Which is not to say that the rumored eight-figure product placement on The Apprentice was for nothing, as it introduced perhaps the most exciting vehicle to come from GM in a long while to young professionals. The first GM vehicle to fully bear the design imprint of GM vice-chairman and car-czar Bob Lutz, the Solstice did indeed catch the eye of viewers, generating 1,000 orders in 41 minutes for a first-edition version and enough buzz to ultimately sell out the first half-year’s entire production run of 10,000. Of course, Lutz – the former Chrysler Corporation executive hired by GM in 2001 to bring back the excitement to GM’s lackluster fleet of models – knew all along it would be like this, ever since that January day when he stood in front of a skeptical media and introduced the 2006 Pontiac Solstice at the 2004 North American International Auto Show.
We’re not skeptical anymore. Not with 177 horsepower from a four-cylinder engine, a starting price of $19,995 and a design that turned heads all over New England during our three-day drive. With styling as appealing, and exotic, as a pricier Lotus Elise or Porsche Boxster, we were instant stars wherever we traveled, followed by heads that snapped and hearts that swooned. From young to old, from entrepreneur to farmer, the Solstice attracted attention like s’mores on a summer night. But forget captivated crowds, chocolate-and marshmallow-covered lips, and even your favorite tunes – we wanted to stay out all night, driving this rear-drive pocket rocket up and down blue highways and back byways, enjoying its exhaust note as our own personal open-air symphony.
Although sports cars represent a mere three percent of car sales in the U.S., it’s an important market – a segment where buyers are often seen as emotional purists that throw the notions of utility, common sense and conservatism to the wind. And, it’s also where automakers position halo cars that draw consumers to showrooms where they might see and sample the less exciting but more practical vehicles that drive sales.
Since 1989, the Mazda Miata has defined the two-seat, entry-level roadster segment, almost exclusively. Originally retailing for just over $14,000 – or about $20,500 in today's dollars – the first-generation Miata attracted a faithful following with its affordability and capable rear-wheel-drive platform. For 2006, the totally updated version, now called the MX-5, starts at $20,995.
Other Japanese manufacturers have dabbled in the rear-drive roadster game, notably Honda with the S2000 and Toyota with the mid-engined MR2 Spyder. But with a starting price over $33,000 for the '05 S2000, the Honda rides in an entirely different price bracket. Toyota has seen limited success with the MR2, and has discontinued production for 2006. As a footnote, Mercury marketed the Capri roadster during the early 1990s, but that feeble front-driver lasted just a few years. So, it’s big news that one of America's most cherished, but struggling, brands is delivering an all-new, rear-wheel-drive, two-seat roadster with more horsepower and torque than a MX-5 Miata, and with a starting price of $1,000 less. GM expects annual sales for the 2006 Pontiac Solstice to reach 20,000 units. We think they’ll sell every one on style alone. The Solstice is on sale now, and a Saturn version, the Sky, arrives in the near future.
The 2006 Pontiac Solstice struts into showrooms in a single model, but there are many options that can be added on. By comparison, Mazda offers several MX-5 Miata trims at set price points. For $19,995, Solstice owners get sport bucket seats, a leather-wrapped shift knob attached to a short-throw five-speed manual gearbox, a single-CD player with six speakers, an adjustable steering wheel, a rear window defogger, three cupholders, a cloth top with a glass rear window, four-wheel disc brakes, Bilstein shocks, and 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 245/45R18 all-season tires. By contrast, a base $20,995 MX-5 Miata is similarly equipped but also gets standard power windows/locks/mirrors and ABS, although it rides on 16-inch wheels with 205/50 series rubber instead of 17s and does not get the Pontiac’s robust Bilstein shocks as standard.
The Solstice's Power Package adds power windows, locks and mirrors and also includes remote keyless entry. The Convenience Package yields cruise control, a driver information center and fog lamps. The Premium Package dresses the interior with leather seating surfaces and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with built-in audio controls. Air conditioning, carpeted floor mats, a single or six-disc CD/MP3 player, OnStar telematics, XM satellite radio, a limited-slip differential, and ABS are also optional. Later in 2006, a five-speed automatic transmission will debut.
Pontiac fits only dual front airbags to the 2006 Solstice. No supplemental side-impact protection is available, unlike Mazda, which includes head- and torso-protecting side units. OnStar telematics, however, continues to function as one of GM's premier options, providing Advanced Automatic Crash Notification to participating 911 centers in the event of a collision. This system also comes with sophisticated hands-free voice recognition that has been improved for accuracy.
Nuts and Bolts
Regardless of chosen equipment, all 2006 Pontiac Solstice models are propelled by a proven 2.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder that dispenses 177 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 166 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Cracking the substantial front-hinged, clamshell hood reveals a mill with aluminum construction, dual overhead cams with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, twin counter-rotating balance shafts, hydraulic mounts, and direct mounting of accessories to the engine, which decreases underhood space requirements and weight while also reducing vibration and noise. A five-speed manual transmission directs power to the rear axle. Compared to the Solstice, the 2.0-liter engine in the Mazda MX-5 is close in terms of horsepower, yielding 170, but trails a tad in twist with only 140 lb.-ft. of torque. However, MX-5 Miatas arrive with both five- and six-speed manuals and an optional six-speed automatic, and the MX-5 has a lower base curb weight by 410 pounds.
Underneath the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, fully independent suspension and a rear-drive layout contribute to a weight distribution of nearly 50/50 front to rear. Power assisted rack-and-pinion steering changes direction while 11.7-inch front and 10.9-inch rear disc brakes with optional ABS shed speed when necessary. GM's Kappa structure uses hydroformed frame rails, rather than welded structures, to increase strength and simplify the construction process. The suspension configuration is a short/long-arm setup at both ends of the vehicle. At 2,860 lbs. the Solstice is significantly heavier than the Miata.
Designed by the three-year-old General Motors Performance Division, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice’s unique styling harkens to heritage with a traditional wide stance and sporty proportions. The Solstice measures 71.3 inches in width and 95.1 inches in wheelbase inside an overall length of 157.2 inches (Miata stretches 157.3 inches over a 91.7-inch wheel span and 67.7-inch width). With an attractive and bulging front end that looks like J Lo’s back end, the Solstice's most conspicuous styling cue is the signature double-trapezoidal grille mounted low enough in the front bumper to double as a lower air intake.
Bumpers must be imagined, however, as both ends are so smooth they hide these energy-absorbing regions. Pontiac designers mounted the headlights flush inside the round front fenders, while integrating the taillights high in the rear clip at trunk level. Both sets of lenses extend into the horizontal planes created by the hood and trunk. In carving the Pontiac Solstice, designers crafted the massive front-hinged hood to include the top third of the fenders that house the headlamps. Even parts of the wheel wells rise when the hood is opened. Other design elements include curved door contours, front fender-mounted gills, amber turn signals integrated into the leading edges of the front wheel wells, chrome door handles, and supercar-inspired bulges along the trunk lid that correspond to the shape of the seat headrests.
Solstice's small, but business-like, interior appears uncluttered and driver-oriented, as the center stack plastic merges with the instrument cluster casing. Two large gauges – a speedometer and tachometer – are set deep in round housings and communicate important information via red lettering and white backgrounds. The fuel gauge takes the same style, but reading it is like looking down a gun barrel and requires effort, to say the least.
Circles and curves dominate the dash as the air vents, climate and audio controls, shifter boot, and steering wheel airbag contours are all round. Headroom and legroom are calibrated at 38.5 and 42.7 inches, respectively, whereas the MX-5 Miata offers 37.4 inches of head clearance and 43.1 inches for legs. Storage space in this American roadster is a diminutive 3.8 cubic feet. Mazda edges past the Pontiac with 5.3 cubic feet.
Capping off the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is a slightly rounded, acoustically padded soft top. By using an interior toggle, or depressing the key-fob trunk icon, the front portion of the rear decklid pops up to make way for stowage of the top. To drop the top, manually unlock the latches, and with manual guidance the top cantilevers and folds into a small storage area.
Fast and fun, but with ergonomics that leave room for improvement, we found our first drive of the 2006 Pontiac Solstice to be quite entertaining. The Solstice’s aggressive stance, with wheels tucked out to the corners, along with tight and well-weighted steering and bump-absorbing suspension, provided a flat ride that allowed us to dodge and weave with ease. Its reported 0-to-60 mph acceleration time of 7.2 seconds feels a tad quicker than that, and the Solstice’s top speed of 115 seems safely achievable, with oversized brakes that are responsive, but not grabby, from the top of pedal travel down to the mid-range, where stopping becomes more insistent. One of our more thrilling moments occurred when cresting a raised railroad track that was situated atop a small hill. The Solstice admirably maintained stability and kept its rubber planted to the road.
Complaints about the Solstice start with the low seating position in the manually adjustable front buckets. The Solstice’s seat design allows the driver’s chair to be moved forward and back, but not raised. Combined with the bulging hood, this set-up requires neck-stretching maneuvers for shorter drivers, although at speed, when our eyes were well ahead scanning for the next curve, the hood tended to recede from view. Additionally, the sun visors are all but useless. Narrow, cheap plastic swaths from the GM parts bin, the visors perch at an awkward angle when the top is retracted and provide little coverage to deflect the sun’s rays.
Despite the need to exit the Solstice to put the top down, the acoustically padded top is lightweight and easy to maneuver. The trunk is another matter entirely, as ferrying groceries required removing them from bags to place them around the raised storage well that intrudes into the cargo space. In both respects, the Solstice is more difficult to deal with than the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Overall, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice’s impressive ride, throttle response and handling remind us of the slightly lighter, slightly more sophisticated and more ergonomically pleasing MX-5 Miata. And that’s a good thing.
What are the 2006 Pontiac Solstice’s competitors? Since July of 1989, the two-seat entry-level roadster segment has been defined – almost exclusively – by the Mazda Miata. Originally retailing for just over $14,000 – or about $20,500 in today's dollars – the first-generation Miata attracted customers with its affordability and capable rear-wheel-drive platform. And for the 2006 model year, Mazda delivers a totally redesigned Miata starting at $20,995, now called the MX-5.
Other Japanese manufacturers have dabbled in the rear-drive roadster game, notably Honda with the S2000 and Toyota with the mid-engined MR2 Spyder. But with a starting price over $33,000 for the '05 S2000, the Honda rides in an entirely different price bracket. Toyota has seen limited success with the MR2, and has discontinued production after this year. Nissan’s reborn Z is also priced higher with the Roadster model starting at $28,750, but the four-seat MINI Cooper Convertible is also a key competitor, priced in the same range as the Solstice.
Will there be other variants of the Pontiac Solstice? Yes, GM’s Delaware assembly plant is producing Solstice variants, such as the Saturn Sky, and Opel and Vauxhall versions for Europe. It’s also been reported that Pontiac plans to market a lightweight Solstice with a hard top for amateur racing, and a coupe version to be sold to the public, as well. A turbo- or supercharged GT model is also in works, due for the 2007 model year with more than 200 horsepower.
Has Pontiac ever built a two-seater before? Pontiac’s first attempt at a two-seater, the Fiero, was built in the 1980s and went up in flames. With an engine that leaked oil and ignited spontaneously, it earned it the moniker “Fiero flambé.”
Test vehicle: 2006 Pontiac Solstice
Base price: $19,995 (including $575)
Engine size and type: 2.4-liter inline –four-cylinder
Engine horsepower: 177 at 6,600 rpm
Engine torque: 166 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual (standard); five-speed automatic (optional)
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,860
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 20/28 mpg
Wheelbase: 95.1 inches
Length: 157.2 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Height: 50.1 inches
Head room: 38.5 inches
Leg room: 42.7 inches
Maximum seating capacity: Two
Cargo volume: 3.8 cubic feet (top up)
Competitors: Ford Mustang V6 Convertible, Honda S2000, Jeep Wrangler, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mini Cooper, Nissan 350Z Roadster, Volkswagen New Beetle Cabriolet
Photos courtesy of General Motors