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Pontiac faithful have been getting short shrift in recent years. The General Motors division assigned the task of building and selling excitement hasn't been doing well in either regard. The Firebird is history. An Australian import wears the emperor's clothes but hasn't earned the crown. A four-door sedan carries the badge once proudly worn by a NASCAR winner. Cheer up, people, your wait is over.
The long-awaited, 2006 Pontiac Solstice is here at last. It's a great-looking, two-door, two-seater, drop-top sports car for less than 20 big ones. Okay, that's the base price, and there will be few if any base models at a dealer anytime soon, but even adding all the available options boosts the price only to about $25,000.
Initially, the Solstice sticks to the basics of a two-seat roadster. It comes with a five-speed manual and a 177-horsepower four-cylinder engine. There's no electronic stability program, antilock brakes cost extra, and occupant safety features are the bare minimum.
But for many drivers, basic delivers. We found the Solstice fun, easy to drive, and a hands-down head-turner. And it's built right here in the U.S.A.
Driving the Pontiac Solstice falls only slightly shy of being a blast. Good power, solid braking, responsive steering, predictable handling and zero cowl shake all combined to leave wide grins on our faces.
The biggest kick was rowing through the transmission on a winding, two-lane back road. Brake and accelerator pedals are properly juxtaposed for dancing the heel-and-toe jig, something that can't be said for all sports cars. Clutch travel and take up is certain, although hints of linkage lash leaked into the cabin at low speeds and especially when shifting into and out of reverse. And a persistent buzz in the pedal left our foot tingling, although on the up side, strongly discouraging us from riding the clutch between shifts or while stopped. Shift throws are short and sure, with nary a doubt about which gear we were seeking or had selected. At night, however, and just in case we hadn't been paying attention, the rear window perfectly reflected the shift lever in the rear view mirror.
Exhaust sounds satisfied, but didn't excite, and didn't quite mask sundry engine and other mechanical sounds rumbling around beneath the burble coming out the tailpipe. The Solstice also weighs in at some 400 pounds more than the Miata, while offering only seven more horsepower and 26 more foot-pounds of torque. This latter figure means it hops right off the starting line, but once underway, it's not quite as fleet.
The Solstice answered steering inputs promptly and willingly, albeit a tick or two behind the Miata's crispness. Along the same lines, the suspension is softer than the Miata's, doing a better job of smoothing out pavement irregularities but at the cost of a mild but discernible rear-end wallow in long, high-speed sweepers, and this in spite of a track that's some two inches wider than the Miata's. (Track is the distance between the right and left wheels.) It's a trait we've come to know in General Motors properties, as if the front and rear suspensions are playing in the same band but to a different beat. Entering a corner, the car's essentially neutral. Pushed, it threatens to plow, but this can be countered with judicious pressure on the gas. People who live and drive where there are four distinct seasons might wish the Solstice offered an electronic stability system at least as an option, as the Miata does.
The Pontiac Solstice comes out of the chute as a full-blown, wind-in-the-hair, delight-to-drive, true-blue, yet affordable sports car, something we haven't seen from Detroit in more than half a century. And while it's not perfect, it's easily more than good enough to give drivers something they can own and drive with pride, and a smile.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Northern California's Central Valley and Sierra Foothills.
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