Saturn's Sky has its limits
The new roadster is a head-turner, but annoying weak spots may limit its long-term appeal.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- I regularly get expensive cars to test drive, and I've parked plenty costing $100,000 and more in the garage near CNNMoney.com's office. Attendants there usually have no problem putting them with - you know - the other cars.
But where did they put the $25,000 Saturn Sky? It went in the "look but don't touch" space, right next to a stretched Rolls-Royce.
With lots of chrome and a two-tone leather-covered interior, the Sky looks like it costs a mint. People's eyes popped when I told them the low price. One man even offered, in all seriousness, to buy it from me on the spot.
If the Sky were as superlative in every respect as it is in its appearance, it would be one massive slam-dunk of an automobile.
The Sky is Saturn's version of the Pontiac Solstice. Strip off the Sky's chrome accents and the bodies are very similar. The engine, transmission and suspension are identical.
So I felt mostly the same about both cars, except for design -- the Solstice is nice, too, but it looks like a brown-bag lunch next to the Sky's silver-platter presentation.
If you don't ask too much of the Sky, it's just fine. It's comfortable and easy to drive around town. The driver's seat will happily carry you on a long highway cruise.
But as a modern sports car, it doesn't make the big leagues.
In normal operation, the 177-horsepower engine makes a fun little rumble. Under anything less than foot-to-floor acceleration, though, that little four-cylinder starts to feel winded as the needle moves into the second half of the tachometer. Even if you really gun it, there's lots of noise but actual acceleration is merely respectable.
On a twisty road, the Sky handles well if treated with care. But it lacks the intuitive "man-and-machine-as-one" sort of thing that better sports cars have. And not just more expensive cars - the Mazda MX-5 Miata definitely has it, for example.
The Sky can be blasted through turn after turn on a closed track without the little surprises a real road can throw at you. But if you tweak the steering a little or decide too late that you've gone in too fast, the car feels unsettled. Its suspension system just doesn't respond well to too many simultaneous inputs and it lets you know its frustration.
The Sky's simple practical limitations also take a toll. One might expect lack of trunk space in a roadster, but the Sky's trunk seemingly serves no purpose other than to hold the roof.
Opening and closing the roof is also a particularly aggravating operation. It involves getting in the car and back out, or out and back in, and slamming the trunk lid a couple of times to make sure it shuts all the way.
Fortunately the Sky, unlike the Solstice, looks just about as good with the top up as down. Unfortunately, all that hassle will lead most owners to just leave the top up much of the time.
Rear visibility is hampered not so much by the top as by the Sky's dainty little side mirrors. They're not big enough to see over the cars ample haunches, making highway lane changes far more exciting than they ought to be.
My biggest issue with the Sky, though, is that much of the money saved for its low price seems to have come out of the "safety" budget.
Side impact airbags, a particularly nice thing to have when driving a vehicle this low to the road in the land of SUVs, aren't even an option. Neither is electronic stability control.
Overall, the Sky's a great looking and pretty good sports car. But if you want a fun car to drive for just a little more money, I suggest you hang on for the Sky Red Line coming out in the fall. It will have a 260-horsepower engine and revised suspension. It will also have stability control as standard equipment to help you deal with those extra horses.
For now, check out the Mazda Miata. It's less roomy and comfortable for the long haul, but all around more enjoyable to drive than the Sky and it offers side airbags. The Mini Cooper convertible is, in its own way, more fun while offering back seats and, also, a full suite of airbags.
Times are good. For fun driving, the world is full of options.
Photos and details:
Pontiac Solstice vs. Mazda MX-5 Miata