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Jim Mateja
`Gotta have' Solstice means you gotta wait

Published September 4, 2005

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Talk about hard to get.

You can run down to your neighborhood dealership and order a 2006 Pontiac Solstice roadster, the hands-down hit of the 2002 auto-show circuit, where it bowed as a concept.

Only problem is that the dealer won't have one for you to see, much less drive, before you order one. If you hand over a check, you might take delivery next February, if lucky. Why? Before Pontiac built the first one, it had sold 13,000 copies of the roadster--with no cash incentives, discount financing or employee pricing. The first 1,000 won't be delivered for 30 days.

"When demand is big and supplies are limited, you have to wait," said Mark-Hans Richer, Pontiac director of marketing. "Harley buyers wait a year for a bike." But that's not to say they like to wait.

Solstice is the 2006 open-top, two-seater that product czar Bob Lutz ordered after arriving at General Motors in September 2001. Lutz said GM needed a roadster because it was short on cars that struck an emotional chord with consumers--"gotta have" cars.

Four months later, the concept Solstice was at the Detroit Auto Show, where it proved such a success that GM approved it for production in 2004.

To allow for quality control in a slow startup of small, rear-wheel-drive car built on a new Kappa platform, Pontiac chose to offer only 5-speed manuals initially. That would give it time to build up to capacity next spring, when a 5-speed automatic would be offered.

First-year production was estimated at 15,000 to 18,000 units and eventually 20,000 units annually.

Pontiac officials said based on current demand, it's likely that anyone who waits until October or November to order a manual will have to settle for a 2007. Those who order an automatic now have a better chance of getting an '06 next spring.

We tested Solstice here and it's easy to understand why 13,000 folks have, sight unseen and without parking the jeans on the seat, signed a check to buy one, no matter when that is.

GM has delivered that "gotta have" car.

Solstice is about the size of a Mazda Miata. It boasts a wide stance and wheels moved out to the corners for a solid, stable look as well as good road manners. The traditional twin-port, honeycomb-grille instantly says Pontiac. In back, "aero fairings," or what Pontiac calls "speed bumps," decorate the deck lid, a styling cue borrowed from Formula 1 racers.

Adding to the appeal is a clamshell hood that opens forward, like that on a Corvette, and a clamshell trunk lid that opens rearward. Large, 18-inch radial tires fill the wheelwell openings without an unsightly gap, another Lutz mandate.

The primary appeal is the open-top motoring. A soft top manually lowers into hiding in the trunk, but when it's up, there are no squeaks, rattles or buffeting.

While there's been talk of offering a hardtop coupe, Pontiac insiders said it's more likely that Pontiac will add an optional removable hardtop because it would be cheaper to do.

Solstice is powered by a 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower 4-cylinder shared with the compact Chevrolet Cobalt and, of course, teamed with only that manual. It's a smooth-shifting, short-throw unit that probably can be mastered by those raised on automatic in a couple hours. The 4-cylinder is spirited but not meant to pursue checkered flags.

Maneuvering through the mountains in Oregon meant having to downshift with regularity to gain power for the climb. Pontiac will unveil a higher-performance, supercharged or turbocharged, 4 later for those who demand more oomph. It may give us a peek at what might be called the GXP version on next year's auto-show circuit.

The fuel economy rating is an impressive 20 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway.

Queen said Solstice isn't as much about going fast "as it is how precisely it allows you to move into and out of those twists and turns in the road."

And that it did on lengthy, serpentine stretches through the mountains. Though about 400 pounds heavier than a Miata, Solstice quickly responded to steering-wheel input while clinging to the pavement as it dashed into and out of hairpin turns without rear-end jitters. Solstice is very nimble. But as typically is the case, the price you pay is firm, though thankfully not, teeth-jarring ride.

While it's slightly longer than the Miata, it's a few inches wider, which provides ample arm, leg and hip room. Also, there is a plenty of headroom with top up.

Solstice is a reminder that cars can be fun and not just objects of scorn for consuming $2-a-gallon-plus energy.

But it has its quirks, not to mention a couple of annoyances. One is that the fuel gauge in the instrument panel is so deeply recessed it's impossible to see the needle at times. A Pontiac official said a warning light will go on when the tank nears empty. We'd prefer watching the progress of the needle. And the outside mirrors are very small, making it difficult at times to pickup objects approaching from the side. Finally, the wraparound softtop can create a blind spot when backing up.

As for quirks, the fuel tank is high and smack in the middle of the minuscule trunk. Pack a flexible duffel bag and squeeze it to make it fit. Pontiac demonstrated that two golf bags will fit in the trunk. Let's just say the bags were small and flexible and did not contain a full set of clubs. When the soft top is stored, there's even less storage room and you may have to settle for only a dop kit.

There's no room for a spare tire, so an air compressor and can of spray sealant are squeezed into the trunk in case of a flat.

The seats are wide and supportive and hold two in comfort, but cabin stowage space is about as limited as that in the trunk--a pocket behind the driver's seat, a map holder in the wall behind it, a small compartment in the wall between the seats and a tiny glove box, and that's about all it will hold. Yet two cupholders pop out of the rear wall and another pops out of the dash--three for a two-seater.

Other than anti-lock brakes at $400 and air conditioning at $960, you can add the power package with power mirrors, windows, door locks and keyless entry for $625. That gives you a well-equipped machine that stickers for less than $22,000, including $575 for freight. It really doesn't need much more unless you just have to have leather seating surfaces for $590.

Don't look for a navigation system. Dealers will offer a variety of accessories, and mud flaps that keep road debris off the body would be a good choice. Pontiac is working on a deck-lid luggage rack attachment, with matching luggage, to atone for the fact there's no room in the trunk to hold your stuff. No word on when it will be offered.

Pontiac says Solstice is vital in not only re-establishing its image as the performance and excitement division at GM, but also in serving as a halo car that will rebuild showroom traffic and help sell G6s, Grand Prix GXPs, GTOs and even Vibes. It, no doubt, would help if enough can be built to display in showrooms for people to see--and take home.

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2006 Pontiac Solstice

Wheelbase: 95.1 inches

Length: 157.2 inches

Engine: 2.4-liter, 177-h.p. 4-cylinder

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Fuel economy: 20 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $19,420

Price as tested: $22,785. Includes $625 for power package with power windows, mirrors, door locks and keyless entry; $465 for convenience package with cruise control, fog lamps, steering-wheel radio controls; $590 for premium package with leather seating surfaces; $960 for air conditioning; $325 for XM radio; and $400 for anti-lock brakes. Add $575 for freight.

Pluses: Dramatic styling with top-down motoring. Very good price. Very good mileage. Above-average handling. Smooth, short-throw 5-speed manual. Based on initial high demand and low supply, finally one of those gotta-have cars GM has been talking about.

Minuses: Trunk space. Right blind spot. Fuel gauge difficult to see. Try to find one--without a premium added on.


3,266 Posts
Those who order an automatic now have a better chance of getting an '06 next spring.
I'm not quite getting why this would be true, but it is interesting.
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