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Motoring: Both Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice long on looks, short on substance

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | November 5th, 2007

If you're looking for an affordable, two-seat roadster, your choices are very limited. For the longest time the only car to fit the bill was the Mazda MX-5. Now thankfully, two siblings have joined in to take a piece of that market.

The cars I am talking about are the Saturn Sky and the Pontiac Solstice. Both cars share the same platform, have the same engines and gearboxes, and have the same electronics. Only differences are with the badges, the exterior styling and the interior.

Since we judge all cars first based on styling, I will say that both cars are gorgeous. If you buy cars based on styling alone, then these cars are a homerun. Which one you prefer is up to you, but I prefer the look of the Solstice.

The interiors are essentially the same, but differ with the styling of the dashboard and the quality of the materials used. I again prefer the look of the Solstice's interior, but the Sky seems to be made out of higher quality plastics. However everything else about the interior is the same between the two cars, which means there isn't a lot of room in either car, both have the same ill-thought position for cup holders and both have the same fiddly roof mechanism. Honestly, GM should have taken a hard look at the Mazda MX-5 to see how efficiently you can utilize the space in a small roadster (it's not only the lack of space in the cabin, but the trunk is useless) and how easy a roof mechanism can be.

I could live with such impracticalities if the end result is a car that is brilliant to drive. I mean, look at the Lotus Elise. It is flawed in many ways, but once you start driving it, you will forgive it of any sins it has committed. It is just that good to drive.

So does the Sky and Solstice follow the path of the Elise?

On paper the news looks good, especially since GM had given me top of the range models to tryout. The Sky I had was the Redline version, which means it has the two-litre turbo, four-cylinder which produces 260 hp instead of the regular Sky's 2.4-litre, normally aspirated four-cylinder making 173 hp.

The Sky I had was fitted with the optional five-speed automatic gearbox (five-speed manual is standard), which is quite responsive, but lacks any manual override feature. That is a shame, because that feature can be of real use in a car like this. Sometimes I don't understand GM's logic for doing certain things. Why on earth does the Saturn Aura have an automatic with paddle shifters, which is pointless in that car and the Sky, a sports car doesn't? Who knows, maybe that feature is coming in later years.

What makes matters worse is that the five-speed manual gearbox (which was fitted to the Solstice GXP I tested) is even worse. First of all the shifts feel imprecise, it's not the smoothest gearbox to use, it should have had an extra gear since the ratios are too far spaced and thus it drops revs too quickly and the engine has to work hard all over again, which is not good when the engine doesn't seem happy being pushed hard (unlike the wonderful VTEC motors Honda fits in their cars). On top of that, the clutch is horrendous, no two ways about it, it is bad, it's too grabby and lacks feel.

The brakes are equally as bad, they require a lot of effort to stop the car from highway speeds and under heavy braking the car feels a more unstable than it should. Thankfully then the engine is not that willing to rev either. Yes the ones I had were the high-performance models and they are supposed to be fast, but the engine feels harsh when pushed and despite being turbo charged, lacked the acceleration I was expecting. Yes, when you push it really hard, they will knock out a decent 0-100 km/h time of about six-seconds, but it's too much work getting it out of them.

However, none of these complaints are as important as the one I am about to tell you. GM has committed the biggest sin it could commit when producing a sports car, which is the complete lack of a decent exhaust note. Both cars I had were just way too quiet. Even under hard acceleration they don't sound special. This is very disappointing. I thought that the company that is responsible for producing the wonderful Chevrolet Corvette Z06 would know how important the sound a sports car makes is. A sports car without a decent exhaust note is like a supermodel without any teeth, it sort of spoils its appeal.

They are not cheap either. Base price for a Solstice is about $28,000, while the GXP model starts at about $36,000. The Sky, despite being almost the same car is more expensive. Base Sky is about $33,000 while my Sky Redline test car was a whopping $42,000.

However, despite all this, both cars have been doing quite well in the market so far, especially in America. I bet the only reason for their success has been the looks, and even I will admit, I have a small desire of owning one just because of the way they look. I just wish the rest of the car was as good as it looks. A case of “never judge a book by its cover.”

All I want to say is I am glad GM took the time and effort to do these cars, they just need to do a lot more tweaking to make them right.
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