The Solstice is a very different beast – not only for Pontiac, but also for GM. To begin with it drives its rear wheels, which puts it in an elite class within the General’s oversized portfolio. It is also different because it is the first car to take a serious swipe at the Mazda Miata – only the short-lived and rather expensive MR2 from Toyota has challenged the Miata in the past fifteen or so years.
The basic premise behind the Solstice mirrors that of the Miata – it’s a two-seat roadster that places more of an emphasis on driving fun than on horsepower or practicality. In this regard, it is an unqualified success – this piece of information being gleaned from a full test of an early production car and not the crude engineering buck featured in some other reports.
To begin with, the platform is as solid as a rock, with virtually no sign of cowl shake, even when the road deteriorates to the point where a lesser car would start to shake and shimmy like some delirious go-go dancer. The strength comes from the Solstice’s hydroformed chassis (the hydroforming process uses pressurized fluid to form each frame rail from a single piece of steel, rather than welding several pieces together to get the desired form). The central tunnel is also reinforced and then boxed on the underside to add the bending resistance normally supplied by the roof panel. It is this inner strength that gives the rest of the car the foundation it needs to function properly.
The suspension, for example, is right out of the tuner books – double wishbones and coil-over-Bilstein shocks at all four corners and massive 18-inch wheels shod with equally large 245/45 Goodyear Eagle RS-A performance tires. Combine the attributes of the platform and the 50/50 weight distribution front to rear with this setup and the Solstice handles like an overgrown go-kart. The nicely weighted steering points the Solstice into a corner with precision, the rest of the car follows while feeling as though it is pivoting around the driver’s rear end, which is exactly as it should be! The bonus is that in spite of its European feel, the Solstice’s ride comfort is very civilized. You have to look to much more expensive cars to find a better balance.
Likewise, the large four-wheel discs and optional antilock brakes provide fast, fade-free stops. Again, well above what you tend to expect from an affordable roadster.
If there is drawback, it is the lack of a spare tire. In its place comes on of those useless tire inflation kits that only work if there is a minor air leak – suffer a larger puncture or take the sidewall out and you in for a tow to the nearest garage. Run-flat tires would solve the problem.
The Solstice has plenty of power – a 2.4L twin cam that uses variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. The result is 177 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque – 90% being available anywhere between 2,400 and 5,600 rpm. Considering the light 1,300-kilogram curb weight it is motivating, this is plenty, as the Solstice will run to 100 km/h in 7.6 seconds. Likewise, the exhaust note is purposeful without being overly intrusive when cruising the highway.
The five-speed manual transmission that’s married to this engine makes up my second beef. While the clutch is light and progressive and the shifter features short, defined, throws the ratios you stir are an odd mix. First and second are fine, as they are low enough to deliver a crisp launch. However, just before hitting 100 km/h, you have to drop into third – drop being an apt descriptor. The gap between second and third is just too large and so the engine drops off the boil momentarily, which blunts outright performance. Likewise, shifting from forth to the overdrive fifth sees the engine drop right out of the powerband. As a result, fifth was seldom used on the test and so the fuel consumption was higher than it might have been. The solution is simple: slip in a six-speed box. A five-speed automatic will be offered.
Inside, the Solstice is nicely finished and very comfortable. The seats are form-fitting and comfortable without being confining, the gauge package is complete and all controls are logically placed. The materials are also top notch and finished in a dark grey. For those that want a little more flare, there is a two-tone beige/light grey interior.
Getting the Solstice into its open-air mode is a simple matter of releasing the central header catch, releasing and lifting the trunk lid (it opens clamshell-style), lowering the padded top (which includes a proper glass rear window and defroster) down and then closing the trunk. The beauty is that as the top fits into the trunk there is no annoying tonneau cover to fix into place.
This brings me to my third and final beef (and biggest disappointment) – storage space. Within the cabin it is at a premium, beneath the trunk lid when the top is down it is almost non-existent. Top up, there is a claimed 3.8 cubic feet. Fold the top down and anything that will fit in needs to be liquid so it can flow into the cracks and crevices around the top and raised portion of the gas tank (it stands 200-mm or more proud of the floor). Indeed, to make use of what space there is requires the top to be partially raised, the items stuffed into the trunk and then the top lowered and checked to ensure it will allow the trunk lid to close without leaving an impression of the top embossed in the shiny sheet metal.
The Solstice, in spite of my criticisms, is going to mount a very credible challenge to the previously unchallenged Miata. It is better than the old Miata and within spitting distance of the new, which is high praise considering Mazda has had years to perfect the affordable roadster. The Solstice starts at $25,695. Adding every conceivable option – everything from leather to the smoker’s package and OnStar – sees it top out at around $33,000.