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Link:MARK PHELAN: Heart and Solstice
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
September 1, 2005
With the 2006 Solstice roadster, Pontiac finally keeps the promise it advertised for years: It builds excitement.
The two-seat convertible is a wonderful little car -- fast, fun and affordable.
It's also a milestone for General Motors. The world's largest automaker knows it's perpetrated far too many bland cars over the past 25 years. With the sculpted Solstice, GM intends to serve notice that those days are over.
The company that built the 1957 Chevy and the '61 Cadillac Eldorado convertible is back in the business of creating and satisfying desire.
Like the Chrysler 300, the Solstice is the kind of car that can make customers reconsider a brand they had struck off their shopping list.
Solstice prices start at $19,420. I tested a very well-equipped model with a sticker price of $23,845. All prices exclude destination charges.
That's clearly a good value. I'm tempted to make a rational argument for the car, but I won't.
Roadsters are not about logic. They deal in emotion, in first-glance chemistry.
I defy you to walk past a Solstice without a second look.
The car's low profile and snug passenger compartment fit the roadster formula perfected decades ago by brands like Alfa Romeo, Triumph and MG. GM's never built a budget-priced roadster before, though. The Pontiac's wide, poised stance and low dual-port grille identify it as something new and unique.
From its rumbly 177-horsepower engine to its intimate, enveloping passenger compartment, the Solstice is a joy to drive and a beauty to behold.
The little rear-wheel-drive roadster's steering is precise. Its near-perfect 51/49 front-rear weight distribution begs you to toss it into every curve just to enjoy how smoothly it pulls out.
The four-wheel disc brakes stop the car with ease, while the suspension absorbs bumps comfortably and seems to dig in to hold the road at high speeds. I was disappointed that antilock brakes aren't standard equipment, however. Electronic stability control should be available in 2006.
At 157.2 inches long, the Solstice is almost exactly the same length as the all-new 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata that goes on sale shortly. However, the Solstice's 95.1-inch wheelbase is 3.4 inches longer than the Miata, and the Pontiac is 3.6 inches wider, making it extremely sure-footed.
The interior is simple and well-executed, with logical controls easily in the driver's reach and a sporty short-throw five-speed manual transmission. A five-speed automatic will be available in February 2006.
I had no problem getting comfortable in the car, and visibility was acceptable with the fabric soft-top closed. Drivers taller than 6-feet-2 might find the car less accommodating, though.
The Solstice is commendably quiet, with so little wind noise that conversation is easy even at very high speeds.
The car features three cupholders, but only one -- a magnesium engineer's delight mounted on the passenger side of the transmission tunnel -- is of much use. The other two pop out of a shoulder-dislocating ergonomic nightmare of a slot in the cabin's rear bulkhead. Interior storage space is also limited, but that's not much of a surprise in such a small car.
The trunk, however, is a disappointment. At its largest, with the top up, the Solstice has a Lilliputian 3.8 cubic feet of cargo space. A 46-inch golf driver does fit in the trunk, and Pontiac demonstrated that there's room for two very small golf bags in the trunk with the top down, but the compartment is among the least useful things on wheels.
However, it has just enough room to hold two people's bags for the weekend -- if they pack light and have soft-sided luggage -- so it fulfills what I've always thought was a roadster's most important role: the quick getaway.
GM developed the Solstice in a very short time and on a tight budget.
The development team borrowed everything from the concept behind the Corvette's light, strong chassis to brakes from Cadillacs and mirrors from Fiats.
They also pioneered a new manufacturing process to coax the car's luscious curves out of unyielding steel.
"We broke all the rules developing this car," said Lori Queen, vehicle line executive for GM small cars.
It's about time. For decades, GM's own rules -- risk-analysis calculations that squeezed the emotion out of its cars -- were its worst enemy. It's time to throw the rule book out.
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