Solstice brings real excitement back to Pontiac

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Excitement has returned to the Pontiac brand in the form of the Solstice roadster.

Unfortunately, this excitement will be available only to a small number of buyers in the near future. Orders for the 2006 Solstice have far exceeded production. But Pontiac has added a third shift at its Wilmington, Del., assembly plant. With more cars rolling off the assembly line — Pontiac hopes to build 20,000 a year when at full capacity — perhaps by late spring or early summer the waiting time for open-air fun, Pontiac-style, will drop to a reasonable level. The key word is perhaps.

Most people are surely putting their names on the line without ever taking a test drive. The two-seater is so drop-dead gorgeous that it’s irresistible. Where the heck do we sign up?

But that means there’s a chance some of those initial owners will be disappointed. They are taking a big risk that the Solstice is more than just a pretty face. One must always consider whether the mechanics will live up to expectation and what if it doesn’t.

Dismiss such notions. Pontiac has gotten most things right. You might know this already from the early round of applause that has emanated from the automotive press. And we put our hands together, too, for a remarkable car.

It would have been easy for General Motors to get many things wrong. The General is a lot more adept at building large trucks, sport utilities and big cars than tiny roadsters.

And granted, not all is perfect in this initial attempt at a roadster. Perhaps the blueprint will be refined a bit for the Saturn Sky roadster, which is now coming off the same Delaware assembly line and set to hit showrooms this month.

But before we announce our handful of nitpicks, let’s describe what’s right with the Solstice: It’s fairly obvious the styling is dead on. It makes its chief competition, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, look plain Jane. The huge kidney-shape grille is the styling highlight, but the Solstice looks good from every angle. And it looks good with top up or down.

It’s a muscular look with rounded lines and bulging fender flares assisted by a wide -track stance and 18-inch wheels. Plus one of the most interesting design features is the dual cowl bumps on the back deck reminiscent of racing cars from the ’50s.

The interior of the Solstice is roomy, especially compared to the Miata. There’s stretch-out room and there’s elbow room.

Behind the wheel, the front end stretches out in front of you. That’s the sports car look we like as opposed to many cars where all visages of a sloping hood are absent. The cockpit wraps around the driver and the seats are comfortable with good lateral support.

As usual with General Motors, you find yourself wishing for upgraded interior materials, perhaps less use of hard plastic, but we can’t really complain too loudly about the dashboard layout with controls canted toward the driver, attractive chrome-ringed gauges and a leather-wrapped thickly padded steering wheel.

The little car’s fit and finish is first class. That’s noteworthy because that’s not always the case in GM cars these days.

Outside of the stop-and-stare good looks, the best part of the Solstice is the driving experience. It’s a darn good place to be if you need a pick-me-up or to punctuate a day of frowning with a smiley face.

The Solstice has a true roadster feel with GM’s 2.4-liter dual-overhead cam inline 4-cylinder Ecotec under the hood. It makes 177 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and if you keep it percolating you can wring satisfying performance out of it.

With some well-timed shifting, the Solstice can finish off a 0 to 60 run in just a tick over 7 seconds and complete a quarter mile in about 15 seconds at 89 miles per hour.

Although not the slickest in the business, the 5-speed manual shifter — the only transmission currently offered — has short throws with an appropriately sporty feel. Clutch action is right on target for around-town cruising.

Once out on the back road twists and turns, the Solstice is a cornering beast. The large 18-inch tires, a long wheelbase and a well-tuned sports suspension give the roadster a stick-to-the-road demeanor.

We wouldn’t call putting the top down a chore, but its more time consuming than its Miata counterpart. It requires turning a latch on the windshield, popping the rear deck lid with a button in the glovebox and then getting out and manually folding the top into its compartment.

Two “flying buttresses” anchor the top in back and they have to be refastened when putting the top up. They also have to be refastened when closing the trunk lid.

A couple of our additional nitpicks are with the interior design, and lack thereof. The power window switch sits behind the driver creating an unnatural movement to use it. And the cupholders pop out between the seats also creating a dexterity problem, especially when driving. However we have not met one contortionist that has complained. Even GM car czar Bob Lutz would have a complaint about this – unless he’s a closet contortionist.

Storage has never been a strong suit with roadsters, and the Pontiac lives up to the tradition. The trunk is small and gets much smaller when the top is down. When traveling, you will have to limit yourself to a couple of small overnight bags at best. Storage inside is as lacking. A small storage bin between the seats will hold a few CDs or other small things. Nets on the seats are OK for storing a cell phone, but make it unhandy to get to in a hurry.

But you don’t buy a roadster for its storage prowess.

You buy it for its fun factor and the Solstice is loaded with fun. And when you figure the starting price is just $19,995 including destination charge, you want to jump up, click your heels and yell out to the world, “I can afford that.” Except truthfully – dealer markups in some markets may make Solstice just a bit less affordable along with the price of key options.

You will want a couple of options to make life easier including the power package for $625 which includes power windows and doorlocks and keyless entry. And you might think seriously about the convenience package at $465 which includes cruise control, fog lights and driver information center.

Air conditioning is a must in warmer climates. That will run an extra $960. And antilock brakes are also extra at $400.

But even with a few necessary options the roadster can be driven out the door for less than 23 grand. Our test car, with a few other things including a premium stereo with 6 disc changer, came in at $24,085.

The Solstice offers proof that Americans can build an affordable and very sexy sports car. Maybe Pontiac and General Motors are finally headed in the right direction — building attractive cars that people want.