Sunday, September 03, 2006

GM delivers beauties in ragtop twins Solstice and Sky

Saturday, August 05, 2006
GM delivers beauties in ragtop twins Solstice and Sky
Richard Williamson / Scripps Howard News Service

Since General Motors began emerging from its design doldrums with the arrival of former Chrysler guru Robert Lutz in 2001, the struggling No. 1 automaker has shown flashes of brilliance best epitomized by the roadster twins bearing Pontiac and Saturn nameplates.

The Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky are possibly the most beautiful cars in the tiny class of two-seater ragtops. For comparison, consider the pioneering Mazda MX-5 Miata, more powerful Nissan 350Z and the much pricier BMW Z4, Audi TT, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Lexus SC 430.

Since the only car comparable to the Solstice/Sky combo in terms of price and performance is the Miata, base-priced at $21,435, it would be unfair to match the GM twins against the likes of the $65,000 Lexus. But if the choice were based on looks alone, the GM roadsters would probably still win the contest.

While the Solstice undercut the Miata with a base price of $20,395, the Sky arrived later at $23,115. Built in Wilmington, Del., the roadsters are nearly identical, though I developed a slight preference for the taillight design of the Solstice. Paint makes a huge difference in sporty designs, and silver seems to bring out the best details.

While the Solstice came with a five-speed stick, the Sky featured an automatic. To my surprise, I much preferred the automatic, which adds $850 to the window sticker.

Like the Miata, the rear-drive GM roadsters are powered by 4-cylinder engines. The Miata's 2-liter 4-banger produces 170 horses, seven shy of the 2.3-liter GM engine's.

Unfortunately, the somewhat hoarse vocalizations of the Solstice/Sky horses are not as pleasing to the ear as those of the peppy Miata's.

Dropping the top of the Miata is also easier than the action required for riding roofless in the GM twins. Both cars use manual operations to convert the top, with the trunk opening from the middle of the body to receive the canvas.

For Pontiac, the Solstice reinforces the performance theme of the division. For Saturn, the Sky expresses the division's youthful, adventuresome orientation and underlines the commitment to small cars that can compete with the best from Japanese brands.

While fuel economy is decent, it will not be a major attraction to the GM models. The automatic Sky covered 22 city miles and 26 on highways per gallon of gas for an estimated annual fuel cost of $1,566.

With a curb weight of less than 3,000 pounds, the Sky and Solstice are nimble handlers and ride on a suspension that is performance oriented but not harsh like some sports cars that aim to impress enthusiasts. Potholes do not loosen your fillings.

The Sky's sinews include a short-long arm suspension with forged aluminum control arms, Bilstein monotube shocks and hollow stabilizer bars with ball joint sockets. The power rack-and-pinion hydraulic steering system is precise and comfortable, allowing the driver to maneuver gracefully in a crowded parking garage.

The standard four-wheel disc brakes feature 11.7-inch ventilated front and 10.9-inch solid rear discs, backed up by an antilock system. Stopping distance from 60 mph measures 116 feet.

A set of 18-inch aluminum wheels clad in high-performance all-season tires improve both the performance and the look of the car. When you see this car at the curb, you can't help but notice the monstrosity of the meaty tires in relation to the svelte body.

Any owner of a ragtop knows that he or she must sacrifice a degree of safety for sportiness. In a rollover, there is little if any head protection. However, it would take heck of a lot of g-force to overwhelm the roadster's low center of gravity. For frontal collisions, the cars provide front air bags.

Another downside to the ragtop is the limited visibility with the roof in place. The small windows require caution when changing lanes on the freeway. However, the maneuverability of the car bolster's the driver's confidence.

The roadster's size limits the amount of standard equipment available. But GM did its usual excellent job in equipping the Sky/Solstice. Power windows, locks and mirrors are standard, as is air conditioning, cruise control and a theft-deterrent system. A six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo provides surprisingly high quality sound. Roadsters make speaker placement a challenge.

Options are also reasonably priced. The premium trim package on the Sky includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel and the highly desirable steering wheel audio controls $750. An upgraded Monsoon stereo with MP3 capability is only $590.

WHAT'S NEW: All-new vehicle for 2007.

PLUSES: Styling, price, ride and handling.

MINUSES: Hoarse engine, limited visibility, safety.

BOTTOM LINE: Styling champ but still second fiddle to Miata in engine octaves.

Richard Williamson writes about automobiles for Scripps Howard News Service.

2007 Saturn Sky

Type: Rear-drive, two-passenger, sub-compact roadster.

Price: $23,115 base, ($22,061 invoice), $26,675 as tested.

Where built: Wilmington, Del.

Key rivals: Mazda Miata, Nissan 350-Z, BMW Z4.

Power: 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine; five-speed auto transmission.

Fuel economy: 22 city, 26 highway mpg; estimated annual fuel cost $1,566.

Chassis: Independent, short-long-arm suspension; power rack-and-pinion steering; four-wheel power disc brakes with ABS; 18-inch painted aluminum wheels.

Length x width x height: 161.1 x 71.4 x 50.2 inches.

Wheelbase: 95.1 inches

Curb weight: 2,933 pounds.

Standard: Front air bags; power accessories; theft deterrent system; automatic headlamps; battery rundown protection; projector beam headlamps; intermittent front wipers; air conditioning; cruise control; AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers; glass rear window with defogger; three cupholders; driver info center.

Options: Premium trim package includes leather seat inserts, leather wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls, metallic finish sill plates, stainless

© Copyright 2006 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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