2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP; Osoyoos, BC. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Peter Bleakney
2008 Pontiac Solstice
Kelowna, British Columbia – There’s a pungent sweetness to the springtime air in the Coastal Mountains that almost defies description. I hungrily took in great gulps of this intoxicating breeze as it swirled about the cabin of my 2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP tester. Yes, it was a tad chilly that morning, blasting along the Coquihalla Pass, but there was no way the soft top was staying fixed with these incredible vistas presenting themselves at every turn.
Riding shotgun was good friend, drum whiz and wine enthusiast Gary Craig, and we were heading east from Vancouver to the Spring Wine Festival in the Okanagan Valley. Three years ago we did the San Ynez Valley “Sideways” wine tour in a Saab 9-3 convertible. Then we explored Niagara Wine Country in a Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. This time, we were looking to gain an appreciation for B.C.’s Okanagan wine region from the sun-baked cockpit of Pontiac’s little roadster. As far as three-quels go, this may not be up there with Return of the Jedi or Saw III, but at least the casting is consistent.
Just to get us in the mood, I challenged Gary to describe the Solstice GXP in wine speak as we climbed higher through the thin mountain air. “This is a car with a great nose, long legs, and a body that’s bold and powerful upfront. It has a smooth finish but leaves little room for much else. Drives well now.”
2008 Solstice GXP; Gary Craig (left) and Peter Bleakney, at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, Kelowna, B.C. Click image to enlarge
Nearly three years on, the Solstice remains one of the finest sculpted roadsters around. Its organic and curvy flanks hint of vintage Jaguars, and this GXP variant with its black mesh grill, dual exhaust tips and 18-inch chromed wheels ($230) looks especially fetching. Austin Powers would call this car dead sexy, baby.
Good looks or not, I’ve never been a big fan of the base Solstice, with its coarse and breathless 173-hp 2.4-litre Ecotec four. The 260-hp 2.0-litre direct-injection turbocharged Ecotec four-cylinder engine in the $35,800 GXP is certainly a step up. With 260 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it propels this rear-drive roadster with plenty ‘o gusto. It’s still not a particularly pleasant sounding engine, but again, better than the base car.
For 2008, StabiliTrak electronic stability control is standard fare on the GXP. All 2008 Solstice models get a new acoustic headliner in the roof, a tire pressure monitor and driver information centre. What really impressed us was the Solstice’s comfortable ride, excellent leather sport seats ($1,115), good wind management at speed, powerful sound system and relaxed composure on the highway. Unlike some of its competitors (I’m talkin’ to you, Mazda MX-5), this roadster makes for a great long distance hauler.
2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP. Click image to enlarge
Except for the fact that you can’t haul anything in it.
If there is a car out there with a trunk more useless than the shallow, lumpy space under the rear deck of the Solstice (and Saturn Sky), I’d like to know about it. And with the roof stowed, you may be choosing between taking your toothbrush or an extra pair of skivvies.
Don’t even get me started on the labour-intensive ritual of putting the top up or down.
As the mountains gave way to rolling foothills and then to the Okanagan Valley, our first stop was the well-known Mission Hill winery in Kelowna – a spectacular old-world Spanish style complex overlooking the Okanagan Lake.
Across the river we found the organic Summerhill Pyramid Winery. Here, they sprinkle the vineyards with glacial rock dust and age all the wines in a giant pyramid. Although not scientifically proven, the vintners believe the negative ions created by the energy field of this sacred geometric shape enhance their elixirs.
All this negativity seemed to have a positive effect on the designated sipper, as he gleefully bought a 2003 Cabernet that featured “a forward plum, blackberry and light mint nose, opening into a subtle cherry, sweet spice and vegetal aroma”.
2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP; Mission Hill Winery, Kelowna BC. Click image to enlarge
There are dozens of wineries in the Okanagan Valley, and an equal number of fabulous driving roads that alternately run along the shores of the lakes and through the scenic hills. It was on the aptly named Corkscrew Drive where I got to press the GXP. Credit must be given to GM for making the most of this structurally rigid and compact platform. The roadster proved to be quite entertaining, exhibiting decent turn in, tenacious grip and good balance as we made quick work of the transitions along the sinuous blacktop. The leather wheel feels good in the hands too, although the steering could use more feel.
The Solstice GXP may not be as cat-like as the Mazda MX-5 or as sublime as the Porsche Boxster, but it is still a fine expression of a compact rear-drive roadster, and arguably better looking than either.
Too bad about the optional ($1250) five-speed automatic transmission, though. It is lazy and has no manual override. C’mon GM. This is a sports car! Paddle shifters would have been nice. My advice: stick with the five-speed stick.
The Okanagan Valley stretches 200 kilometres, with the southernmost town of Osoyoos kissing the U.S. border at the northern tip of the Sonora Desert. Unique in the world of winemaking, this valley encompasses the geography and climate of every wine region of Europe. As a result, the varieties of wines produced here range from southern France (Rhone) to the Burgundy region, to the Alsace of Germany.
2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP; Fairview Cellars, Oliver BC; Bill Eggert (proprietor of Fairview, left), Peter Bleakney and Gary Craig (right). Click image to enlarge
On the advice of friend and TV personality Terry David Mulligan, (who has a place in Penticton and now hosts his own radio wine show), we went to seek out Bill Eggert at Fairview Cellars in Osoyoos. Mulligan considers him one of Canada’s finest wine makers. “He’s a bit of a curmudgeon,” he warned. “Be nice and he might sell you some wine.”
As we blasted the Solstice up the winding road to his little out-of-the-way establishment, Gary was salivating like a St. Bernard. Could this be what the practiced palette was seeking? Eureka! The best reds of the day. Bill welcomed us with open arms and sold us a spectacular peppery Merlot and his signature Cabernet blend known as The Bear.
In a matter of hours, we had driven from forested mountains to a rocky desert, and sampled the fruits of the soil along the way. As a testament to our ingenuity (or was that desperation?), we managed to cram a dozen bottles into the various cracks and crevices of the space challenged, yet ultimately enjoyable Solstice GXP. Surely we are deserving of a Guinness World Record for that.
It brings a whole new meaning to the concept of laying down a fine wine.
Pricing: 2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP
Base price: $35,800
Price as tested: $41,195
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