Sleek and voluptuous Pontiac hugs curves and turns heads
By Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
GM / Pontiac
The young nurse was just getting off duty when I cruised past the entrance of Providence Hospital in Southfield. The top was still in place on my bright-red 2006 Pontiac Solstice, but I could still hear her squeal, even with the windows up.
"I need to be riding in that car with you!," she yelped, bending down and squinting to get a better look at the hot new roadster.
Fortunately, my spouse was in the passenger seat, so any snappy response to the nurse was moot, if not downright dangerous. Besides, her interest clearly lay in the car, not the driver.
She certainly wasn't alone. Everywhere we traveled in the new Solstice -- it didn't matter if the top was up or down -- people stopped, ogled, pointed, commented or just plain drooled. Few cars elicit this sort of universal positive response, one that cuts across age and gender lines.
In the grocery store parking lot, a 10-year-boy stared, slack-jawed, as we drove by, while his thirtysomething father couldn't seem to wipe the goofy grin off his face. We drove past the local Blockbuster, and overheard a teenage girl observe to her mother, "Wow, sweet car!"
To which mom responded: "Sure is!"
Uh-oh. Generational researchers and demographic pundits aren't going to be happy with the Solstice one little bit -- not when mother and teenage daughter agree on the hipness factor.
We observed this same sort of unbridled behavior when we first tested the Mini Cooper, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Volkswagen New Beetle, all cars that elicited broad smiles and double-takes from a wide range of onlookers when they first hit the street. Of course, all three cars ultimately found a relatively narrow audience of buyers, mainly older and mostly female.
We're not convinced that the Solstice will settle into the same pattern.
The little two-seater doesn't have the raw power of a Chrysler 300C Hemi or nostalgic appeal of a Ford Mustang. But the Solstice packs a visceral punch from almost any angle and exhibits the agility of a large cat. It manages to blend decent, if not overwhelming acceleration with better-than-average gas mileage. And, with a sticker price of just under $20,000, it's shockingly affordable.
We'd venture to say, with little risk of contradiction, that the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is the sexiest car in America. And, judging from the initial consumer response, highly desirable.
It is not, of course, without flaws. As sleek and voluptuous as its exterior skin is, the inside of the Solstice looks flat and uninspired -- a bit reminiscent of the boring, monochromatic cabin in the original BMW Z3. Pontiac has used high-quality materials in the cockpit, but the designers didn't seem to spend as much time here as they did on the outside.
There are comfort and convenience issues, too. The bucket seats need more lumbar support, and the rake adjustment for the seat back is difficult to reach. The tiny, deep-set fuel gauge is almost impossible to read. And there is no convenient place, outside of a little cubby behind the driver, to store such items as cell phone, house keys and garage door opener.
Even with the top up, there is very little cargo space in the teeny trunk. We wanted to drop the top on the way home from the convenience store -- and discovered that we had to stash our two bags in the passenger seat to stow the convertible.
Aw, but who the heck cares? We're talking entertainment, not functionality. You want utility? Buy an SUV or a station wagon.
The Solstice delivers on the promise of excitement that is inherent in its sexy shape. The car is just plain fun to drive, as we discovered on a sultry late-summer evening with the top down on Huron River Drive. This twisty, scenic road in rural Washtenaw County is one of our favorite test routes. The posted speed limit is a modest 35 miles an hour, but the constant dips and bends in the road provide a good measure of a car's dexterity and responsiveness.
Let us assure you, the Solstice was made for Huron River Drive. The car felt like it was riveted to the pavement, effortlessly hugging each curve as we sliced through the twilight along the river. That's partly a function of the extra-stiff frame rails, all-independent suspension and beefy stabilizer bars. The chassis employs Bilstein coil-over shocks and unequal-length arms at both ends, and rides on fat, 18-inch Goodyear Eagle RSA performance tires. Although we felt some impact harshness over bumps and rutted surfaces, the ride for the most part is firm, yet composed.
We'd guess that a bobsled must feel a bit like this -- responding crisply, almost intuitively to the slightest nudge of the steering or touch of the brakes. There is a direct connection with the road that is sorely lacking in most other vehicles today, and a bracing, almost elemental sensation, especially with the top down, that is virtually priceless.
We've heard some complaints from other motoring journalists about the perceived lack of muscle from the twin-cam Ecotec 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which produces 177 horsepower and 166 pounds-feet of torque. That compares with 170 horsepower and 140 pounds-feet from the twin-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the redesigned 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata, the Solstice's closest and really only direct competitor. (The Miata, incidentally, starts at $21,000.)
While we would like to see a bit more mid-range torque and power for passing on the freeway, we weren't too concerned. Acceleration at lower speeds is perfectly adequate, and the standard five-speed manual gearbox is satisfyingly simple, sweet and oh-so-direct.
Speaking of simplicity, it is surely one of the Solstice's virtues. The top is easy to put up and down, requiring little more than a twist of the center lever and a flip of the wrists. While the overall theme tends toward minimalism, our test car was fitted with a few amenities -- power windows and mirrors, tilt steering column, cruise control, air conditioning, a CD player -- that made the journey that much more pleasant without detracting from the driving experience.
On the safety front, we are not impressed. Where the MX-5 comes with standard antilock brakes and side air bags, you'll have to pay extra for ABS on the Solstice and you can't even order side bags -- an oversight that knocks this otherwise sensational sports car down a peg in our view.
In the final tally, however, the assets strongly outweigh the imperfections in the Solstice. So much so, in fact, that we're surprised Pontiac dealers aren't charging more of a premium -- yet -- for the car despite the fact that General Motors Corp. can't even begin to keep up with the initial demand. With more than 13,000 orders as of early September, GM expects to be able to deliver only 7,000 Solstices to customers by the end of the year. That means if you put your order in right now, it may be spring before you can take delivery.
You should also know that the 2006 Solstice is an early frontrunner for Car of the Year.
And, yes, it's definitely worth the wait.