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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.
Look up "curvaceous" in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of the Pontiac Solstice. There's not a straight line, a flat surface or a right angle on the body of this car. Indeed, the only body part formed by the traditional method of stamping a piece of sheet metal is the small panel behind the front wheel well. All the rest come via a process called hydroforming, which uses extremely high water pressure to press sheet metal into a mold. Slow and low-volume, yes, and labor-intensive, but the best way Pontiac's engineers found to translate the idealized, flowing lines of the original concept car to reality. Hydroforming generally results in stiffer chassis, which is a key element for sharp handling and a smooth ride.
An iconic, two-piece grille and an emblem are the sole clues on the front end that this car is a Pontiac. The bumperless, severely rounded fascia hints of early BMW coupes and convertibles. Buyers living in states requiring two license plates won't (legally) get a chance to strike a Vanna White pose to show off the sleek front look, however, as the front license plate bracket bolts smack across the middle of the split grille, transforming the front end to something just this side of ugly. Headlights and, when ordered, fog lamps are recessed into the fenders' upper and lower outboard curves, respectively. The hood rises gradually between primly proud headlights to the cowl, where it runs into a parking strip for the windshield wipers at the base of the windshield.
The forward portion of the side silhouette is strikingly similar to that of the very first Corvette, with the front overhang tautly draped over a wheel well positioned at the extreme end of the car. The stubby rear quarters resemble the current Lotus Elise sans spoiler, with the profile drawn sharply up from the rear wheel well and over the trailing edge of the clamshell trunk to aero-like fairings behind the high-back seats. The body filling the space between the wheel wells easily could have been sliced out of that same Corvette and sectioned to tuck into the Solstice's relatively short wheelbase.
Stylistically, the convertible top is a coup. Yes, the Solstice looks best with the top down, but even with it up, the side aspect shows a decent aero look. And this is with a storage system that tucks the top away under a clamshell-like, rear-hinged trunk lid covering the entire back part of the car. The trick is a couple of mini-Ferrari Dino-like sail panels bookending the vertical rear window. These do add complexity, however, and an extra step or two in opening the trunk while the top is up and in raising and lowering the top. Click the remote, and three latches pop loose, one in the center for the trunk lid, the other two outboard beneath the two wings. Fold the wings up, then open the trunk; to close, reverse the process, always remembering to latch both wings. The entire process takes less than a minute.
The rear view looks like it was sketched by somebody with an understanding of and affinity for fluid motion. Taillights sit atop the fenders, directly above pods housing the combination back-up lights and reflectors. A single, chromed exhaust tip exits through a half-round opening molded into the right end of the black mesh diffuser that runs across the bottom of the rear fascia.
The Solstice may not break new ground as a design, but is instead a sweet blending of elements of sports cars that have gone before. The result is an eye-pleasing, delightfully proportioned, almost sensuous package.
Considering that it incorporates components from Cadillac, Chevrolet, Opel, and Fiat, the cabin of the Solstice looks and feels more integrated, more of a whole than expected. Quality of fit and finish on the test car was on a par with the competition, save for an uneven cover on the passenger airbag and one fixture central to a functioning convertible. Ergonomics, too, earn mostly good scores.
An eyebrow-like hood rises from the dash near the driver's door to loop over the instrument cluster and drop down the right-hand side of the center stack, offering the passenger a Hail Mary hand-grip before wrapping around the shift boot. A pair of large, round dials report engine and road speed, with a smaller dial resting in the saddle between those two doing the same for fuel level. Too bad all three circles make goo-goo eyes at the unlined top rather than gaze meaningfully into the eyes of the driver. Three round, eye shade-like dash vents service the driver, with a fourth isolated at the far end of the passenger's side of the dash. Three well-proportioned climate control knobs fill the space in the center stack between the vents and the stereo panel, the last a jarring rectangle unlike every other shape in the Solstice's interior. We would have placed the solo power point on the other side of the binnacle, near the passenger, though, to keep the radar detector cord out of the way of the climate control knobs and stereo. Door latch handles are comfortably located high up and forward on the doors. The power mirror control, too, is convenient, at the top of the inside door pull just below the door handle, where an index finger can easily manipulate it. The hand brake is on the passenger side of the drive tunnel, opposite of where it should be, however. The power window buttons would be easier to use if they were farther forward in the armrests. And the knob for adjusting the seatback angle is difficult to reach with the doors closed.
Seats fit us well, although the bottom cushions came up a bit short on thigh support. And a seat height adjustment would ease the strain on the hamstrings over long drives. Space-wise, the Solstice compares well with the Miata, with an inch more head room, identical hip room and barely half an inch less leg room.
Elevated seats would improve outward visibility all the way around, too, although the high beltline arguably adds a degree of safety in side impacts. On the subject of occupant safety, the Solstice provides what's mandatory and nothing more. Thus, while every 2006 Mazda Miata MX-5 has frontal airbags, seat-mounted side airbags and passenger-seat child safety seat anchors, the Solstice comes only with frontal airbags.
Storage consists of a decent-size glove box, plus a couple of nets sewn to the front of the seat bottoms, a cubby tucked into the bulkhead between the seatbacks, and pouches on the seat backs. Doubling as storage for the convertible top, the trunk offers 3.8 cubic feet with the top up, but just 1.4 cu. ft. with the top down. Those data don't truly tell the tale, however. The elephant in the trunk is the gas tank. Finding no other place to put it (and stay within the development timeline and budget set for the car), the Solstice's designers plopped it down front and center in the trunk. The result is a huge box sitting on the trunk floor that leaves barely enough room around the edges for soft-sided, duffel bag-type luggage. Which is just as well, as anything put inside has to be hefted up and over the sides of the car, so light is good. There's no room for a spare tire, either, so like the Miata and for the same reason, the Solstice comes with an emergency inflater strapped to the back wall of the trunk. But although the Maita's trunk is only 1.5 cu. ft. larger, it's immensely more functional, shaped as it is more traditionally, i.e., a reasonably deep, open space.
We had trouble with the trunk lid on our test car. The first time
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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