There was an audible gasp when General Motors rolled out the Pontiac Solstice concept car during the Detroit auto show, in January 2004 - quickly followed by skeptical sighs. Over the years, the giant automaker has unveiled countless sexy show cars that have never made it into showrooms - or worse, which have been mangled by the production process, like another Pontiac prototype, the Aztek.
General Motors' decision to put the Solstice into production thus generated a mix of excitement and skepticism. Would the automaker retain the show car's over-the-top styling, back-to-basics roadster dynamics, and its promised under-$20,000 price tag?
After a surprisingly short wait, the Solstice is back, this time in production trim. If you've got a pair of calipers, you'll likely find a few minor dimensional changes, but the roadster that TheCarConnection.com got to drive, a few weeks back, is uncannily close to the concept car that first debuted at Detroit's Cobo Hall.
Kappa, Kappa, Kappa
Getting there was no mean feat. GM engineers had to come up with an all-new platform. Dubbed Kappa, it will serve as the "architecture" for an assortment of other specialty vehicles, such as the upcoming Saturn Sky. The automaker also had to raid its parts bin for pieces the Solstice could share with other GM products in a bid to hold down production costs.
The strategy worked. The 2006 Solstice is visually striking, a blast to drive and comes in moderately well equipped at a base price of just $19,995.
A multi-hued lineup of roadsters beckoned as we stepped out of our hotel on a brisk but sunny morning. Despite the chill of the Portland air, we were intent on driving al fresco. Lowering the roof is a reasonably simple operation: press a button on the instrument panel to pop the speedster-style rear clamshell, lift it up and then fold back the canvas top. Though you do have to get out of the car, it is, at worst, a 30-second effort.
Back behind the wheel and buckled up, we listened with delight as the 2.4-liter in-line four fired up. The measure of a great automobile can be found in the smallest details, and it was good to discover that the Solstice engineering team had put some effort into getting the powertrain sound just right.
Of course, they had a good role model. Mazda engineers reportedly studied the exhaust note of more than 100 different roadsters and sports cars when they developed the original Miata.
Miata vs. Solstice
The third generation of that Japanese roadster has just gone on sale, and whether the timing is purely coincidental, it's good news for motorists. Comparisons between the Miata and Solstice will be frequent and unavoidable. Mazda has actually made a point of addressing the issue online.
Nowhere is the contrast more obvious than in exterior design. The Miata has always been a classic roadster, and despite minor changes, the '06 update looks much like the original.
The long-nosed Solstice is much more of a head-turner. With top down, the speedster-style headrests provide the car's visual signature.
The original design emerged from the pen of Franz Von Holzhausen, part of the team at GM's California design studio. Maintaining the low cowl of the concept car was no easy matter, but GM succeeded admirably.
The production car is as curvaceous as the latest Hollywood starlet, with virtually no straight lines or right angles to be found. GM actually had to come up with a new process to shape the large sheetmetal panels, the first such application of hydroforming, which is more commonly used to bend truck frame rails.
Be aware that you'll be likely to spend a lot of your time dealing with gawkers. Folks would follow us for miles out of their way to check out all the angles and chat, if they could catch us at a light.
Seating is comfortable, with precisely the right amount of lateral support you'd want while pushing the roadster through the tight-and-twisties. One complaint, though, is the way the windshield header blocked our view of stoplights, though at 6' 2", we are a bit taller than most drivers. Mazda's latest roadster has largely solved this problem. The Miata, meanwhile, has significantly more trunk space than GM could cram under the Solstice clamshell.
The beating heart of Solstice is that 2.4-liter version of the Ecotec engine, here making 177 horsepower. That's seven more than the '06 Miata, but at 2860 pounds, the Solstice has nearly 400 pounds more to haul around. It's still able to deliver 0-60 times of 7.2 seconds, and clocks an aero drag-limited top speed of 123 mph. No rocket, perhaps, but more than entertaining.
And as we learned long ago while driving Triumphs and MGs, off-the-line acceleration matters a little less with a roadster than the brio of a top-down driving experience. During a long day of driving through the scenic Columbia River Gorge, dividing Oregon and Washington, we found that the best way to describe that experience was great.
The throttle is extremely responsive, as is the roadster's five-speed gearbox. Yes, Miata does offer an optional six-speed manual, but cognoscenti know that the five-speed has the shorter, smoother throw, so we'll call this a wash. The Miata also offers a six-speed automatic. The Solstice won't get its auto until next year, after it's launched on the Saturn Sky.
The stiff Kappa platform is more than up to the task at hand. And so is the suspension, using forged short/long-arms front and rear, along with Bilstein monotube shocks. Pontiac claims the Solstice can deliver 0.9 Gs on the skid pad, and though we didn't get track time, our experience suggested the numbers are realistic.
Steering is precise and direct, as you'd expect from a much more expensive sports car. We were especially surprised at the way the suspension soaked up roadway bumps while maintaining its grip on the Gorge's tight and twisty roads. Oversized brakes proved useful throughout the day, Pontiac claiming 60-0 stops in just 115 feet.
Pontiac has big plans for Solstice. It's lined up a super-sized option catalogue, everything from 18-inch wheels to a modified intake system that can add another 5 hp. Both supercharger and turbo kits are now being offered for the Ecotec, though it's not clear they'll fit under the hood in current form. But company insiders hint they'll offer one or both as factory options in the near future.
Overall, the Solstice is everything we could have hoped for, especially if GM was intent on maintaining the show car's compact dimensions. The new Pontiac yields a few points to Miata, but it also scores quite a few, not the least for its striking looks. It's a fun car to drive, and easy to enjoy on even the longest trips. Bottom line, we expect that each car will develop its own following and provide a much-needed boost to the sluggish roadster market.
We have reason to feel confident. Pontiac already claims 9000 "sold orders." That's about half a year's production. With a slow initial roll-out, you'll be lucky to take delivery any time before next spring, even if you were to plunk down a deposit today.
Pontiac is in need of more excitement and frankly, more showroom traffic these days. The Solstice has a big mission ahead of it - propping up a division struggling to find its direction in the clash of GM brands. Few cars would be up to such a challenge - but we think Solstice is the little roadster that could.
2006 Pontiac Solstice
Base price: $19,995
Engine: 2.4-liter in-line four, 177 hp/166 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 157.2 x 71.3 x 50.1 in
Wheelbase: 95.1 in
Curb weight: 2860 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/28 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags; anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: 18-inch alloy wheels; AM/FM/CD sound; tilt wheel; rear defroster
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles