When you punch the Pontiac Solstice’s go pedal to the floor, you can almost hear that great Les McCann/Eddie Harris tune “Compared to what?” Normally, the Solstice is compared to the Mazda MX5 or its twin-under-the-skin, the Saturn Sky– which is a bit like comparing Heather Graham to Sarah Michelle Gellar and Salma Hayek. While it's clear that the GM cars have more visual appeal than the Japanese roadster, looks can be deceiving. Has GM “made it real,” or is the Solstice just playing a part?
The Solstice’s flowing sheetmetal is soft, sensuous and good-to-go. From the front, it’s a superb retro reworking of a mid-Fifties Thunderbird. (I reckon cops in several US states will specialize in writing Solstii tickets for failure to display a front license plate.) Move to the right, and it’s a Corvette mini-me. The wheels fill the arches so completely the car seems designed as an extra for “Cars.” The stubby rear end deserves twin pipes, but it might as well have that old white trash bumper sticker on it that says “I’m nuts about butts.” The sports car’s stance is yang to the body’s yin: it hunkers on the pavement like a crouching bobcat.
For old MG owners, lowering the Solstice’s soft-top is a piece of cake. For anyone else, it’s a nightmare. The small tent-like rear flutings must be drawn taut and attached via fasteners to the rear deck. And once you fold the canvas top into the trunk, there is no storage space whatsoever-– unless you count the passenger’s foot well. Whereas an MX5 driver can pack light and live, a Solstice driver is hard pressed to stow enough H2O to make it between Arizona rest areas. At a stroke, Pontiac has rendered the Solstice a toy, a four-wheeled motorcycle.
The Solstice’s seats place you low with the hood out high; it’s highly reminiscent of the last generation Chevrolet Camaro. Large, graphically dull black-on-white gauges (courtesy of the Chevy Cobalt) nestle in a nacelle that swoops away to encompass the shift lever. Three simple, round controls for the heat and air-conditioning (courtesy of the Hummer H3) sit just above the radio. Although the GM plastics [still] won’t worry Audi’s haptic team, the Solstice’s much-appreciated minimalism and aesthetic restraint give the cabin a purposeful mien.
Fire-up the 177 horsepower Eco-Tec and the mini-mill produces a warbling base note. Once underway, the 2.4-liter powerplant proves adequate shove for the task at hand; zero to sixty in 7.2 seconds may not set the world on fire, but it will warm it up a bit. Acceleration comes on steadily, like a turbo-prop desperate to leave an aircraft carrier. On the downside, the motor’s as thrashy as an International Harvester combine in an Iowa hay field. Peak torque (166 ft.-lbs.) arrives at 4800 rpm, generating more than enough vibration to discourage a regular exploration of the top of the rev range.
The Solstice’s five-speed transmission is a short throw work of art, snicking home like a Honda S2000’s shifter. No surprise there. Aisin manufactures the Solstice’s five-speed gearbox as well as Honda’s six. Yes, but– the Pontiac’s clutch has a decidedly springy feel and a distinctly heavy action. It’s not exactly truck-like, but those who look at this machine and think “girl car” will change their mind after driving it a dozen miles or so. Still, loping along with just a trace of suspension travel, you’d swear you were in a much larger car. Which is not always a good thing…
The sports car law of the decreasing radius will carry you deep into a turn, with more than a bit of understeer. There’s enough push at the throttle and rubber underfoot to get you through with [mostly] neutral balance registering at your seat. That said, the lightly powered Solstice is a porky little thing. Although the fully independent suspension (A-arms, coil springs, tube shocks and anti-roll bars front and rear) keep things tied down tight, with little cowl shake to disturb the proceedings, you still feel all of the Solstice’s 2888 lbs. through a bend. Unlike its deadly rival, the highly-evolved Mazda Miata, the Solstice doesn’t beg to be thrown about. And with ABS a $400 option, you really need to keep on top of things.
There’s no question that the Pontiac Solstice is a driver’s car. If nothing else, the slick shifter and communicative rack-and-pinion steering demand constant involvement, in the same sense an intelligent, beautiful woman always keeps you on your toes. But the Solstice lacks that final measure of entertainment– a rorty engine note, a bit of unnecessary shove, some real delicacy at the limit– that would make it a “fun” driver’s car. For the vast majority of owners, that won’t be a problem. They’ll love the looks, live with the lid and laugh as they go.