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From the Ft. Worth Star Telegram...

On the Road

2007 Saturn Sky

Sky initiates Saturn renaissance

By G. Chambers Williams III

Special to the Star-Telegram



There's not much trunk space in the Saturn Sky with the top up; but with the top down and folded into the trunk, what little space there was almost disappears.


Your nearest Saturn dealership is turning into a different place from what it used to be. The franchise that built its reputation selling functional yet boring economy cars to people who really don't much care for cars has moved into a whole new realm.
With the introduction a few weeks ago of the all-new Sky roadster, the Saturn dealership is a really cool place to shop for a car – and no longer just for those who view a vehicle as another appliance required for everyday life, such as a refrigerator or range. It's now a place where people who love cars can go to find one of the most interesting new vehicles to come along from General Motors Corp. – or any automaker, for that matter – in a long time.
The Sky is not your dad's or sister's Saturn. Rather than follow the traditional Saturn form as a car for people who like to fit in, the Sky is definitely for those who prefer to stand out.
This is one beautiful automobile, yet unlike most beautiful automobiles – such as the Mercedes-Benz SL500, Lexus SC 430, or even the BMW Z4, this little Saturn fits the budget of most new-car shoppers – prices begin under $24,000, about $2,000 under today's average new-car transaction price.
Our test model rang up a bit higher -- $26,675 (including $575 freight), but it came with some options that, frankly, I could live without and still have a very nice little roadster. The base price for our two-seater was $23,115 (plus freight). The extra-cost amenities included an automatic transmission ($850); a premium trim package ($750) that brought leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, metallic sill plates, and stainless-steel pedals; 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels ($795); and a premium Monsoon audio system ($590).
If it were my vehicle, I wouldn't need any of that stuff; I'd be just as happy with the car as equipped in base form, and the lower payment would be fine with me. And seeing as though it's a sports car, I'd probably prefer the five-speed manual gearbox that comes with the base model, even though the automatic that I tested was a lot more convenient in city traffic.
The attention you'll get driving a Sky is the same whether you pay for those extras or not. The car is gorgeous even without the upgraded wheels.
Handling is way above what I would have expected for a Saturn product. On twisty Hill Country roads, this car really comes to life and enjoys itself.
For dealers, the arrival of the Sky is just the start of something big that's happening at Saturn. While its production will be limited, and most visitors to Saturn dealerships won't drive away in one, the Sky represents the beginning of a major renaissance for Saturn, whose sales have been lagging as its products have failed to keep up with the needs of today's consumers.
Among the other changes: The compact Ion, introduced two years ago to replace the aging S-type model, itself is going away after next year, and no replacement for it has yet been announced. But coming later this year is an all-new midsize sedan, the Aura, that is so snazzy that no one would ever associate it with Saturn if it didn't have the Saturn brand on it.
Also on the way this fall is a new, eight-passenger crossover utility vehicle; and this summer, a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the Vue compact SUV will join the lineup. The Sky is something the Saturn brand has needed for a long time: a so-called halo vehicle that will entice customers into the store, even if that's not the vehicle they particularly want to buy. A halo vehicle has the power to create interest not only in itself, but the brand as a whole, and customers who show up to see a halo vehicle often end up buying something else they found while they were there.
Saturn already has a good name among savvy consumers, thanks to its fixed-price, no-haggle sales policy and award-winning customer service. Saturn, which so far has specialized in affordable vehicles, consistently ranks with the luxury brands in measures of customer satisfaction.
Adding a vehicle such as the Sky to the Saturn lineup is a way to expand the brand's appeal, “We certainly have built our reputation in the marketplace on our customer service,” said Dave Smidebush, Saturn's director of marketing. “Our customers want high-quality, reliable vehicles. But they also want vehicles with more style.”
The Sky “signals for Saturn a revitalization of the brand where you have our traditional service and reliability, combined with a higher degree of style, driving dynamics and interior refinement,” he said. “You will see more and more of that from us.”
The entire first year of production of the Sky is pretty much spoken for, and dealers have been hard pressed to keep one in the showroom for customers to look at. The cars fly off the lot almost as soon as they arrive, thanks to a folder full of sold orders at every dealership.
The average Saturn store will get about 15-20 of the Sky for the entire first year.
Although the car has been on the market a few weeks, it's already a howling success. But that's not really a surprise. Pontiac dealers have experienced the same success with their 2006 Solstice, which came out this past fall and is a close sibling to the Sky. It's built on the same architecture as the Sky, in the same factory, and since its rollout dealers have been unable to keep up with consumer demand.
GM has no plans to increase Solstice production above the projected 20,000 units annually, and the same policy is in effect for the Sky. GM wants to sustain profitable sales of these two convertibles for many years to come, and will not flood the market with them now.
“We're never going to go to 40,000 or 50,000 cars a year, even though we could sell that many right now. We're looking for a sustainable number over the long term, and the total market for two-seat roadsters is just 100,000 a year.”
Pontiac isn't worried about competition from the Sky, either, GM said. People seem to like one or the other; the automaker reports, and there isn't a lot of cross-shopping.
Most of those who stop in at a Saturn dealership to see the Sky won't buy one – first, because there aren't many to be had, but also because it's not a practical car for someone with a family. Just two seats, remember? But the exciting thing for dealers is that Saturn is showing consumers that it is capable of building a car that stirs emotion in consumers. Young single adults and empty-nest married couples are the main customers for cars such as the Sky and Solstice, and Pontiac dealers say many Solstice customers have been married couples in their 40s and 50s who were buying a third vehicle for weekend fun. The car isn't practical for those who have kids or stuff to haul around. With the top down, the Sky has almost no trunk space. The top folds into the trunk and takes up what little space there was to start with.
Under the hood is a 2.4-liter, 170-horsepower Ecotec four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing, connected to a five-speed Aisin manual transmission or an optional five-speed automatic.
With the automatic gearbox, EPA fuel-economy ratings are 22 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway – not great numbers for the vehicle's size, but not-exactly gas-guzzling, either.
Like the Solstice, the Sky has a manually operated soft top that folds completely into the trunk, leaving a clean exterior when the top is down. The car is quite similar to the Solstice in most other ways, as well. The biggest difference is the exterior styling, which is unique to the Sky and features the new face of Saturn on the front end, the company said. The same look will be used on other new Saturns as well.
The Sky is no stripped-down car; even at the base price, standard amenities abound. Among the included equipment are power rack-and-pinion steering, air conditioning, four-wheel independent suspension, Bilstein shock absorbers, four-wheel antilock brakes, stainless-steel exhaust, theft-deterrent system, projector-beam headlights and fog lights, 18-inch painted-aluminum wheels, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, cruise control, AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with six speakers, tilt steering column, glass rear window with defogger, driver information center, and dual map lights.
Later this year, a Red Line performance version will be added. It will come with a 260-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the same one used in the performance model of the Solstice, the GXP, which arrives this fall.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; [email protected].
At a Glance - 2007 Saturn Sky
The package: Subcompact, rear-drive, two-passenger, two-door, four-cylinder, soft-top convertible sports car.
Highlights: All-new for 2007, this is Saturn’s first sports car, designed to compete against the popular Mazda Miata and give Saturn dealers a car that will draw new customers into its showrooms.
Negatives: Can be a tight fit for larger people.
Engine: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder.
Power/torque: 177 horsespower/166 foot-pounds.
Transmissions: Five-speed manual (five-speed automatic optional).
Length: 161.1 inches.
Base curb weight: 2,933-2,963 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, power; antilock.
Steering: Rack and pinion, power.
Trunk volume: 5.4 cubic feet (top up); 2.0 cubic feet (top down).
Major competitors: Mazda Miata, Pontiac Solstice, Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, Mini Cooper convertible.
EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city/28 highway (manual); 22 city/26 highway (automatic) .
Fuel capacity/type: 13.6 gallons/unleaded premium recommended but not required. Base price: $23,115 plus $575 freight.
Price as tested: $26,675 including freight and options.
On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five).
 
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