Last weekend I drove about 10 hours southwest through the Ozarks to Branson, Missouri to pick up a Saturn. This wasn’t just any Saturn, though—it was a rear-drive roadster with 260 horsepower and 260 lb-ft torque. The Saturn Sky Red Line was the coolest car to ever wear a Saturn badge, and it ended up being the swan song of the whole brand.
In 2002, Bob Lutz drove a sleek roadster onto the stage at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The crowd cheered at the vehicle before their eyes. This car—the Pontiac Solstice concept—was the realization of a dream Lutz had held for much of his automotive career. The executive told the captivated public that “the North American market is ripe for an affordable, pure roadster executed to top global standards on perceived quality, both inside and out.”
There was just one problem: General Motors didn’t have a compact front-engine, rear-drive platform. The General’s engineers rectified that with the Kappa platform. It’s a pretty advanced piece of engineering, with hydroformed frame rails and a double-walled driveshaft tunnel, not unlike a Corvette. To make the Solstice, engineers raided GM’s parts bin, grabbing components from across the automaker’s giant portfolio to create a two-seat sports car that called back to European roadsters of the ‘60s.
The production Pontiac Solstice hit the road in 2005, followed by the Saturn Sky in 2006. The Sky got unique styling inspired by the Vauxhall VX Lightning concept car. The Pontiac and Saturn roadsters would soon be joined by more siblings, the Daewoo G2X and Opel GT. Spanish automaker Tauro even used the platform as a base for its LS3-powered V8 Spider. This was GM’s first compact, front-engine, rear-drive car since the Chevette.
I fell in love with the Kappa convertibles through the long-forgotten game Test Drive Unlimited. In 2007, a 14-year-old me booted up a satin white Xbox 360 for the first time. TDU appeared on the screen. One of my first cars in the game? A yellow Saturn Sky.
I drove the little Saturn thousands of virtual miles on digital road trips. TDU’s rendition of Hawai’i’s Oahu was expansive enough to drive for hours without getting bored. It didn’t take long for the Saturn to join my list of dream cars alongside the first-generation Audi TT, and later the Smart Fortwo and Smart Roadster. I never thought I’d own a Sky, let alone the best version in the flashiest color. I’ve long watched as Solstice and Sky prices took off, as enthusiasts seemed to gain appreciation for this unexpected GM product.
Then last week I found the perfect 2008 Sky for sale in Branson, Missouri.
It’s yellow. It has a manual transmission. And the icing on the cake, it’s a Red Line, the fastest of the bunch. The deal was sealed the moment I saw the tantalizing $8,700 price. Thankfully, the seller was willing to hold it for me, knowing it had long been a dream car of mine.
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect from this car. My only experience behind the wheel of a Kappa car was in video games. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen one in real life.
All it took was one drive to get me hooked. I parted ways with my Benjamins with a smile on my face. Oh yeah, it came with matching shades!
The Ozarks were a fantastic place to get acquainted with my new toy. The Sky is a parts bin special, and at 3,080 pounds it’s heavier than a comparable Miata. It still surprised me with its abilities. It carved the Ozark’s curves with poise. And that engine? It has great power everywhere.
That’s the GM 2.0-liter Ecotec LNF turbocharged four under the hood. While the base Sky was motivated by a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated Ecotec four making 177 HP and 166 lb-ft torque, the top spec Red Line got 260 HP and 260 lb-ft torque. At the time, GM was stuffing this turbo engine into the performance-minded Cobalt SS and the hilarious HHR SS. The engine even made an appearance in the Fisker Karma.
The turbo engine came paired with either a 5L40-E automatic (also found in the Cadillac CTS) or an Aisin AR5 five-speed manual (found in the Chevrolet Colorado). Mine has the manual, and while it shifts like a truck transmission it doesn’t detract from the experience. Car and Driver found the automatic to be faster, sprinting from zero to 60 in just 5.2 seconds.
This engine and transmission combination makes just about everything effortless. A Sky Red Line will happily pass a whole line of cars while climbing a mountain. No highway-on ramp is too short. A Red Line will have you breaking the speed limit in no time.
After 600 miles in my Sky, I’m happy to say it’s a competent road tripper. But the ergonomics are a bit of a disaster. The door panel switches are behind where your arm naturally rests, and if you’re much taller than my five-foot-six, you might not fit. What’s more, the interior layout is confusing, requiring some contortionist tricks to reach the cupholders.
And you can forget bringing anything with you. There’s practically no storage in the cabin, and when the roof is stowed, you get no space in the trunk, either. With the roof up, you do get some decent storage, but that sort of defeats the purpose of a convertible.
My Sky isn’t perfect. It needs some paint retouching, the key fobs need programming, and it could use a new front bumper. But it’s all there, and there’s no check engine light.
Saturn had some good ideas, but the brand never really got a chance to shine. It started as America’s all-plastic answer to Japanese imports, but by the end it became an importer itself, selling rebadged Opels in America.
Thanks to Bob Lutz, Saturn went out with a bang. The Sky is the best thing Saturn ever sold, especially the Red Line. If you’re looking for some drop-top fun in something a little different, take a spin in one of these. You won’t regret it.