the outside. Where the Sky really shines, though, is on the inside. The Solstice's interior looks like the result of a corporate mandate to keep its sticker price under $20,000. The Sky's cockpit, on the other hand, looks too elegant to be in such an affordable vehicle.

Initial impressions are tempered a bit by living with the Sky. After seven days, the piano black- and chrome-trimmed interior with its optional two-tone leather seats remained a visual treat, but some ergonomic and structural shortcomings became evident. One begins to notice the extensive use of hard plastic pieces, and a few components -- such as the door on the small storage compartment between the seats -- feel flimsier than a fast-food kids-meal toy. Other flaws include three nearly useless cupholders, poorly located power window switches, and the absence of a power door lock button and convenient storage space.

That criticism extends to the trunk, which supposedly offers 5.4 cubic feet of storage space with the top up, but has a tough time accommodating a couple of plastic grocery bags. And you'd be better off getting a hitch and a trailer than trying to carry anything in the so-called trunk when the top is down because the top lowers into the trunk. Although that eats up valuable cargo space, it helps preserve the Sky's dazzling lines.

The rear trunk/top lid and doors, for that matter, require a firm shove to latch properly. And the Sky makes one work for the pleasure of open-air motoring (or weather protection when cloudbursts threaten). Raising or lowering the manual top requires getting out of the Sky and using a bit of muscle, unlike the Mazda MX-5's effortless top that can be flipped up or down from the driver's seat.

GM hasn't announced any upcoming changes to the Sky or Solstice top designs, but it has addressed the other complaint I have about both vehicles: their engine. In terms of pure acceleration, the 2.4-liter, in-line four-cylinder is adequate, but that's about it. Highway passing with the five-speed manual transmission in my Sky test vehicle required downshifting one or two gears and plenty of advance planning.

For the next model year, however, spirited help is on the way. A 260-horsepower engine will be available and -- get this -- it is expected to deliver better fuel economy in manual transmission Skys and Solstices than the current 177-horsepower engine!

Even without any other upgrades, that engine will help make GM's roadsters two of the most exciting vehicles on the road. That's because both are already a blast to drive. They have great balance, remarkable grip in the corners, and virtually no body lean. A bit of oversteer would make them feel quicker but also more touchy. As it is, even an unaccomplished driver can get behind the wheel of a Sky or Solstice and take corners faster than they ever imagined without getting into trouble.

Scott Wasser is a freelance auto writer who has been reporting on cars and motorcycles since 1988. E-mail him at [email protected].

http://www.nj.com/business/expresstimes/index.ssf?/base/business-0/1149480772183420.xml&coll=2
 
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