Minggu, 08 Juni 2008



By Justin Berkowitz

Not that Camcordima or Miata drivers have noticed, but GM’s long-neglected Saturn brand has been busy rolling out a raft of new models. I came, I saw, I drove, I despaired. The Aura, Sky and Outlook are fine machines, but even better examples of “80%” cars: GM vehicles that are an interior, gearbox, suspension and/or trunk space away from greatness. So when I saw the all-new, Opel-sourced 2008 Saturn Vue, I thought I knew exactly what was coming my way. I don’t mind saying it: I was somewhat wrong.

The new Vue’s sheetmetal is as far removed from its boxy predecessor as Adam West’s Batmobile from Christian Bale’s sled. That said, the new, rounded Vue adheres to the pre-apocalyptic cute ute playbook. We can talk about the differences between the Vue and, say, Honda’s CR-V. But details like the meshed vents ahead of the Vue’s front wheel wells, chrome roof rails and the black strips surrounding the headlights are as nothing compared to the striking similarities between the two vehicles.

Of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the homage to Honda’s best-seller. And there a good reason the new Vue is such a decent looking car: it’s actually an Opel Antara. That’s the soft-roader The General peddles in Europe, where GM is more like the Target of auto producers than the Mace’s Closeout City.

After clocking the new Vue’s unsurprising if handsome and class-competitive sheetmetal, stepping into its interior is something of a revelation. The new Vue is one of the best built and classiest cabins in a U.S. General Motors product to date. Again, credit the fact that the “rethink American” brand’s SUV-lite is a European parachute-job.

Saturn finally bailed on its plastic supply contract with Hasbro, disappointing GI Joes everywhere. Instead, the Vue features plenty of good synthetic stuff on the dash and doors, or what the press junket junkies have taken to calling “soft-touch” materials. The optional wood trim on the doors and dash, the upmarket fabric on the door panels and headliner, and the chrome butterfly insert at the bottom of the steering wheel are all credibly chic. Saturn, Opel, someone somewhere sweated the details, and it shows.

If only they’d sat down when they were doing it. The Vue’s seats seem specifically designed to maximize thoracic discomfort. Quite why Saturn decided to put a shoe inside every seat back is a question best left to those who study the sexual deviancy of our European cousins. Also, American sun worshippers will lament the fact that the Vue can’t be ordered with a sunroof. In the atypically understated words of a White House spokesperson, “that’s not helpful.”

At least Saturn didn’t skimp on safety equipment. Every Vue down to the lowly base models offer six airbags, Stabilitrak stability control, four-channel ABS, and active head restraints.

Like most cute utes sold in America, the base Vue is a front wheel-drive machine holstering a frugal four cylinder engine. In this case, the entry level Vue gets GM’s 2.4-liter Ecotec four-pot. It’s a willing little motor with decent mpg, but paired with The General’s ubiquitous four-speed automatic transmission, it’s no match for 3800 lbs. of mass.

Next up: a 3.5-liter V6 with 222 horsepower. On the upside, buyers are treated to a six speed transmission and all wheel-drive. On the downside, it's a nasty agrarian mill better suited to being thrown off a cliff than propelling a car. Fortunately (for your reviewer), I spent most of my time in a Vue equipped with the sweet 3.6-liter DOHC V6 and a six speed auto.

Sampling the V6-powered Vue XR is slightly misleading; it may be the best of the three available powertrains, but it's also the version you're least likely to see on the road. The Vue’s top-of-the-line powerplant churns 257hp, placing it just behind Toyota’s 269hp V6 RAV4 for best in class power. For one of the first times in recorded history, GM's strong and refined 3.6-liter isn’t being wasted in a rolling lunchbox.

Thanks to its shameful though safety-related curb weight (4000 - 4300lbs for the 3.6 liter models), the Vue’s extremely stable on the road and silent at speed. And in spite of its obesity, stomping and romping with the Vue is a hoot. With Teutonic steering and a European-firm suspension, it’s a highly hustle-friendly family hauler. Just remember that we’re talking SUV sporty, not actual sporty.

The Saturn Vue’s biggest problem, perhaps its only major problem, is that the base four-cylinder model doesn’t deal the competition a killer blow in a hugely competitive segment. As good as it is inside and out, as keenly-priced as it is (about a grand under the RAV4 base vs. base), the Vue’s Ecotec engine and four-speed gearbox can’t match Toyota’s powertrain for smoothness or fuel efficiency. Still, props to Saturn for getting 90 percent of the way this time. Who’d a thunk it?


By Justin Berkowitz

“GM has never sold a competitive small car in America.” Not true. The imported rear wheel-drive Opel 1900– the sedan version of the Manta– was a superb machine for its day. Unfortunately, a rising dollar and a lack of marketing and development vis-a-vis the Japanese competition (Datsun 510) doomed the 1900 to footnoted obscurity. And now, once again, General Motors NA turns to Opel to get back in the small car game. They've brought over the Eurozone’s best selling passenger car: the Astra. Starting this January, you can buy an Astra in America, only with the logo swapped from Opel’s lightning bolt to Saturn’s rings. Should you?

The Astra’s exterior is no more ground breaking than Dunkin Donuts’ Gingerbread latte. While I wouldn’t call the Astra boring, it’s an entirely familiar design. I’m thinking a squared off Golf/Rabbit, or a slightly more muscular Mazda3. More importantly, the Astra’s not available as a sedan or coupe. America-friendly body styles have been eschewed for a racy three-door hatchback and a more traditionally proportioned five-door hatch. How great (a.k.a. expedient) is that?

The Astra’s interior, however, is worth the international intrigue. Again, it’s not particularly exciting. You might even say the Astra’s cabin is a piece of cold coal. I’m sure Alice Cooper picked the grey and darker grey color scheme. But the basic design is sharp (especially the crease down the middle of the center stack), modern and clearly Germanic (Das ist ein Opel, nicht wahr?), complete with bright orange interior lights. The fit and finish is at the very top of the segment, at least as good as this writer’s VW GTI and, in many cases, superior.

But the interior’s construction is missing creature comforts, leaving you asking uncomfortable cross-cultural questions. Why is there no center armrest? Why is there one puny, small, out of the way cupholder that couldn’t fit a shot glass (never mind the U.S.-requisite Big Gulp). Why does the clock display only 24-hour time? Why is the multifunction display so confusing? Ergonomically, the Astra’s papers are also not in order. The hatch looks nice, but why is the opening such an inconvenient shape?

Saturn’s PR has an explanation for this lack of naturalization. In fact, the press materials chide picky anal retentive reviewers before they can even get warm-up their OCD-o-meter. This isn’t a car for multitasking. This is a car for driving! Dummkopf! That’s a tacky, spin-cycle explanation, but hey, with that in mind, let’s take GM’s latest, greatest foray into compactcarhood for a spin.

You can have any engine you like as long as it’s a 1.8-liter four-cylinder powerplant with a genuinely underwhelming 138 horses. I’ll skip the usual lack of diesel diatribe, in large part because there’s no particulate reason to single out GM in this regard, and the zippy little engine really is quite good. Zero to sixty takes… probably between nine and ten seconds, and that’s enough for your small car isn’t it? Perhaps, if someone wasn’t trying to sell it to me as an enthusiasts’ driving machine…

The majority of American Astras will be equipped with an four-speed automatic transmission bereft of any manual lockdown. Sure that’s fine for most people, but why does Saturn keep telling me this is a car to “make a trip around the block exciting?” If you insist on an enthralling cicrumnavigation, you can opt for a first rate five-speed stick.

And I really shouldn’t cavil; the Astra drives superbly. The helm imparts such a premium feel that I started to get nervous that it might best my GTI in premiumfeelosity. The Astra’s steering has laser guided precision. Feedback? Enough to know where you’re going, but not so much to vibrate your hands off. Think mid 1990s BMW.

If the rest of the car is the Burger, the suspension is the King. There are “sport-luxury” cars in the $30k range that don’t ride like the Astra. Zero body roll in cornering, and still totally forgiving over rough pavement. I wrung the life out of my little tester without once becoming a person of interest. Even through a tight slalom, the Astra was nonplussed. Talk about confidence. It may as well have looked me in the eye, insulted my mother and lit up a cigarette.

Taken as a whole, the Saturn née Opel Astra falls between two stools. It’s not quite as sporty as the Mazda3 or MINI Cooper. It’s not quite as cushy as the Corolla or Civic. Its closest competitor is the VW Rabbit, and the best selling Rabbit is the Jetta. The Astra’s got a great price (so great that GM will lose money on every single one), but the lack of creature comforts, hatch-only configurations and decidedly unsporty spec-sheet will put most of its potential customers in other dealerships. Once again, a great car is doomed to failure.


By P.J. McCombs

In recent years, General Motors has had something of a change of heart regarding hybrids. In 2004, “Car Czar” Bob Lutz dismissed hybrid cars as “impractical” and “a fad.” By 2007, Saturn gained a Green Line off-shoot dedicated exclusively to selling such endeavors. While GM doesn’t separate out sales stats for Saturn’s sub-brand, suffice it to say sales suck. This bodes badly for Saturn’s newest green machine: the 2008 Aura Green Line. Does the hybrid version of last year’s North American Car of the Year deserve a chance?

Now that the hybrid Accord has evaporated, the Aura Green Line splashes into a shallow competitive pool. The Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry hybrids are its only direct rivals. Like its mid-sized adversaries, the hybridized Aura inherits a four-cylinder gas engine from its base-model stablemate. In the Aura’s case, it’s a 2.4-liter, 164 hp Ecotec. But from there, comparisons get trickier. The Aura relies upon GM’s crusty “high value strategy.” As a result, the Saturn’s hybrid system plays Encino Man to Toyota’s Einstein.

To wit: the Green Line’s five horsepower electric motor is little more than an overgrown alternator, incapable of motivating the Aura on its own. It serves primarily to restart the gas engine after its stoplight shutoffs. An Olde Tyme four-speed automatic chews (slowly) on the resulting output. Want to monitor your fuel savings? Squint to spot an “eco” idiot light. The Green Line is based upon a flawed premise: that people buy hybrids primarily to pinch pennies.

Thus, Saturn’s mileage queen starts at a low, low MSRP of $22,695. For that price, you get the rudimentary hybrid system detailed above, plus automatic climate control, six airbags, an iPod jack and an EPA estimate of 24/32 MPG. Combined, that’s about two MPG more than a four-cylinder Camry or Altima—and six MPG less than either car’s hybrid variant.

You also get three big, chrome-and-green “Hybrid” badges: one for the trunklid and for each front fender. One could argue that these gleaming proclamations of parsimony are misleading, given that the Green Line’s EPA Air Pollution Score is no better than the Aura XE’s. Never mind. Badges aside, the Aura’s styling is the equal of anything in the family-car class. It communicates a clean, crisp, and anonymous grace.

Until you step inside, that is. While the Aura’s low cowl and slim-fit interior dimensions contribute to a lean, airy driving environment, its interior furnishings aren’t exactly high-bred. A ribbon of padded polymer spans the dash top, with a pronounced “lip” dividing it from the rock-hard, rental-grade stuff around the gauges and center stack. Likewise, the Aura’s armrests and cloth seat cushions yield little to a firmly-placed finger. Heck, you don’t even get a spare tire in the trunk—just an air compressor and a bottle of sealant.

Yes, this is a hair-shirt hybrid, nowhere more so than in its performance. The Aura’s hand-me-down Ecotec isn’t a bad egg: it idles smoothly and drones dispassionately in motion. But with only four Sequoia-tall gears over which to spread its 159 lb/ft of torque, rolling throttle response is often vacant and dilatory. Zero to sixty mph takes about ten seconds, roughly the same as a $20,950, 45 mpg Prius.

Ah, but the Aura’s handling is on a plane above the Prius’. While the Saturn’s chassis feels similarly sterile, with few life signs reaching the seat or pedals, it’s taut and tied-down in a most un-Toyota-like fashion. Its electric power steering, stiff and dull upon first acquaintance, proves an invaluable Interstate ally: it self-centers with a vengeance, locking onto the horizon like a remora on a manta ray. Guidance is decisive in the twisties, too, although the Green Line’s squeally Uniroyal tires call off the chase early.

Other Aura attractions include its plain and simple parts-bin switchgear, its large trunk (a few cubes bigger than a hybrid Camry’s or Altima’s) and Saturn’s haggle-free dealers soft sell. Plus, there’s that Kmart price.

But here’s the catch: all of the above also applies to the base-model Aura XE. You wanna talk pinched pennies? That model slips out the door for a cool $19,745. And all you lose is automatic climate control, a couple of mpgs and the Green Line’s inability to breathe A/C into the cabin when you’re parked at a red light. That wheezing you hear is the wind going out of the Green Line’s sales sails.

Indeed, whether it’s a marketing gimmick or an earnest attempt at niche-carving, Saturn’s hybrid Aura demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of its audience. Again, hybrid buyers aren’t bargain-hunters. Demographically speaking, they’re loaded. They’re willing to pay a premium for an interesting, unusual vehicle that reflects their convictions.

GM may yet attain gas-electric enlightenment. It may even happen soon. One suspects, however, that the Aura Green Line won’t live long enough to witness it.


By P.J. McCombs

The planet Saturn is a giant ball of gas. When it comes to selling cars to enthusiasts, GM’s “like never before” division is also full of hot air. In 1999, Saturn said their Opel-sourced LS sedan would be fun to drive. It wasn’t. In 2003, Saturn made similar noises over the ION Quad Coupe. Strike two. In 2004, the ION Red Line was supposedly da bomb. Pistonheads lined up none deep. But was the Red Line really at fault? Or was it sabotaged by Saturn’s nebulous image and boy-who-cried-wolf marketing?

Either way, Saturn’s stylists certainly didn’t help matters. Granted, it’s tough to butch up an econocar; hence the reason the entire sport-compact class is a bit of a pudgy, bespoilered eyesore. The Red Line is no exception. Strike that. It’s a poster child for the book “why bad things happen to bad car designs.”

For one thing, the ION Red Line’s proportions are all out of whack. In typical GM fashion, the car’s glowering front and rear fascias are hung way-the-hell out past the wheel arches. For another (you need another?), the doors’ budget-Bangle flame surfacing looks, well, Bungled. Spoiler? You bet it does.

Speaking of gaps, the Red Line exhibits a grade of exterior finish rarely seen outside of The Beijing Auto Show. Wide, uneven crevices separate the Red Line’s composite body panels, and its paint wears an unhappy orange-peel glaze. Saturn fans wax rhapsodic about their cars’ ding- and dent-resistant properties, but it’s easy to see why GM is phasing out Saturn’s plasti-panels. From quite a distance. Of course, GM could have mastered the technology, maybe even experimented with “memory” plastics. But, um, no.

Predictably, the ION’s third-world quality extends to its interior, a curvilinear mishmash of rainy-day gray plastic, mushy switchgear and crude mold partings. On the plus side, GM’s Performance Division fitted the Red Line with a phenomenally supportive set of Recaro seats, wrapped the steering wheel in thick leather and attempted to make the gauges more legible. Unfortunately, said gauges reside in the center of the dash, frustrating their efforts. And there’s no dead pedal. Or center armrest.

You can’t help but cringe upon stepping into this austere, amateurish cabin. That GM thought it price-appropriate is frankly insulting. But then you turn the Red Line’s key, its 2.0-liter, 205-horse supercharged four barks to life, and something strange happens: the nasty little bastard starts to grow on you.

It doesn’t happen immediately. On a brief hop around the block, you mostly notice the surprisingly heavy steering, the stiff, slack-feeling clutch, the incessant rattling of the Quad Door assembly and the engine’s tendency to hang onto revs as you shift.

But then, a smug punk in a Civic blips you at a stoplight. That’s when the fun begins. Bury your foot in the (short, wiry) carpet and GM’s blown Ecotec proves itself a proper Yankee torquer, thrusting eagerly off the line and swelling to near-WRX intensity as the tach needle climbs. The Red Line is free of the driveline histrionics that often accompany cheap forced-induction setups. Sixty mph rolls up in two smooth, linear surges, totaling 6.1 seconds.

The Red Line’s chassis snaps to attention when pressed. The steering, while always leaden in its effort, provides surprisingly sharp, pointy path control. The helm tracks your intended line as unshakably as the Orient Express. Sharp corners reveal superb front-end bite, taut brake-pedal feel, and tight, well-judged damping. Torque steer is conspicuous in its absence.

In truth, only one interface creates disharmonious hoonery: the Red Line’s five-speed manual. This “close-ratio” version of the Saab 9-3’s gearbox feels heavy and clunky in the hand. Its ratios are, in fact, quite tall. Fortunately, the Saturn’s mighty-mite four isn’t picky about what gear it’s in.

In all, the Red Line engenders a sort of base schoolyard satisfaction that’s especially irresistible to shut-in writer types. Every stoplight and switchback becomes a feel-good underdog victory. Want to land that longed-for punch on the class bully? Just sidle up to an Si, GTI, or RSX, aim your sling at Goliath, and swing, baby!

Still, there’s little question why more buyers haven’t warmed to the Red Line. Its aesthetics are embarrassing. Its image is contradictory. And its Fisher-Price interior begs the question, “wouldn’t you really rather have a Lada?” That Saturn could render a fast, nimble, fun-to-drive sports coupe with a $19,770 MSRP utterly undesirable is testament to the brand’s long-standing lack of ambition and product focus.

If Saturn can turn the metaphorical corner like the ION Red Line turns a real world bend, there may be hope for the Tennessee-born brand. Unfortunately, according to our own Jehovah Johnson, the ION’s tuners were away from their desks when the Sky Red Line was tweaked. Oh well. I guess enthusiasts are still better off shopping elsewhere. Like always.


By admin

Soccer Moms who adopted fossil-feasting truck-based SUVs for their parental duties know the truth: the genre is falling from fashion faster than Sony’s PS2. Style-conscious sprog schleppers now want a spacious rug-rat mover that doesn’t drain tanker trucks or scream mommy-van. For them, crossovers are The Next Big Thing. They’re eyeing vehicles like the new Saturn Outlook, the first of GM’s all-new Lambda platform-based crossovers (the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave are set to follow). The Outlook replaces the TWAT-winning Relay minivan– which isn’t exactly a tough act to follow. Still, will the Outlook break a leg?

It’s immediately obvious that the Saturn Outlook is more of a pseudo-SUV (a.k.a. soft-roader) than a bold moving crossover. Although the Outlook rides four inches lower than the latest Chevrolet Tahoe, it’s just as wide and sits on a wheelbase that’s three inches longer. GM’s designers have done an excellent job disguising the vehicle’s mass, using muscle-bound curves and a hidden D-pillar (creating wraparound rear glass) to make the Outlook appear light and sleek. The result falls right into the genre’s sweet spot: a handsome, rugged-looking vehicle bereft of the bluster blighting traditional SUV’s.

That said, the Outlook’s mean mugging schnoz doesn’t convey the new Saturn (Opel) design language as well as the Aura or SKY. The Outlook's cliff face front end contains far too many design elements– creases, folds, bumps, lighting elements, etc. — to form a coherent whole. The Outlook’s back end ends just as abruptly, with very little overhang or bumper protection (GM will sell lots of replacement lift gates.). But the rear's design, complete with an up-tilted butt in the grand French tradition, is far more effective.

The Outlook’s interior is replete with pleasing plastics and padded door panels and armrests (with honest-to-god stitching). The materials are deployed judiciously, creating a calm, quality feel; at night, amber LED lighting (a la Audi) bathes the center stack and shifter in a warm glow. Unfortunately, the Outlook’s fake wood fails to blend with the elegant polymers (those of you with a satin-nickel addiction will find less than a nickel-bag of fix here). Available touch-screen DVD navigation, heated memory seats, dual moon roofs, xenon lights, remote start and power liftgate are sure to please the Coach purse crowd– and push the Outlook's sub-$30k starting price well into the low-40’s.

Given the Outlook’s relatively svelte-looking sheetmetal, the interior packaging is exemplary. The middle and rear seats comfortably accomodate normal-sized adults– not just bi-lateral amputees. Even better, GM’s innovative Smart Slide system ensures that the center row moves out of the way faster than Paris Hilton facing a bar tab. Even with all eight passengers aboard, the Outlook's got more useable rear cargo capacity and legroom than the new[ish] GMT900 SUV's. Unless you need to tow more than 4500lbs., the case for height flight is compelling.

The Outlook pits GM's 3.6-liter VVT six against 4936 pounds of SUV (all wheel-drive). As you might imagine, the 270-horse (275 in XR trim) Outlook isn’t exactly what you’d call fast; zero sixty takes over eight seconds. But neither is it particularly slow. The six-speed clutch-to-clutch automatic makes excellent use of the Outlook’s 251 ft.-lbs. of twist. In-gear grunt is always available for ambling, [well-timed] passing and highway cruising. You can find a little extra oomph by shifting manually with the up/down thumb rockers on the console-mounted shifter, or just go easy on the go-pedal and wait your damn turn.

At speed, the Outlook’s helm weights-up nicely, with admirable on-center feel. The massive 255/60-19 tires [XR Touring] will outgrip the seats (lateral bolstering and super-size-me American physiques don’t mix). The Outlook’s aluminum intensive suspension– coil over strut (front) and linked H-arm (rear) — delivers a competent compromise between corner control and the need to keep the kids’ Big Gulps from spilling. Obviously, the Outlook’s weight does it no favors in the bends, but SUV refugees will enjoy the inherent advantages of the vehicle’s stiffer chassis and lowered ride height.

The Outlook’s 13” vented four wheel disc brakes are perfectly sufficient for stop-n-go urban assault duty; use them in anger and they fade faster than K-Fed’s fame. More importantly for the Outlook’s target market, the crossover offers standard OnStar, Stabilitrak, side airbags and three-row head curtains– providing the passive protection kiddy chauffeurs have come to expect. And the front-drive Outlook’s 18/26 mpg (17/24 for all wheel drive) keeps more in the college fund than the Yukosubtaholade, Aspango or Exploragator.

The Outlook is an excellent choice for SUV refugees seeking a vehicle with better mileage and more efficient packaging that stil isn’t afraid to get its feet wet (with optional all wheel-drive). Or people who just can’t bring themselves to buy a minivan.


By Jehovah Johnson

The Saturn Sky has been a tremendous success. Not because it’s a great car; the lack of any appreciable trunk space and the model’s less than intoxicating driving dynamics make it a toy with limited play value. But the Sky knocks the ball out of the park in the style department. In fact, the Sky is the most physically appealing GM car has produced since Harley Earl last prowled the halls of The General’s design department. With the advent of the Saturn Sky Red Line, GM’s different kind of sports car gets a chance to redeem itself amongst die-hard pistonheads, to whom the drop-dead gorgeous base model failed to provide the necessary automotive intercourse. Unfortunately…

While the Saturn Sky Red Line’s basic shape and proportions remain top shelf eye candy– a modern take on the original Corvette– God is not in the details. The Red Line’s chromed hood vents are fake. The headlights’ black bezels, chromed exhausts tips and 18” wheels are nice, but they do little to project the requisite menace. OK, the brake cooling vents and the larger mesh in the lower grille add a bit of aggression, but the cosmetic changes to the basic Sky are about as thrilling as Pamela Anderson’s fourth breast op. Meanwhile, twin antennas– an OnStar/XM killer whale and an analog radio whip– continue to mar the roadster’s pitch perfect lines.

Still, who cares? I admit that my pants were wet when I got behind the wheel of the Sky Red Line. Not because of the way it looked, sounded or drove; because the roof leaked. So I dropped the thoroughly ridiculous piece of barnyard engineering known as the Saturn Sky’s roof. Step 1: Open the windows and unlatch the top from the top of the windshield. Crack open the glovebox and hit the trunk release. Hop out of the car. Step 2: Lift the boot lid. With both hands, pull the top backward into the trunk. When you think it’s down, give it a nice shove in the middle ‘til it’s nestled snugly. Step 3: Slam (and I mean SLAM!) the boot lid down, making sure it’s sealed on either side of the car. Step 4: Never pack luggage. My normal airplane carry-on wouldn’t fit into the trunk.

[For those of you who think GM’s got this quality thing sorted, open the Sky Red Line’s trunk and look at the base of the top. You’ll see little foam cubes plasti-tied (like clothing tags) to help the roof keep its shape.]

I believe a convertible’s cool factor is measured in direct proportion to the hotness of the woman next to you. Women who achieve high Fahrenheit readings will not be pleased by the lack of a vanity mirror in the Saturn Red Line’s sun visor. Nor will she be pleased with how low you sit inside its carcass. In fact, my girlfriend refused to drive the car. She said she didn’t feel safe in it. This is from someone who used to drive a rusty Dodge Caravan without complaint.

As I mentioned, my first day with the Saturn Sky Red Line was wet, wet, wet (and too cold to play ball), so I left the traction control alone and did nothing at all. (The base car is a handful in the wet; she’ll swap ends faster than a boomerang.) Later, in the dry, I discovered that the more powerful Red Line Sky makes tire-shredding mid-corner drifts so easy you’ll start to think your last name is Millen. Until you hit a bump. The Sky Red Line’s damping is fine– initially. The rebound is vicious. It kicks out the tail of the car, unsettling the rear tires and eliminating driver confidence. Then the chassis twists a bit, prompting arm flailing and passenger-side nausea. You can learn to live with the Sky's limitations, scanning the roadway for potential disaster as you gather speed, but it's not exactly what I'd call fun.

If this is what “unique Red Line coil springs” do for handling, someone at Saturn should put in an urgent call Tempurpedic. Oh, right; the power. I almost forgot. The Red Line has a 260hp Ecotec four-cylinder engine. Whereas a similar engine in the Cobalt SS Super-charged has its moments-– including a delicious WW2 fighter plane belt whine– the turbo bolted onto the Sky’s unit just gives this asthmatic motor a puffer. If lackluster power delivery isn’t enough to frustrate the fully committed speed freak, the fact that the four pot quit in traffic should. Four times.

Taken as a whole, it’s as if Saturn/Opel/GM/Vauxhall/Pontiac’s engineers built this sports car using 10-foot poles. Everything about the ostensibly rabid roadster seems to have been developed from well outside the car– sacrificing drivability, handling, practicality, reliability, usability and comfort. Yes, the Saturn Sky Red Line looks like sex-on-wheels. And that’s about it.


By Sajeev Mehta

Saturn was born “A different kind of company, a different kind of car.” Talk about post-modern irony; GM created the Saturn division to copy Japan’s products, management techniques and manufacturing dexterity. Needless to say, it worked. Friendly Saturn dealers created devoted customers with a “no dicker” sticker and a pretty good range of plastic-paneled cars (the S-Series). And then… nothing much. After leaving Saturn to twist in the wind, losing billions in the process, GM eventually spiked the brand’s independence. And now, finally, the Saturn Aura is here to revive GM’s "import fighter."

The Aura is an American-built Opel that looks like a Japanese copy of a German car. The model’s sheetmetal offers suitably clean/boring lines in a pronounced wedge shape, with complementary angles and purposeful curves. The blistered wheel arches and chunky front end are muscular by Camry standards– albeit with a thick chrome bar across the grill that would be right at home on Paul Wall's iced-out grin. Conforming to the current Japanese style, oversized headlights blight the Aura's sleek silhouette. Meanwhile, the Aura’s Audi-esque flowing C-pillar and side marker lights add a distinctly Teutonic touch; pronouncing the car’s German heritage louder than a computer generated Kraftwerk concert.

A tall posterior rounds out the Aura’s rear, offering an ideal blend of Pontiac understatement and Altezza attitude. The deck lid's chrome slab does more than get its spizzarkle on; it visually thins the booty. The Aura hosts a pair of upbeat exhaust pipes, making a statement of virility no previous Saturn dared proclaim. Topping the package are the most elegant logos adorning a modern vehicle; the Saturn's famous red-square has the depth of a trillion-cut ruby. At long last, badge engineering creates beauty where mediocrity is the norm.

The Aura's substantial door handles feel even better than they look; too bad the same isn't true for the interior. Spend a few minutes in the Aura’s drab and depressing monochromatic black interior cabin and it’s clear GM's strategically placed interior quality has claimed yet another victim. Yes, the dash positions quality polymers and glossy metal-effect goodies within poking distance. Yes, the panel gaps are razor-thin. But the one-piece door armrests not only punish one's elbow, the imitation stitching speaks volumes to this car's potential– before the heartless, merciless, ruthless beancounting bore fruit.

But wait, there’s less! The folding in-dash binnacle impresses Toyotaphiles initially, though its lack of carpeting and thin casting make it an instant rattletrap for coinage. The lighthearted rear cupholders don't fare better; fold them out of sight and note the Aura's appealing secondary audio controls for backseat drivers. The lack of a rear seat center armrest is the most glaring omission for a $27k family sedan.

But not all is lost. Trunk space is mid-pack, but the strut-assist decklid closes with minimal effort. The dash's center stack houses the most artistic frame for GM's corporate stereo to date, and puts out the highs and lows with, um, competence. But the positives pale in comparison to the tri-spoke perfection facing the driver: soft leather, intuitive buttonage, entertaining paddle shifters and yet another elegant interpretation of the Saturn logo. It comes as no surprise that said tiller is Corvette derived.

Turn the wheel and the sport-sedan theme continues. The Aura’s seats make a genuine effort at honest-to-God lateral support. Firm steering rewards in fast sweepers but doesn't punish in parking lots. A solid chassis with Tourismo-grade suspension dampening impresses on winding country roads and high speed cruising. Disc brakes bite hard but go down with smooth, linear travel. Even with 18-inch rims afoot, the Aura XR's ride is smooth and comfortable: there's no thumping or crashing on potholed roads.

The powertrain's refinement and performance-oriented tuning speak volumes about Saturn's interstellar rocket-sedan. The XR-grade Aura’s 3.6L V6 sets the tempo for variable-valve timing. Hit the gas and a flat powerband with strong mid-range torque pours on the power all the way to redline. Unlike many foreign competitors squeezing every last pony from torque-steer-happy six-pots, Saturn provides real-world performance pleasure over peak performance pride. Combined with a willing and well-trained six-speed automatic, at part throttle or full-tilt, the 252hp Aura never missed a beat. Saturn's multiple downshifts awe like a Vegas magic show, dumping reserves of torque faster than a one-arm bandit unloading a jackpot of quarters.

Unlike recent GM offerings, the Saturn Aura isn't an improvement over its hapless predecessor; it’s a competitive product. While the interior needs to benchmark the Accord's door skins more than Michael Jackson needs to refrain from plastic surgery, the Aura's driving dynamics outweigh its shit list. The world-class chassis and suspension tuning are proof positive that the Aura's design team did their homework. Like always? I don’t think so. Like never before? Definitely. Enough to rescue the Saturn brand? Like, maybe.


By Michael Karesh

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.