By Richard Russell
Photos by Michael La Fave and Grant Yoxon
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Photo: Michael La Fave. Click image to enlarge
Pontiac is depending on a positive reaction to the 2006 Solstice and the subsequent buzz that would create to help with the “renaissance of the brand.” The good news is that this stunning sports car is an amazing first effort right out of the box. The comparison to the Mazda Miata is inevitable – and welcomed by GM. The Miata is widely respected as the perfect definition of a modern sports car. The fact the Solstice could emerge from the depths of GM and stand proudly beside such an icon, is nothing less than amazing.
The Solstice is the first two-seater based on GM’s new Kappa rear-drive architecture. It will be followed by the Saturn Sky next year and a European version, likely from Opel, later on. After having the market to itself for 15 years with little if any serious competition the Miata has some company – serious company.
The Solstice is an eye-grabber. Devoid of bumpers front or rear and featuring a dramatic swept-under appearance at both ends, the style is stunning.
Unfortunately in many jurisdictions the front will be marred by a license plate and there was no provision for one so it is stuck smack dab in the middle of that gorgeous nose. The head-restraint extensions on the rear deck and massive 18-inch wheels lend a sleek, finished and upscale look, making the little roadster appear larger than it actually is (it casts a shadow almost exactly the same size as a Miata, albeit slightly wider).
The Solstice is all metal and those shapely panels are formed by hydroforming (squeezing the steel into the desired shape against a mould under massive pressure), instead of stamping by press. The engineers devised a large and very stout centre tunnel to provide the Solstice with amazing rigidity – also using hydroforming which allows shaping difficult contours.
Here is a case where beauty is more than skin deep. Dynamically, the engineers were as successful as the designers. This little sports car is agile and a treat to drive. Response to throttle and steering inputs is quick, linear and direct. The ride is comfortably supple, yet you can toss this little demon into the corners at speeds that would have almost anything else leaving the road or shredding tires in protest.
A fully independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes and monster tires allow the Solstice to stick to the road like chewing gum to hair. Unfortunately, ABS is a $600 option on a car that is both capable of and likely to be driven energetically. There are a few other instances like this where it is apparent sacrifices were made to meet the $25,695 base price. You can get it over $32,000 with some effort but a really well-equipped one will not reach $30,000.
GM’s twin-cam ‘Ecotec’ four cylinder engine, with four valves per cylinder and balance shafts, has found a welcome home under the hood of a variety of vehicles and appears here in 2.4 litre guise, presenting a healthy 177-horsepower. The sound is not particularly pleasing at high revs, but it is smooth and offers decent torque low down where it is needed. The sole transmission offering is a five-speed Aisin manual. We prefer to call it a four-speed with a very tall overdrive. There is a monstrous gap between fourth and fifth gears making the top cog all but useless except for long flat or downhill stretches. Obviously ratios were chosen to achieve high fuel mileage ratings in laboratory conditions. The clutch is light and direct with progressive take-up. The shifter is similarly light and direct with well-defined gates, very short throws and a well-placed lever. A five-speed automatic will be along next Spring.
There is ample space for two large people inside, but little room for anything else. One cupholder is in the way of the passenger’s legs and the other difficult to reach and use behind and between the seats. Due to the structural centre tunnel there is no provision for coins, glasses, mobile phones or the usual “stuff” people carry with them, but there are slots in the seat bottom cushions. The Solstice comes with an all-dark or two-tone interior. We preferred the latter. The seats are terrific with lots of lateral support above and below the waist, which was especially appreciated during our frequent attempts to explore and enjoy the considerable handling limits of this car. Taller folks might find the lack of recline room bothersome.
The top is our chief gripe and an area where we feel extra time and money would have been well spent. It is weather-tight but when in place the tiny (heated glass) rear window restricts visibility and there is considerable wind noise at the rear corners right beside your ears.
Neither is particularly worrisome in a canvas top. But the real problem comes when the top is lowered. When down – and it goes up or down with minimal manual effort – it completely fills the trunk, leaving no room for anything larger than a small purse or bag.
With the top up, Pontiac claims 107 litres of space in the trunk, but that must be liquid measure because a monstrous lump where the gas tank lives atop the rear differential takes up most of the space leaving a small perimeter slot for storage.
When folded, the top is hidden completely by a very slick rear-hinged full metal cover, resulting in a very finished look, much better than having all that canvas showing. But that means you have to stop and get out to raise or lower the top.
The Solstice is a truly amazing first effort. Hats off to GM and those within who managed to keep it so close to the original show car. It comes up a bit short because of the top, lack of space and poorly-chosen gear ratios but each of these issues is easily addressed! With such stunning style and exceptional driving dynamics this is still an amazing product at an impressive price.