Vancouver Sun Article
Roadster boasts gripping ride
Pontiac's Solstice promises to give the Mazda Miata a good run for the money
CanWest News Service
Friday, September 09, 2005
The Solstice is a very different beast -- not only for Pontiac but also for GM. To begin with, it drives its rear wheels, which puts it in an elite class within the General's oversized portfolio. It's also different because it's the first car to take a serious swipe at the Mazda Miata -- only Toyota's short-lived and rather expensive MR2 has challenged the Miata in the past 15 or so years.
The basic premise behind the Solstice mirrors that of the Miata -- it's a two-seat roadster that places more emphasis on driving fun than on horsepower or practicality. In this regard, it's an unqualified success -- this piece of information being gleaned from a full test of an early-production car (as opposed to the crude engineering buck featured in some other reports).
To begin with, the platform is as solid as a rock with no sign of cowl shake, even when the road deteriorates to the point where a lesser car would start to shake and shimmy like some delirious go-go dancer. The strength comes from the Solstice's hydroformed chassis. (The hydroforming process uses pressurized fluid to form each frame rail from a single piece of steel rather than welding several pieces together to get the desired form.) The central tunnel is also reinforced and then boxed on the underside to provide the bending resistance normally supplied by the roof panel. It is this inner strength that gives the rest of the car the foundation it needs to function properly.
The Solstice's suspension is right out of a tuner handbook -- double wishbones, coil-over Bilstein shocks at all four corners and massive 18-inch wheels shod with equally large 245/45 Goodyear Eagle RS-A performance tires. Combine the attributes of the platform and the 50/50 weight distribution front to rear with this setup and the Solstice handles like an overgrown go-kart.
The nicely weighted steering points the roadster into a corner with precision; the rest of the car follows while feeling as though it's pivoting around the driver's rear end, which is exactly as it should be. The bonus is in spite of its European feel, the Solstice's ride comfort is civilized. You have to look to much more expensive cars to find a better balance.
Likewise, the large four-wheel discs and optional anti-lock brakes provide fast, fade-free stops -- again, well above what is expected from an affordable roadster.
If there's a drawback, it's the lack of a spare tire. In its place comes one of those useless tire inflation kits that only works if there's a minor air leak. Suffer a larger puncture or take the sidewall out and you're in for a tow to the nearest garage. Run-flat tires would solve the problem.
The Solstice has plenty of power -- its 2.4-litre twin cam uses variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. The result is 177 h.p. and 166 pound-feet of torque, 90 per cent being available anywhere between 2,400 and 5,600 r.p.m. Considering the light 1,300-kilogram curb weight it is motivating, this is plenty -- the Solstice runs to 100 kilometres an hour in 7.6 seconds. Likewise, the exhaust note is purposeful without being overly intrusive when cruising the highway.
The five-speed manual transmission that's married to this engine provides my second beef. While the clutch is light and progressive and the shifter features short, defined throws, the gear ratios are an odd mix. First and second are fine, as they're low enough to deliver a crisp launch. However, just before hitting 100 km/h, you have to drop into third -- "drop" being an apt descriptor. The gap between second and third is just too large and so the engine drops off the boil momentarily, which blunts outright performance.
Likewise, shifting from fourth to the overdrive fifth sees the engine drop right out of the powerband. As a result, fifth was seldom used during the preview, so fuel consumption was higher than it might have been. The solution is simple -- slip in a six-speed box. A five-speed automatic will also be offered.
Inside, the Solstice is nicely finished and comfortable. The seats are form fitting and comfortable without being confining, the gauge package is complete and all controls are logically placed. The materials are also top notch and finished in a dark grey. For those wanting a little more flair, there is a two-tone beige/light grey interior.
Getting the Solstice into its open-air mode is a simple matter of releasing the central header catch, releasing and lifting the trunk lid (it opens clamshell-style), lowering the padded top (which includes a proper glass rear window and defroster) down and then closing the trunk. The beauty is that as the top fits into the trunk, there is no annoying tonneau cover to fix into place.
This brings me to my final beef -- and biggest disappointment -- storage space. In the cabin, it is at a premium; beneath the trunk lid, when the top is down, it is almost non-existent.
Top up, there is a claimed 3.8 cubic feet. Fold the top down and anything that will fit in the trunk needs to be liquid so it can flow into the cracks and crevices around the top and raised portion of the gas tank, which stands 300 millimetres or more off the floor.
Indeed, to make use of what space there is requires the top to be partially raised, the items stuffed into the trunk and then the top lowered and checked to ensure it will allow the trunk lid to close without leaving an impression of the top embossed in the shiny sheet metal.
In spite of these criticisms, the Solstice is going to mount a credible offence on the previously unchallenged Miata. It's better than the old Miata and within spitting distance of the new, which is high praise considering Mazda has had years to perfect the affordable roadster.
The Solstice starts at $25,695. Adding every conceivable option -- from leather to the smoker's package and OnStar -- sees it top out at around $33,000.
This report is based on a presentation by the manufacturer, which paid the freelance writer's travel costs.