Ottawa Citizen said:Solstice aims sky high
Fresh Pontiac draws inspiration from Porsche and Mazda
The National Post
Friday, October 21, 2005
It seems you can't hear a word about Pontiac's new Solstice without an accompanying reference to the MX-5 -- you know, the Mazda Formerly Known as Miata.
That's understandable, given Mazda has owned the affordable two-seat roadster category for 16 years.
General Motors engineers, however, say they developed the 2006 Solstice with a more sophisticated competitor in view: the pricey, quick Honda S2000.
We think GM had a secret, loftier target yet: the Porsche Boxster. And yes, we're aware the one draws its front-mounted four-cylinder engine and other bits from GM's endless parts shelves, while the other is a precision-crafted piece with a howling flat-six bolted in behind the driver.
We're aware, too, that even the optioned-out Solstice supplied for our test is less than half the price of the cheapest, $64,100 Boxster.
The bare-bones Solstice, the one in which the only air-conditioning comes from rolling down the windows or dropping the top, is just $25,695. Forget Porsche -- that's $2,300 less than even the base Mazda MX-5.
But we're not saying the Solstice is the Boxster's match. We are calling it a significant sports car in its own right, and one that reminds us far more of the German roadster than its supposed Japanese competitor.
Let's contrast and compare.
Appearance: The MX-5 (oh heck, let's just call it the Miata), like the British roadsters that inspired it, has always been a study in functional minimalism. It's grown for 2006, but still carries not an ounce of unnecessary weight.
The Solstice is longer, wider, heavier -- a near-twin of the Boxster in most key dimensions. Purely to please the eye, its bodywork has more protuberances than a Black Eyed Peas video. There are bulges at each corner that incorporate the headlamps and taillights, more bulges on the trunklid behind the headrests.
Twin honeycomb grilles push out from the front fascia, and 18-inch rims -- the largest standard wheels in the category -- jam the wheelwells.
In photos, the Solstice might appear overwrought. On the street, it impresses as both fresh and classic. The Boxster has this looks-better-on-the-street quality, too.
The cabin is roomier than even the enlarged Miata's, and there's a clean, well, Germanic quality to the plain but pleasingly textured surfaces. A distinctive touch is the moulding that sweeps down the dash, culminating in a grab-handle for the passenger at the console. It sets off gauges and controls as the driver's domain, but doesn't shield them from the passenger's view.
Feel: The Solstice is quiet at low speeds and reassuring at higher rates, its movements ably managed by the control-arm suspension. The steering -- hydraulically assisted, not electrically -- has a satisfying weight. Turn-in is quick, and, because of the wide track, there's a solid rotational feel that brings the Boxster to mind.
There's no traction or stability control to keep this rear-drive machine in line, and even antilock brakes are an option. But the five-speed shifter moves from gear to gear with a positive mechanical action (an automatic transmission will be available later). The low seats grip like the buckets of old.
Only in the power sector does the Solstice trail the competition. The 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylinder, the sole available engine in this debut year, felt buzzy in in our early-production tester, to a point where we were reluctant to stress it.
Power in the lower ranges is certainly adequate, but only beyond 6,000 r.p.m. (where, to be fair, the 2.4 felt no buzzier) could we really feel the 177 horsepower pulling through the widely spaced gears. At all engine speeds, the wheedling exhaust tone through the single pipe was disappointing.
We'll bet our stringed driving gloves, however, on a future performance option -- probably the supercharged 2.0 Ecotec -- with a sweeter sound and plenty more push. (Don't look for a V-8. That would spoil the 52.5/47.5 front-rear weight distribution.)
Attitude: The cupholders are crummy (two pop out from the back panel, one scythes into the passenger's thigh), and storage is laughable. The gas tank rises like a pyramid into the trunk, with just five cubic feet (arranged more like linear feet) left for soft luggage.
And that's with top up. Store the roof beneath the rear-hinged trunk lid/tonneau cover, and space remains for three pairs of gym socks and a not overly stuffed ferret.
The manually operated top can be picky, especially for anyone accustomed to the Miata's easy-lift roof. There's the trunk to open and close, and pins to press into the trunk lid to anchor the cloth sailplanes that bracket the glass rear window (the pins pop out automatically when the trunk is opened).
But the Solstice's prime purpose is to look good and ride well -- and if that means compromises in packaging and convenience, so be it. Remind you of any European sports car maker?
Its expansive, Corvette-derived frame is the reason there's nowhere to hide the gas tank and precious little space in which to hide your sunglasses and cellphone.
There's not even a design provision for a front licence plate. In jurisdictions like Ontario that so rudely require two markers, the plate ends up strapped across the grilles, as aesthetically welcome as a big zit on prom night.
Bob Lutz: If Lee Iacocca is the father of the Mustang, Bob Lutz's DNA is everywhere in the Solstice. The GM vice-chairman ordered the 2001 design competition that produced the curve-upon-curve styling, and then fast-tracked this two-seater, the most exciting Pontiac since the first Firebird Trans Am, right to its Delaware assembly line.
The exacting Mr. Lutz, we know, was born in Switzerland and worked for years in Europe (at Ford and BMW as well as General Motors). We're pretty sure he has never lived in Japan.
When he's pushing through a roadster meant to give Pontiac more profile and GM more sales, will it be low-key and sports-car pure, or as brash as possible for a car priced below the competition? Mr. Lutz, we submit, is the main reason why the Solstice is much more like the Boxster than the Miata.
But if you need still more evidence, consider ...
Franz Von Holzhausen: This is the GM designer whose sketch won the Solstice competition. Franz Von Holzhausen. Need we say more?
Well, one thing more. Mr. Holzhausen, we can report, has since left for a top job at, of all places, Mazda.
Watch for the next-generation Miata to look a lot like a Pontiac.
2006 Pontiac Solstice
Type: Sports car, rear-wheel-drive
Price as tested: $32,745 plus $930 destination (base: $25,695)
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder, overhead camshafts, variable timing; 177 h.p. at 6,600 r.p.m., 166 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 r.p.m.
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Tires: P245/45R18 Goodyear Eagle all-season
Suspension: Short/long-arm (front and rear) with coil springs, Bilstein monotube shocks, anti-roll bars
Wheelbase: 2,415 mm (95.1 in.)
Overall length: 3,992 mm (157.2 in.)
Width: 1,810 mm (71.3 in.)
Passenger volume: 1,416 litres (50 cu. ft.)
Cargo capacity, top up: 107.6 litres (3.8 cu. ft.)
Curb weight, base model: 1,297 kg (2,860 lb.)
Notable standard features: Six-speaker audio with CD, automatic headlamps
Options as tested: Air conditioning, power package (power windows and keyless entry), leather appearance package (leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and driver-information centre controls, cruise control, driver information centre, fog lights), antilock brakes, limited-slip differential, premium seven-speaker audio with six-CD changer, polished aluminum wheels, carpeted floor mats
Consumer Reports predicted reliability: N/A
Fuel consumption, L/100 km (m.p.g.): City 11.9 (24), Hwy. 7.6 (37)
Fuel grade: Premium (recommended)
Warranty, yrs./km: 3/60,000
- - -
Pontiac Solstice - Mazda MX-5 - Porsche Boxster - Honda S2000
Base price: $25,695 - $27,995 - $64,100 - $49,800
Weight (kg): 1,297 - 1,108 - 1,295 - 1,285
Weight distribution, front/rear: 52.5/47.5 - 52/48 - 46/54 - 49/51
Wheelbase (mm): 2,415 - 2,330 - 2,413 - 2,400
Overall length (mm): 3,992 - 3,990 - 4,328 - 4,120
Width (mm): 1,810 - 1,720 - 1,803 - 1,750
Horsepower: 177 - 170 - 240 - 240
Wheels, standard (in.): 18 - 16/17 - 17 - 17
Road Test. Ran with fact box "2006 Pontiac Solstice", which has been appended to the story.