Someone in GM's design department must be reading our reviews. When we got the 2006 Pontiac Solstice into our garage last summer, we had a love-hate experience with the mold-breaking roadster. We loved its bold, sculpted, sporty looks and hated the clunky, plodding driving experience. Our main points of complaint with the Solstice were the mismatched ratios and agricultural feel of its manual gearbox and the lackluster output of the 2.4-liter Ecotec plant.
With the 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line, GM retained our favorite styling accents, while giving us (nearly) everything we wanted under the hood. The Sky Red Line features the same basic structural design as the Solstice, with which it shares the Kappa platform and most of its mechanical DNA. However, in contrast to the Solstice's curvy body styling, the Sky boasts aggressively arched fenders and a menacing mesh-trimmed front profile, giving it a Batmobile brawn (particularly noticeable on our Onyx Black test car). Being the performance-tuned version of the marque, the Red Line also features some unique styling cues, including chrome-trimmed dual exhaust outlets, 18-inch chrome-clad wheels, and a couple of brake-cooling vents in the lower front fascia.
Critically, with the Red Line, this beauty is more than skin deep. In place of the 177 horsepower naturally aspirated, four-cylinder block of the Solstice (and regular Sky), the Red Line is driven by a 2.0-liter direct-injection in-line four boosted by a turbo charger to give it a whirlwind output of 260 horsepower. Now we're talking Miata-mauler.
Test the tech (or lack of it)
While our 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line tester was equipped with the optional automatic gearbox, the soft-top roof remained very much manual. Drivers who want to get the roof up in a hurry have to undergo a multistage procedure, which involves the following stages: stopping the car, popping the rear hatch, getting out, manually opening the clamshell tonneau cover, levering the foldaway top out of its recess in the trunk, slamming the hatch closed, fastening two supporting pins in place, getting back into the car, and snapping an internal lever closed. This rigmarole constitutes a lot more work than in other roadsters we've recently seen--such as the 2006 Honda S2000 and the 2007 Porsche Boxster--which require a press of a button and maybe the unhooking of the odd latch.
Top speed: we initiated time trials for getting the Sky's manual roof up and down.
For our tech challenge in the Sky, we decided to see how quickly we could get the top up and then down again, timing each of three CNET editors with a stopwatch. In general, the results were surprisingly quick, with times ranging from 23.5 to 44.03 seconds for top down to top up, and a blistering 11.47 seconds from top up to top down. Contributing writer Mike Markovich turned in the fastest times for both top up and top down, racing around the car like a Formula One pit crew member. Meanwhile, Editor Wayne Cunningham fumbled through closing the rear hatch, adding significant seconds to his overall time. Some of the more challenging aspects of operating the roof involved getting the fold-out canopy to line up with the top of the A-pillars when closing the top and getting the hatch to close fully on top of the folding canopy with the canopy stowed in the trunk.
In the cabin
The interior of the Saturn Sky is cramped and kitschy, in a curiously stylish kind of way. Our tester came with optional red-leather seat inserts and door panels ($595), as well as lacquered black plastic accents on the parking brake, shifter, and HVAC controls. Similar to most other roadsters, cabin space is minimal in the Sky Red Line. And with the top in the trunk, the Red Line's cargo space is significantly less than that of other cars in the segment. Another design gripe we have is the Sky's poor rearward visibility: with the top up, rear sightlines are seriously impeded, and we found the car an excellent test mule for a VR3 VRBC300W back-up camera we had sitting around in the office.
Our test car came with the Monsoon premium audio package (a $590 option), which includes an MP3 disc-compatible head unit hooked up to a seven-speaker system with a separate subwoofer. An auxiliary input jack is standard on all Skys, while XM Satellite Radio is an available option ($199 for an initial three months of service). For drivers who want more music options, a six-disc in-dash changer is available for an extra $300.
Despite its relatively basic appearance, we like the usability of the Monsoon stereo. An i button on the left of the head unit enables drivers to cycle through artist, track, and folder information for ID3 tags on MP3 discs, while hard buttons along the bottom of the monochrome display are an intuitive way of tabbing between folders (for MP3 discs) and genres (for XM Satellite channels).
The Sky's upgraded Monsoon audio system plays MP3s giving detailed track and artist information.
The Monsoon stereo is tuned to be audible above the din of wind and road noise that assails the cabin with the top down (and to some extent, with the top up as well), rather than for acoustic refinement. Audio output is impeded somewhat by the lack of space in the cabin as the legs of the driver and front passenger muffle the sound coming from the in-door speakers. The muffled soundtrack is compounded by the placement of a subwoofer behind the passenger's seat (which is usually pushed into its most rearward position). Two tweeters located in the A-pillars serve to give some clarity and refinement to an otherwise muddy--albeit immersive--acoustic output.
The Monsoon audio system provides drivers with a decent number of options for tweaking audio to their specific tastes: as well as controls for manually adjusting the bass, mid, and treble outputs. The stereo features a number of preset EQ arrangements including: pop, rock, talk, and country. The Monsoon system also boasts controls for speed-compensated volume, which can be set at one of three levels or turned off.
Playback of songs from our iPod via the auxilliary jack was clear, although maximum output volume was limited to about half that of CDs or MP3 discs. One observation we made is that, when the engine is off with the ignition in the I position, the stereo will stop playing input from an auxiliary source after about 10 minutes--presumably to prevent battery drainage.
Other cabin tech is restricted to GM's OnStar telematics system. Owners of the Sky Red Line get a 12-month subscription to OnStar's Safe and Sound plan included in the price of the vehicle. This includes a number of emergency and diagnostic services such as remote door unlock, stolen-vehicle location assistance, and automatic monthly vehicle system checks and complimentary e-mail reports. A hands-free calling service is also available through OnStar at an additional cost.
Under the hood
In the canon of fun cars, turbocharged roadsters are always going to rank near the top of the pile. With 260 horsepower delivered to its rear wheels, the Red Line will haul itself to 60mph in five and a half seconds and with the top down, 60mph feels like 100mph. The nimble, two-liter engine with direct injection (the Sky is GM's first direct-injection car in North America) ensures that the Sky has great pickup from standing, and the turbo kicks in at around 2,500rpm to ensure plenty of midrange thrust.
A cool setting in the driver information console enabled us to see how many pounds per square inch (PSI) we were wringing out of the turbo charger at any one time: 17PSI is the most we could muster, but we understand that there is one more pound in there somewhere. If the boosts to acceleration (with a hint of lag) are not a sufficient reminder of the presence of the turbocharger, the high-pitched whistling sound that accompanies a squirt of the gas pedal serves as a reminder that this is car is on steroids.
Our tester came with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, which added a hefty $895 to the sticker price, although (counterintuitive to sports car purists) some may feel this is a worthwhile investment: reviews comparing the automatic with the manual versions of the car have actually found that the automatic posts quicker 0-to-60 times--something of a vindication of our criticism of the manual gearbox in the Solstice.
The Sky Red Line is quicker to 60mph with an automatic transmission than with a manual shifter.
The Sky Red Line comes with a substantial list of performance-oriented features including four-wheel independent performance-tuned suspension with Bilstein monotube shock absorbers, hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering, and Stabiltrak.
Even with its automatic transmission, our Sky Red Line demonstrated that it had enough power to get out of hand when provoked. A couple of times when squeezing the throttle through a corner we pushed the back end wide, only to be rescued by the officious intervention of Stabilitrak. Independently minded drivers can turn the stability control off if they feel too restrained.
In our experience, the upgraded suspension gives the car a solid, surefooted feel into corners and damps out uneven surfaces with the minimum of drama. Steering is precise, with the ratios tuned for corner-cutting canyon-carving and responsive lane changes on the freeway. In our week with the car, we covered just more than 200 miles, many of which were driven in a style concomitant with the Sky Red Line's performance-tuned persona. Accordingly, our overall fuel economy figure of 14.3mpg came in short of both the EPA estimates (21 city /29 highway).
Besides its stunning looks, the main attribute of the Saturn Sky Red Line is how fun it is to drive. More than once we found ourselves surprised at seeing the speedometer read only 65 or 70mph when it felt like we were way into the realm of the extralegal. Similar to most roadsters, the Sky does not boast much in the way of cabin tech, although its upgraded MP3-playing stereo does offer intuitive controls and is enough to be heard with the top down.
Our tester came with a base price of $27,295, to which we added the automatic five-speed transmission ($895), the upgraded Monsoon stereo ($590), chrome-plated alloy wheels ($545), leather seat inserts ($475), and three months' worth of XM Satellite Radio ($199), giving it a grand total of $29,954, excluding delivery, but including one year of OnStar's Safe and Sound plan. If the Sky Red Line's driving experience alone is not enough to make you overlook the cramped interior and low-tech roof mechanism, then the sub-$30K price tag will probably help.