HEALDSBURG, Calif. -- The red needle of a round analog tachometer tips toward the redline as one driver plies a stumpy manual shift lever through lower gears on twisty Chalk Hill Road in California's Sonoma Valley during pedal-on-the-metal tests of Sky, a slinky new two-seat roadster convertible from the Saturn brand of General Motors.
Saturn, the line of affordable economy cars, builds a raucous roadster sports car?
The two-seater Sky is a nice variance to oh-hum economy cars, although it maintains Saturn's theme of affordable window stickers.
Out of the box with no extras aboard, the 2007 Sky roadster bears a MSRP of only $23,115.
There's a lot of driving fun that comes with this base price for Sky.
And it's absolutely gorgeous.
Rippled skin stretches tautly like flexed muscles over a long and broad structure which features a prominent prow, mid-ship cockpit and roly-poly rump.
The face is formidable with a broad creased bumper splitting the grille and snaky headlamp clusters capping the forward corners on peaked front fenders.
Sky's soft top, containing a glass backlight with defogger element added, stows out of sight below deck in fully enclosed compartment, leaving clean lines on the body with twin nacelle blisters trailing behind the seatbacks.
The new roadster, cast on a rigid platform of broad track and long wheelbase, has independent suspension with 18-inch alloy wheels and Goodyear Eagle 245/45 tires.
Ideal weight balance -- the engine mounted up front and all power directed to rear wheels with half of the vehicle's load resting on front wheels and the other half on the rear ones -- sets up that sports car magic of predictable vehicle control for a driver.
Sky's rear-wheel-drive (RWD) chassis, codenamed Kappa at General Motors, is a flexible and adaptable structure designed to support a number of GM vehicles.
It's the same architecture employed for Pontiac's Solstice roadster and the Opel GT roadster which goes to European markets in 2007.
The Kappa platform incorporates single-piece hydroformed rails stretched from tip to tail, which forge an incredibly firm chassis and set up nimble drive manners.
For a base engine, GM's design team modified a variable-valve version of the dual-cam 2.4-liter Ecotec in-line-four plant out of Chevrolet's Cobalt and adapted it to mount longitudinally in the engine bay for RWD application.
In Sky, the Ecotec engine produces 177 hp at 6600 rpm with torque tuned to 166 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
For a transmission, GM turned to its Japanese supply partner Aisin with the impressive short-throw Aisin five-speed manual stick.
The Sky also offers an automatic shifter using GM's Hydra-Matic 5L40-E five-speed automatic.
Mechanical assets include independent suspension designs front and rear with SLA arrangements using lightweight aluminum for upper and lower control arms to pare the unsprung mass.
Bilstein monotube shock absorbers and coil springs are also in place to set up Sky's precise handling traits.
The rack and pinion steering system has power assistance for quick response and the brakes show a disc at each wheel with rotors measuring 11.7 inches up front and 10.9 inches in the rear.
Standard safety systems aboard Sky include dual frontal air bags and built-in roll bars tucked behind each seatback.
Also, there's a computer-controlled anti-lock brake system (ABS) with dynamic rear proportioning (DRP).
Sky's base edition will be followed by a performance version called the Red Line, with capital letters.
Expect the Sky Red Line to pack a punched-up powerplant, performance-tuned suspension and special aerodynamic accents applied to the body.
Engine for the Red Line is a twin-cam 2.0-liter Ecotec four-in-line with direct-injection turbo-charging and air-to-air inter-cooling.
This plant has the highest specific output ever for GM at 130 hp per liter.
It soars to 260 hp at 5300 rpm with the torque peaking to 260 lb-ft between 2500 and 5200 rpm.
Tests indicate the Red Line version can romp from zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, compared to 7.2 seconds for a base Sky.
Sky Red Line also stocks electronic stability control (ESC), a dual exhaust system with polished aluminum outlets, 18-inch polished aluminum alloy wheels and brake cooling vents cut into front fascia.
A driver-oriented cockpit in Sky adds large easy-to-read gauges, with a pair of bolstered bucket seats flanking the center console and hard plastic finishes in glossy piano black and chrome.
The dash center stack contains big rotary knobs to access the climate system and a stereo audio deck (AM/FM/CD) below.
Transmission stick mounts on the chassis tunnel which caps as a console and arm rest.
Cockpit for Sky Red Line gains gear like a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, metal sill plates, stainless steel pedal covers, special Red Line instruments and a digital boost gauge added to the Driver Information Center.
The soft top on Sky works manually, but lowering the top is easy and quick.
First, touch a switch on the key fob and the rear-hinged clamshell truck lid pops open, along with pins which anchor the top's pair of trailing buttresses.
Next, you must fold the canvas top in accordion fashion into the well of the stow bin, then snap the decklid down.
Optional equipment for the base Sky ranges from a premium trim package at $750 with leather seats and steering wheel audio controls to a decklid spoiler for $275, polished alloy wheels ($545) or chromed alloy wheels ($795), a limited-slip rear differential ($195), XM satellite radio service for $325 and a Monsoon sound kit with six-disc CD changer for $890.
2007 Saturn Sky roadster MSRP is $23,115.