Can GM, master of big iron, build a proper sports car? Not simply something that murders straights and grips like grim death– the Corvette's got that covered. Rather, a roadster that takes to the bends with the eager playfulness of an overstimulated puppy and the agility of an all-star point guard. Could the Saturn SKY be such a car? I know it sounds crazy: an honest-to-God sports car from GM's shiny happy plastic panel people. And the specs aren't promising: this parts-bin special out-girths the Mazda MX-5 by four inches and 400 pounds. Still, it sure looks promising…
Like all post-Borg Saturns, the SKY borrows heavily from another GM product, in this case Pontiac's Solstice. Saturn's badge engineers added a few creases, slits, and chrome bits to the Poncho's clean curves– to excellent effect. The SKY's less retro-classic and perhaps a bit busy than the Solstice, but it's also less bulbous and thoroughly current. The Saturn brand's new face works well on this car, lending it an appropriately aggressive appearance. Cute it's not; a good thing for balding alphas who rely on their wheels to broadcast their masculinity.
Open the door, drop in, and say hello to the high cowl. Shorter drivers will wish they could raise the seat. Not happening. In fact, many of the frequently used controls aren't exactly where they should be. The non-telescoping steering wheel is too close. The shifter is too high; to grasp it, your right hand must reach well above your unsupported elbow. And where are the power window switches? Ah, beneath your forearm. Aesthetically, the interior fares better. Instead of the cheap gray plastic that smothers much of the Solstice's massive instrument panel, SKY drivers enjoy a relatively small patch of fashionably piano black trim on a less imposing center stack. Sweet.
Crank the engine, head onto the crowded boulevard, and you'll discover a surprisingly pleasant driving experience. The suspension doesn't have much travel; hit a healthy bump, receive a healthy kick. But across patchy pavement that would set other small roadsters a-jitter you'll feel shockingly little. The Bilstein coil-overs effectively absorb the small stuff. You won't hear much either. Unlike other sporty rubber, the SKY's Goodyear Eagle RS-A's don't translate the slightest texture into road noise. They're not the most aggressive treads, but your ears and rear will become fans.
To raise the SKY's roof, you have to leave the vehicle. Stop and…you can't get out. As soon as the SKY starts moving, the doors lock and the power lock button goes AWOL. You could kill the engine or hunt for the manual lock doohickey in the neighborhood of your left ear. Luckily, the key fob still works (GM's lawyers aren't as thorough as they are cautious). But why do you have to get out of the car anyway? If the Saturn still wants to be Honda, then here's a hint: keep it simple and can the fussy, ill-fitting flying buttresses.
Roof up, the SKY's interior is as quiet as a family sedan's– an impressive accomplishment for a ragtop roadster. But, with the slit of a windshield the primary source of sunlight, claustrophobia threatens. Best put the top back down and get off the boulevard. After all, "real" sports cars aren't about cocooned cruising. They're about blasting down roads with fewer cars and more curves.
When pushed, the SKY's powertrain neither disappoints nor inspires. The 177-horsepower 2.4-liter engine feels soft at low rpm, but adequate over 4,000. No surprise here; the DOHC powerplant peaks at 6,600 rpm. However, unlike most peaky fours, GM's corporate mill isn't eager to rev and doesn't sound sporting when prodded. The five-speed shifter connects positive engagements with moderately abridged throws. Though among the best cogswappers GM has offered, it's still far from the best.
Turning the SKY's thick-rimmed wheel elicits a refreshingly quick reaction just off center, natural weighting, and decent communication from the contact patches. The fat all-seasons stick well– too well, given the middling thrust on tap. The balanced chassis can be precisely adjusted with your right foot. Goose the throttle mid-turn and the rear steps out just a skosh. But there's no way you're going to delicately drift the SKY through turns at a half-reasonable pace. This sucker is planted. Any dancing requires a faster clip than prudent within metropolitan limits. Even on a curvy rural two-lane, the Saturn roadster won't approach the agility of its archrival, Mazda's MX-5.
Fortunately, not even GM can make a car with a 95-inch wheelbase feel irredeemably large. A final analysis of the SKY's id finds two-thirds Corvette, one-third MX-5. Some top-down enthusiasts will reject the Saturn in favor of something more delicate and tossable. But those willing to trade agility for ride comfort, quietness, and a more macho demeanor will find exactly what they've been looking for.
[Michael Karesh operates www.truedelta.com, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.]