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2006 Pontiac Solstice - A Personal View

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2007 Pontiac Solstice GXP

Pontiac Solstice: A Personal Look
Carey Russ 2006

The Mazda MX-5 Miata is the Solstice's number one competitor, and comparison is inevitable. The first time I drove the Solstice was at a GM presentation last Fall, only a short time after I'd spent two weeks with new Miatas - one a manual with sport options, the other an automatic more decked out to be a baby Jaguar XK. With the newest Miata so fresh in mind, comparison was the order of the day.

That was both good and bad for the Solstice. In its favor, it's not a Miata. The Miata is the best-selling two-seat sports roadster ever, and at times seem ubiquitous. Miatas are everywhere. Everyone, so it seems, has one. The Solstice is different. Similar, yes, but different enough to be a real choice.

The Solstice definitely has style in its favor. It very successfully captures the look of a high-performance sports car from the 1950s without actually being anything close to a copy of anything. My first thought upon seeing the Solstice in the sheetmetal was "an Arnolt-Bristol for the 21st Century." No, I can't really say why - other than a vague resemblance at the fender line there's not much similarity. The twin headrest fairings are more than a little reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports-racing car. (And then there's the pop-up rear bodywork analogy to the 300 SLR's airbrake...) From some angles there's a little Porsche 550 Spyder. The rounded shape of the rear brings to mind some late-1950s sports-racers. You get the idea - there are lots of hints and pieces of other cars in the Solstice, but no overt copying of anything.

Driving was not in the Solstice's favor. With a 400-plus pound weight disadvantage to the Miata, and its slightly larger physical size (mostly width), the Solstice's reflexes just aren't as quick. Physics 1A - inertia is inertia.

I'll admit, some of my feelings there are personal opinion. I prefer small, light cars for handling. I'm five foot five, and fit happily in a Miata. Someone six-four won't. The six-footer will be fine in the Solstice; I had to put a pad on the seat to move my eyes high enough to see comfortably. Hey Pontiac, could you maybe add adjustable seat cushion height next year? And changing the seatback adjustment from the current awkwardly-placed knob to almost anything else would also be an improvement. I shouldn't have to open the door to adjust the seatback angle.

Automotive interior design has improved over the years, and it's rare for a car to go into production with a design that allows so much glare over the instruments that they can be unreadable. Unfortunately, the Solstice is one of the rare ones here. Although the tach, speedometer, and fuel gauge are deeply set into the dash, glare can reflect off the plastic coverings in a manner that makes them very hard to read. This particularly affects the fuel gauge because of its small diameter. And the oh-so-trendy chrome plastic bezels around those instruments reflected dazzling light into my eyes whenever the sun was at my back, even with the top up. The basic instrument panel design is good, Pontiac just needs to work on details.

On paper, horsepower and torque compare favorably between the Solstice and the Miata, with the Solstice's 177 hp at 6600 rpm and 166 lb-ft at 4800 versus the Miata's 170 hp at 6700 and 140 lb-ft at 5000. But there's the matter of four or five hundred extra pounds of Solstice... and then the MX-5 now has a six-speed gearbox to the Solstice's five. Despite its 2.4-liter displacement (to the Miata's 2.0) and long-stroke design, the Solstice's engine is weak in low-rpm torque. It has power, but all the power is at the top of the rev range. More mid- and low-end torque would help, in both daily driving and at the track.

The biggest issue with the Solstice's gearbox is a yawning chasm between second and third gears. On the sort of roads the car was made for, these are going to be the two most-used gears. Yet at (as I remember) 35 mph, the choice is 2800 rpm in third, well below any serious power, or a thrashy-sounding 4200 in second. That difference makes quite a rev drop under acceleration, and also makes smooth, rev-matching downshifts tricky. If a six-speed gearbox is not in the future, revised ratios in the five-speed should be. Third through fifth are fine.

Then there's the top. It's a clever solution to the problem of what to do with a convertible top, and a pleasantly simple one at that. While it does require a little work, and you will have to get out of the car to put the top down or up, it is neatly hidden under the rear bodywork. The downside is luggage space, or lack thereof. Sports cars are not meant to be cargo haulers, but because of the top arrangement and the position of the fuel tank, there is very little luggage space in the rear of the Solstice. It almost makes a Miata seem like a practical cargo hauler. Any bags carried had best be small, soft duffles. Top-up, the Solstice has about the same luggage capacity as a Lotus Elise. Top down, I've seen motorcycle tank bags that were larger.

Rear compartment storage also means that there is no spare tire, merely a kit with sealant and a pump.

Some people may complain that antilock brakes and air conditioning are not standard in a Solstice. Yes, having those popular, even necessary, items as options allows a lower base price. But there are people who neither want not need them. Both add weight, and detract from the purist sports car driving experience. And both would need to be removed for racing, anyway. The Solstice has been quite successful in its SCCA club racing showroom stock class, yes, even against Miatas.

As it stands, the Pontiac Solstice is a good car that just needs a little development. It has no glaring faults, and plenty of potential. With a little work on the interior, transmission, and engine, it could easily be best in its class. And, a class above, with similar weight, a little more horsepower, and much more torque than the Honda S2000, the upcoming Solstice GXP looks to be the Honda's first real competitor.