Lori Queen was all grins as I folded into the Pontiac Solstice, becoming the first Canadian to drive what is arguably the most important car in Pontiac history.
"You're going to like this," said the General Motors vehicle line executive (VLE) for small cars and ultimately the person responsible for everything about the Solstice, which is just about to hit dealer showrooms.
The location of my first drive: Le Castellet, a little country town in the south of France where racing fans know they will find the Circuit Paul Ricard. Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti all tasted wins on this track, racing in the French Grand Prix.
Queen refused to let me on the big track to roar around. Not with this rare car, known in the business as an "engineering mule." I would have to be happy driving this black-panelled (i.e., disguised), near-production-ready prototype roadster on the shorter handling track nearby.
"This is close to the car we'll sell, but not there yet," Queen said. "But this will give you an idea of how the car will behave. The final car for sale will be more refined, though."
Well, that for-sale day has come. And so far the pricing is living up to GM's promise. The base sticker for the 177-hp Solstice is $25,695, handily below the least expensive 170-hp Mazda Miata MX-5 at $27,995. It seems hardly coincidental that the Miata has been completely renovated for 2006 and that its price didn't go up a nickel from 2005.
If you are a sports car fan, this is pure heaven -- legitimate competition in the affordable roadster market.
The Miata, of course, is a well-established two-seater and Mazda has sold more than 700,000 since it first arrived back in 1989. The Solstice? An unproven commodity. But the newest Pontiac certainly has generated plenty of buzz.
"This is a car that is very emotional," said Bob Lutz, GM vice-chairman for product development -- the company's chief car guy -- in a recent interview with Automotive News.
"It is fair to say that GM has been lacking in cars that generate an emotional reaction and that people really fall in love with and feel that they must have. One of the Solstice's great values is that it is an object lesson to the GM system that this is the kind of car you have to do if you want to get buyers back."
Make no mistake, the Solstice is a risky proposition for GM. Most people know the Solstice is the positive "halo" car for what GM officials hope will emerge as a rejuvenated Pontiac.
In the past year Pontiac has been busy introducing new models like the G6, but GM's self-styled "excitement" division is clearly still hung over from choking down the scorn and ridicule generated by the Aztek crossover utility vehicle. The Aztek has been discontinued for 2006, replaced by the Torrent, but its negative "halo" lingers.
For his part, Lutz sees the Solstice as a key piece in creating the right image for Pontiac. Corporate-wide, the Solstice is, in Lutz's view, an example of the sort of car GM must create if it is to reduce incentives and rebuild market share. A backlog of nearly 10,000 orders in North America suggests the Solstice certainly has a chance at iconic status.
Still, the Solstice represents a huge challenge for GM. This is the first two-seat, four-cylinder, rear-drive convertible from any of GM's divisions, dating back some 100 years.
Moreover, next year GM will launch a second roadster called the Saturn Sky. It is mechanically identical to the Solstice, though with different chassis tuning and vastly different styling -- with styling cues adapted from GM's Opel European brand. Differentiating the Solstice from the Sky represents another big challenge.
In both instances the roadster novices at GM clearly got the styling right, though we'll focus on the Solstice here. The Pontiac has the requisite long hood, short rear deck, voluptuous fenders and small passenger compartment, which together make a compelling emotional statement. The production car has not lost any of the delightful elements that made the Solstice concept car such a hit at the 2002 Detroit auto show. Yes, it looks hot.
Queen, the VLE, is peripherally concerned with those design elements, but she is an engineer by training and temperament, so in France she focused on making sure I had a feel for what her team aimed to achieve with the driving dynamics. An open-air two-seater will only be a long-term object of car lovers' affection if the handling is lithe, entertaining and responsive. That's a given, she said.
She also agreed that the best roadsters are not overpowered monsters of the pavement. Spirited, yes, but not muscle-bound, she said. And we all know that the best roadsters are nimble and balanced, responding to the driver's touch like a dancer in sync with her partner, both enveloped in the music.
"We blew up the entire vehicle-development process to get this car right," she said on that sunny day at the race track located in the middle of a flat and arid plateau above the coast near Bandol on France's Mediterranean coast.
The engineering mule was a bit rough, as expected, but advanced enough to deliver a sense of where Queen and team were going with the production car.
"We're still tuning the chassis and there is a lot of work to be done, yet," said Queen, referring to bushings, suspension geometry and even the characteristics of the power-assist for the rack-and-pinion steering.
I like what I felt, though. Steering responses were tight for a car still months away from final production. Yes, there was a certain vagueness, but Queen assured me they would dial in the right level of feedback before buyers take delivery.
The Solstice rides on a new GM architecture -- Kappa is the code name -- designed for small, rear-drive cars.
A key Kappa characteristic is rigidity, which is critical for an open-top car. In the twists and turns of the handling circuit, the Solstice mule did not seem to want to flex and bend overly much.
With no roof to aid rigidity, the Kappa architecture relies on two key structural elements: 1) two hydroformed frame rails running literally bumper to bumper; and, 2) a structural element in the form of a welded-in central tunnel.
The Solstice has the requisite fully independent suspension with short and long arms, lightweight aluminum control arms and coil springs. Weight distribution has pretty much hit the 52/48 per cent front/rear targeted split, though at 1,300 kg in production form the Solstice outweighs the '06 Miata by almost 200 kg.
That's a lot for a two-seater. Nonetheless, my mule felt surprisingly light and driver-friendly for a vehicle still in development.
As for the cockpit, in mule form it was rough and unfinished. It was also quite roomy, as is the final production version of the Solstice. Compared to the Miata, the Solstice feels huge. The cockpit design, which I have since seen in its final, customer-friendly condition, is simple but handsome.
Finally, power. The base engine is a 2.4-litre version of GM's Ecotec four-cylinder rated at 177 hp. In mule form, the engine felt strong and willing and not rough at all. Mated to a five-speed manual gearbox that shifted surprisingly well, I found the power train package more than entertaining.
In a nutshell, the unfinished Solstice was fun to drive.
After riding around the track in my mule, Queen, GM's small car engineering chief, said there would be more like the Solstice coming from GM. I left hoping she would be proved right.
Now with the real Solstice rolling into dealerships we have a chance to evaluate how well Lutz, Queen and the rest at GM are living up to their bold promises.