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By Brian Corbett

WardsAuto.com, Sep 1 2005

At every stop during a sun-drenched spin through the Columbia River Gorge, people converged around the Pontiac Solstice.

PORTLAND, OR – The questions come quickly from the hotel bellhop here during a drive from the John’s Landing neighborhood to downtown.

He wants to know everything about the ’06 Pontiac Solstice roadster sitting in the parking lot where he works. This guy is a liberal-minded, 20-something college student who lives on the West Coast. He is probably the last person on Earth one would expect to consider signing over a tuition loan to buy a car from General Motors Corp., the corporate antithesis of “hip.”

’06 Pontiac Solstice
But at Pontiac’s media launch here, the ’06 Solstice cranks up more buzz than Oregon’s medicinal marijuana.At every stop during a sun-drenched spin through the Columbia River Gorge and into the high desert of Sam Hill country, gawkers surround the rear-wheel-drive 2-seat convertible.

‘That’s a Pontiac?” asks a flabbergasted onlooker at a rest stop at the foot of Multnomah Falls. “How does it drive?”

It's awesome, truth be told.

That conclusion isn’t caused by altitude sickness from traversing the Cascade Mountains. Our heads are clear, but hearts have stopped – GM has done it. This time, no excuses are necessary: The Solstice is a spectacular effort.

In fact, the biggest complaint may be that the Solstice should be sold by the same division as the Equinox, a cross/utility vehicle marketed by Chevrolet.

The Solstice is fun, good-looking and inexpensive.

Packed with GM’s Ecotec 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. good for 177 hp, there is just enough zing to squeal the tires, smell some rubber and aggressively scale roads ascending these tall canyon walls.

More muscle might be nice but isn’t vital. The similarly priced Mazda MX-5 (formerly Miata) and Toyota MR2 Spyder come up a good 30 horses short, while it takes luxury money for the likes of Honda’s S2000 to get genuinely ripping power.

It is a poorly kept secret there will be a boosted version of the Ecotec for a future higher-performance Solstice.

However, just about any contemporary roadster – including the Miata and MR2 – offers a 6-speed manual transmission, yet the Solstice fronts only a 5-speed self-shifter. But at least the short throws are pleasing enough the additional gear is not desperately missed.

The Solstice will offer an automatic transmission next year.

Equipped with a short/long arm suspension at each corner; 4-wheel disc brakes; a coil-over monotube shock for every wheel; hydroformed tubular side rails; and an even weight distribution; the Solstice nimbly cruises the meandering roads as well as the local windsurfers manage the Columbia River Gorge’s famous windstreams.

Pedal response corresponds appropriately and entertainingly to engine output. Steering is orderly, but feedback could be slightly more weighted during aggressive cornering. Chassis rigidity, not an easy dynamic to attain in a small convertible, is sufficient, allowing the suspension to do its job. The car always feels well-planted.

In all, the Solstice is an impressive first application of GM’s new Kappa platform. Its large front and rear track (wider than its three primary competitors) and 95.1-in (242-cm) wheelbase also contribute to the taut and entertaining dynamics.

Exterior styling is engagingly curvaceous. The front bumper rolls from the GMC Envoy-swiped fog lamps to the two kidney-shaped grilles to the clamshell hood. Small sheet-metal scoops are set beside the Pontiac badge on the front quarter panels.

Taillamps are perched high on the corners, and the rear deck features drumlin-shaped ripples behind the headrests (Pontiac stylists call them "aero fairings"), adding to the Solstice’s aerodynamic appearance. It looks muscular, unlike the Matchbox-sized Miata.

The only shortcoming of the Solstice’s exterior: Body-panel gaps are too large in some places. But the models used for test-driving were early production builds, and the issue has been addressed, engineers swear.

The soft roof is manually stored in the trunk. The fold-up process seems complicated at first, but is easily mastered after a few tries. As expected, cargo space is meager. Pontiac does not bother to provide a volume measurement for the trunk with the top stowed. While roadsters are not purchased for their payload-handling qualities, the Solstice’s fuel tank appears to hog too much trunk space.

Inside, the Solstice’s rounded exterior theme carries on through the instrument panel.

A twin-cockpit layout greets passengers, with the center stack angled toward the driver’s seat. Chrome encircles the gearshift, stereo controls and vents but skips the climate-control knobs, oddly interrupting the continuity. There also are too many hard plastic surfaces, and road and wind noise with the top up needs to be improved.

The seats are comfortably snug, and the door handles are small for average-size male hands. But overall, the interior actually feels roomy for a roadster. The Solstice offers more valuable head, leg and hip room than the aforementioned foes.

Pricing for the Solstice begins at $19,995, the lowest among its rivals.

The strength of this niche always is in question. The MR2 Spyder is being discontinued this year, and the Miata won the roadster sales crown with deliveries of only 9,356 units in 2004.

Still, the Solstice should be a smash hit. GM says it can make about 20,000 units annually, and it is highly probable the General will be pressed to meet demand.

The Solstice began arriving at dealerships last month, but the line of anxious customers formed much earlier.

403 Posts
Hip, Hip, Hooray!!!

Seriously, I've owned two Miatas, one MG, one Triumph and (soon) a Solstice, and I am very happy with the review. The complaints are all that I have experienced much, much worse versions of in my other roadsters.

I also don't mind when reviewers find nits to pick.
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