Forbes checking in with their review. They don't like the engine.
Link:2006 Pontiac Solstice
Starting MSRP $19,420
Published on 09/01/2005
A Roadster Even Your Kids Can Afford
Finally, some competition for the affordable and fun Mazda Miata, even if the heavier Pontiac Solstice suffers from a bit of lethargy.
By Stephan Wilkinson
The just-introduced 2006 Pontiac Solstice starts at $19,420 and it's worth every penny. The base price doesn't include air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and other expected amenities, but few cars offer such style and top-down fun for the money.
The Solstice is one of the most stylish convertibles on the road at any price. Its clean design rivals that of the twice-as-expensive Porsche Boxster and is more imaginative than the Mercedes-Benz SLK. The Solstice summarily trumps the familiar and conservative look of its only direct rival, the new-for-2006 MX-5 Miata.
Much of this is because the Solstice is a line-for-line production version of a handmade concept car by the same name that traveled the auto-show circuit in 2002. Concept cars — essentially no-holds-barred styling exercises — can bring out the best in an auto company's designers.
Typically, the concept cars that do go into production are massaged, mellowed and sometimes even mutilated in the process. Their cutting-edge styling succumbs to manufacturing necessities, the economic realities of full-scale production, and the meddling of tasteless suits and bean counters.
Not the Solstice. For one thing, Pontiac developed an entirely new twin-tube platform — like a scaled-down Corvette chassis — to mount the body and running gear, rather than altering the stunning show-car's design and making suspension and power-train compromises to accommodate an existing chassis.
General Motors' revolutionary way of inexpensively shaping body panels, called hydroforming, also helped ensure that the striking lines designers penned for the concept car would see production. Hydroforming is unique in that rather than stamping body panels out in expensive-to-make series of male and female die sets, it uses one simple die per panel and progressively forces sheet metal against it with 50,000 psi of water pressure.
It takes more time than conventional body panel manufacturing and isn't suited to banging out 150,000 cars a year. But for a niche vehicle like the Solstice, which is expected to sell somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 copies annually, it works wonderfully.
And to keep the let's-make-a-few-little-changes executives at bay, GM VP Bob Lutz, the overlord in charge of new-product development, made it clear that the Solstice was his lion cub and would grow up to symbolize a new era of imagination and excitement at Pontiac.
Under Sleek Skin
The Solstice is literally new from the tire treads up, so Pontiac engineers were able to optimize it for sharp steering, strong braking and good handling. Its front-mounted engine, which drives the rear wheels, actually sits behind the front axle line. Most passenger cars have engines mounted between or even ahead of the front axle, creating the nose-heavy weight bias that often precludes sports car handling.
The Solstice's short/long-arm independent suspension — a setup called “double wishbone” often used on sports cars — and wheels pushed out as far as possible to the corners provide nearly ideal weight balance and make for stable yet enjoyable handling.
During an all-too-short session of fast runs over a twisty, 2.5-mile stretch of closed California private road (normally used for filming car commercials), the Solstice "drifted" — where all four wheels lose grip and allow the car to drift through a turn — predictably and controllably after slight, initial under-steer, which causes the car to push to the road's outside edge around a turn.
Nervous Pontiac PR people quickly quashed our handling experiments. "This is not intended to be a performance sports car. It's a fun sports car," one of them said.
Unfortunately, he's right. The Solstice's engine, a 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder, is the most lethargic part of the package, despite having excellent specs on paper (177 horsepower, 166 pound-feet of torque), new variable valve timing and, theoretically, ample power between 3,000 rpm and 4,800 rpm. The engine is based on GM's ubiquitous Ecotec four-cylinder, used in a number of the company's economy cars. It feels and sounds like it.
The new Mazda MX-5 Miata, which has 170 hp, is much livelier, mostly because it weighs 400 pounds less than the Solstice.
Initially, the 2006 Solstice will come only with a five-speed manual transmission — an automatic will be available in early 2006 — and even the enthusiast-friendly stick-shift gearbox doesn't make up for the limp engine. The first four gears are slick-shifting close ratios, with fourth a direct-drive gear that creates an enthusiastic bark from the exhaust. But fifth gear is a long step up, leaving the engine wheezing to accelerate and its exhaust note suddenly an eco-car drone.
Also impinging on the car's fun factor is the fact that the cockpit is surprisingly turbulent with the top down. There's no wind-blocker behind the seats, and any hats you intend to keep on your head should fit tightly.
The trunk is too shallow to hold more than about three standard supermarket bags each two-thirds full.
True to its fun-car mission, the Solstice rides sportily but comfortably, without any of the hysterics of some sports cars. It's a surprisingly pleasant environment with the top up, A/C on and stereo playing, thanks in part to the acoustically padded top.
Pontiac did an excellent job of mounting a solid, weather-tight, sound-insulated mechanical top with a heated glass window rather than the cheap, clear plastic on budget roadsters of yore. It can easily be lowered and raised by one person. A button on the key fob pops open the rear hatch that conceals the folded top, a big central handle frees the top from the windshield header, and the cloth top sandwiches back into the trunk, ready for the hatch to be shut.
Whether putting the top down or back up, you'll have to do it standing outside the car; it can't be done from the driver's seat. From key fob to hatch slam, lowering the top took us an easy 13 seconds. Putting the top back up took about twice as long because of having to secure two big studs that ground the rear of the erect top to the body of the car.
Is the Solstice for You?
Buy This Vehicle If You want an affordable, stylish drop-top with great handling and unencumbered by extraneous gizmos and gadgets.
Keep Looking If You "can't drive a stick"; the thought of a sports car sharing its engine with a Chevy Cobalt economy car isn't your idea of driving excitement; two seats and a tiny trunk isn't practical enough; you're a Saturn groupie — the more angular Saturn version of the Solstice, called the Sky, debuts as a 2007 model.
Options Worth Splurging On Air conditioning; anti-lock brakes.
Closest Competitors Mazda MX-5 Miata
Did You Know?
In 97 years of production, the Solstice is Pontiac's first-ever two-seat car.
The Solstice's five-speed manual transmission is made by the Japanese company Aisin. Aisin also supplies the manual gearboxes for the Porsche 911 and Cadillac CTS, among others.
Pontiac claims that the Solstice's paint colors are coordinated with "buyer personalities": red for the "aggressive" ones, silver for "cool" types, blue for people who are "deep," green for the "envious," black for the "mysterious," white for "pure" people and gray for those who are "sly."
After the Solstice appeared in an episode of Donald Trump's TV show The Apprentice, Pontiac announced that it would accept orders for the first 1,000 cars, which it expected would be gone in a day. All were spoken for in 41 minutes, via the Internet and with $1,000 deposits.