2006 Pontiac Solstice Review
By Steve Purdy
Let’s review GM’s history of producing two-seat sports cars. First, the Corvette was brought out in 1953 considerably underpowered but sexy enough to compete with the popular underpowered British sports cars of the day. Fortunately, the introduction of the small-block V-8 in ‘55 legitimized it just in time to begin its run as an American icon, now in its sixth generation and 54th model year. An amazing success.
Not so the also underpowered Fiero, put together mostly with off-the-shelf parts from other GM products. The rear suspension was taken directly from the dismally developed X-cars and couldn’t survive the average Michigan pothole without breaking in two. The poorly thought out front suspension caused the sprightly little car to plow in adverse conditions. Though the Fiero was less than well thought out we still must give GM credit for having the courage to produce a mid-engined two-seater in the era of gas shortages and uninspired products. Enthusiasts agree that in its last year of production, with a V-6 engine and suspension upgrades, it became a competent sports car just in time for its plug to be pulled.
Then there was the lovely Reatta, built at the Lansing Craft Center. It was the first car GM made without an assembly line. The Reatta was misunderstood by the press and much of the public who expected it to be the faster, stiffer sports car. It was meant to be a classy personal luxury two-seater and it did a great job of being just that. My pretty blonde had hers for 11 years we both loved it.
And now we have the fresh, flashy, fun new Pontiac Solstice, brought to market a bit too quickly perhaps, but an initial hit to be sure. I scored a black one for a long weekend recently to drive in Michigan State University’s sesquicentennial parade. With the popular and charming Alumni Association boss, Keith Williams, sitting on the boot we were the hit of the parade. With its brash and exciting style the Solstice is an amazing crowd pleaser.
Look at that thing. A modern, masculine shape with wheels way out to the corners and virtually no overhangs give it the stance of a water spider. The two classic humps on the deck behind the seats suggest classic racing cars of the 50s. From inside looking out over the hood it resembles an older Corvette. For style and ambiance Solstice gets a solid A+.
Solstice is universally seen as Bob Lutz’ baby, the first car fully developed under his watch and expected to reflect his personal love of automotive innovation. Lutz, GM’s chairman of global product development, insisted the car be brought in under $20,000 and in a tight time frame. It was first shown as a concept at the North American International Auto Show in 2002.
Like the other GM sports cars it comes to market a tad underpowered with the 2.4-litre DOHC longitudinally mounted four-banger rated at 177 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. With port injection, 4 valves-per-cylinder, and variable valve timing it redlines at a respectable 6900 rpm. It feels rather tepid under normal driving but keep the rpms above 4-grand and it’s much more exciting. Zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds - not bad really. There will be no V-6, Bob Lutz told me in an exclusive interview at the Automotive Press Association last week. “The chassis was designed to accept only the 4-cylinder because of cost and time considerations. But we can get 280 horsepower out of that engine with no problem at all,” Lutz insists. So look for GM to pour on the power in the near future.
Browsing around under the hood I noticed that the battery is buried rather deeply behind the right front wheel well. So deeply, in fact, that it appears the body panel would have to come off to replace the battery. Closing the hood takes a bit of practice as well. Closing it too gently left one side not fully latched.
All cars in the initial six months of production will have the 5-speed manual transmission that was brought over from the Chevy Colorado pickup. Automatics should be available early next year.
Handling is impeccable. Suspension is good and stiff. Dive hard into a 90-degree turn and goose it for a precise and gripping experience. Go down the road and jerk the steering wheel back and forth to feel the quick and tight rack-and-pinion power assisted steering. Hit the rough railroad tracks or your favorite country road to feel the stiffness of this entirely new platform called Kappa. Suspension is independent front and rear. Bilstein © Coil-Over shocks are standard, as are the low-profile (45-series) 18-inch Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. The new chassis gets an A+ too.
Inside I felt comfortable and quite at home. My pretty blonde, though, felt a bit claustrophobic with the low top and high center console. She got over it quickly. The style and design of the interior is first rate, in my view, though some of my pals disagreed. The smooth swooping instrument panel blends into the center console gracefully. The materials mostly look and feel better than expected, although some rough plastic edges are evident. Seats, based on an Opel design, are supportive and well bolstered. The short shifter feels great and slips into and out of each gear without notchiness or resistance.
The next order of business is to lower the top. Push the button inside the glove box to release the clam-shell boot. Release the inside handle for the top to let go of the windshield. Get out of the car and lift the boot high, fold the top down in one motion, then push it hard to compress it enough so the boot will close. Then slam - yes slam - the boot. Try to close it gently and the far side will probably not latch properly. The top system needs a bit of work yet to match its competitors in sophistication. At speed with the top up there is a distinct whistle on both sides near the base
Three niggles inside caught my attention immediately. With seat adjusted and the standard adjustable steering wheel fully up, the top of the steering wheel obscured the top of the gauges. I’m about average in torso length so anyone with a long torso will have a greater problem than I. The tiny sun visors were barely of use and only the driver’s side visor has a mirror built in. And, more seriously, the speedometer and tachometer bezels slant forward allowing glaring outside light to flood the bottom third of each round gauge. Really annoying.
The cargo area is limited to say the least. A huge hump in the center covers the 13.8-gallon fuel tank. The GM folks claim we can get a golf bag in there but it would certainly have to be a little one, what we golfers call a Sunday bag. On each side of the hump are crescent-shaped holes cut crudely into the carpet where the top anchors end up when the top is down. No room for even a space-saver spare tire back there, just a tire inflator kit.
Probably the most troubling niggle of all is the bit of slack in the drive train. Let out the clutch easily and there is a shudder and a noticeable jerk somewhere in the clutch or transmission. It’s just not what we would expect given GM’s dedication to providing a quality experience throughout.
And finally, what’s up with the data plate indicating that the total weight limit is 350 lbs. To quote precisely it says, “The combined weight of occupants and cargo should never exceed 160 kg or 353 lbs.” My pretty blonde and I add up to just about that total (most of it me, of course). That seems a mighty limited capacity, don’t you think?
But remember, it is a sports car, brought to market expeditiously and brought in under 20-grand. Despite the niggles it is a fun, exciting and sexy car to drive. I’m sure it will be a hit. For those who like modern amenities like power windows, mirrors and locks, leather, cruise and perhaps a trip odo all can be had with the sticker still under 25-grand.
And, by the way, Saturn will have a version of this two-seater next year called Sky. A bit different personality and perhaps a bit more content overall. Both are badly needed image cars for The Stodgy General.All the 2006 Pontiac Solstice Specs and Background: