From the outside, the Pontiac Solstice is a looker, turning heads everywhere it’s driven and sporting a look of quality and refinement. The curvaceous bodylines are sensual, but the Solstice retains a serious sports car guise. In other words, it’s not considered to be a chick car. The attention you get driving the Solstice makes you feel like a celebrity, and the only thing missing is the red carpet treatment upon arrival and build quality to rival its competitors.
The Solstice handles as well as it looks, cutting corners tighter and tighter, staying flat and delivering excellent feedback while almost taunting you to push it past your own comfort zone. A 177-horsepower, four-cylinder engine propels the little two-seater with either a five-speed manual transmission aimed at the enthusiast crowd or a five-speed automatic for those that prefer a more relaxed driving experience. A turbocharged GXP version is also in the works, upping the horsepower and adding a sport suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and traction control. The sport suspension is also available on the standard Solstice as an option. From the start, the Pontiac Solstice (also sold as the Sky under the Saturn brand) was intended to be a comeback car for GM, an entry-level image car that would bring buyers back to the American market and boost GM’s sales and image. Our test car, with less than 3,000 miles on the odometer, suffered from bad air leaks from the side windows with the top up, squeaky brakes, a moaning automatic transmission when decelerating from 30 mph, and a plethora of design problems from the convertible top and the lack of a power door lock button to a missing passenger visor mirror and a radio screen that becomes illegible in the sunlight. Plus, we averaged just 18.7 mpg with the Solstice’s four-cylinder engine. This is disappointing from a car enjoying so much hype. In typical GM fashion, the company had a good thing going with the Solstice but substandard interior quality, frustrating design and build execution issues could ultimately slow sales of the Solstice faster than its own four-wheel-disc brakes.
The Pontiac Solstice’s 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine produces 177 horsepower and 166 lb.-ft. of torque, giving the roadster a surprisingly spirited feel with either the five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Our test car came with the recently introduced automatic, and good torque and gearing keep this model lively although no paddle shifters are available and it doesn’t measure up to the Miata’s quick shifting six-speed sequential transmission. Even though the automatic transmission shifted smoothly, a whining noise when decelerating from 30 mph could be duplicated at will, which really throws doubt on the car’s long-term reliability and the build quality. A few weeks ago we had a Solstice with a manual transmission and actually returned it a day after picking the car up because of the strange noises it was making. Later, we were reassured by GM’s public relations department that the noises were normal and were being isolated from the cabin in the future.
Fun to Drive
With the top down, buffeting is minimal and normal conversation is easy. Wind noise, obviously, is always present but not obtrusive. The Solstice is clearly made for top down motoring.
Where designers have room to improve is with the design of the top. The flying buttresses at each corner of the top must be individually pressed back into the deck lid every time you open the trunk, and that requires a 180-degree trip around the car. They also don’t fit flush to the bodywork, which usually results in a second or third push to ensure they are fastened. Dropping the top is easy enough but does require the driver to exit the car to complete the process. Closing the lid requires a good slam to prevent pushing on the headrest fairings, which can dent easily.
The Solstice’s interior is simple and clean with no serious flaws. I would, however, like to see the emergency brake moved from the center console to the space between the door and the seat. This would make for a cleaner design and additional arm space on the center console. The large center-mounted tachometer and speedometer are easy to read and are a welcome addition in any sports car, but where’s the temperature gauge?
Price of Test Vehicle: $27,040 (includes $575 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 177 at 6,600 rpm
Engine Torque: 166 at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,860
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/28 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 18.7 mpg
Length: 157.2 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Wheelbase: 95.1 inches
Height: 50.1 inches
Leg room (front): 42.7 inches
Head room (front): 38.5 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Two
Max. Cargo Volume: 3.8 cu.-ft.
Competitors: Ford Mustang Convertible, Honda S2000, Mazda MX-5, MINI Cooper Convertible, Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, Nissan 350Z, Saturn Sky, Volkswagen New Beetle
I wish the redesigned Mazda MX-5 Miata looked as alluring, as gorgeous, and as sexy as the Pontiac Solstice. Then, buying the new Miata would be a no-brainer, because aside from giving its new roadster stunningly beautiful lines and exceptional grip in turns, Pontiac provides little reason to choose the Solstice. Our test car, equipped with the late-release five-speed automatic, inspired little confidence in long-term quality. It buzzed, it rattled, and at 35 mph there was a noise coming from the transmission similar to the howl created when blowing across the top of a half-empty bottle with your mouth. The materials are borderline, the ergonomics questionable, the seating position too low, the roof design too complicated, and fuel economy for the first tank registered below 20 mpg. Everywhere I looked, I could see compromise, except when it came to the Solstice’s pitch-perfect sculpturing. Physical lust is often difficult to resist, but without chemistry and substance, there’s little point in taking the object of your affection home for an extended stay. Test drive the Solstice. Buy the MX-5 Miata.
Pontiac Solstice – Mike Sullivan’s Opinion:
First, the good news: The Solstice is gorgeous. And if you’re one of those people that automatically blurts out “but the Saturn Sky is way better looking,” just stop it. That’s like comparing Carmen Electra to Pamela Anderson. You may have a preference, but that doesn’t make the other one less attractive.
But like so many Hollywood starlets, the Solstice is beautiful on the outside and a wreck on the inside. The engine complains when asked to perform, the automatic transmission refuses to cooperate, and the interior ergonomics are totally self-serving. I accept that in order to deliver the Solstice at a reasonable price, GM had to make compromises on things like the manual ragtop roof, but the awkwardly designed interior is altogether inexcusable. Not only is the cabin constructed from low-grade plastic materials, but several of the car’s basic controls are difficult to operate. The emergency brake sits at chest level, the window controls are located under the driver’s elbow, and the cupholders are positioned behind the driver’s right shoulder. The tricky cross-handed method is the best approach when opening the windows or grabbing a drink. Unfortunately, beauty is only skin deep, and it’s a shame to see such a stunning car marred by so many flaws.
Photos by Ron Perry