That will change, of course, as production ramps up and the model years roll by. But for now, this affordable sports car, designed to take on the undisputed champion of cheap thrills, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, remains an enigma to most consumers. Looking at the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, speed is assumed, but is it a reality? Sitting in the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, it appears to be comfortable, but is it? Viewing the window sticker, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice seems to be a good deal, but are you getting what you paid for – or more? The Solstice is still an unknown quantity, one requiring in-depth examination before plunking down hard-earned dollars, so off we went to San Diego for a day behind the wheel.
We departed a self-consciously trendy hotel in downtown San Diego and headed for the mountains east of the city, traveling densely populated urban thoroughfares, wide expressways, and twisty two-lane roads along the way. Then, we dipped down into the heat of the Anza Borrego desert, culminating the drive in windy Borrego Springs. Though just 100 miles long, our route was telling, and we learned plenty about Pontiac’s new expression of excitement. But perhaps most important, we discovered that the Solstice is a car worthy of consideration, even if it is a flawed beauty.
Pontiac sells the 2006 Solstice in a single trim, with a standard convertible top, for a base price of just $19,995 including the $575 destination charge. That’s an impressive figure for what is designed to be a world-class sports car, but in most respects you do get what you pay for. To keep costs down, the engine comes from the Chevrolet Cobalt economy car, the five-speed manual transmission is a modified Chevy Colorado pickup truck unit, and the reverse lights are straight off a GMC Envoy SUV.
Even so, that advertised starting price is about as realistic as dating a supermodel; not impossible, but improbable. No dealer would dare stock a Solstice with old-school roll-‘em-yourself windows, manual door locks, and plastic inserts where the front fog lights are supposed to go. To pay less than 20 grand, you’d need to special-order the car after the initial buzz died down and dealer premiums vanished. But by that time, prices will have risen. Even if they didn’t, it’s not like you could do this anyway – the first year of Solstice production is already sold out. So the $20,000 Solstice is a figment of a GM marketer’s imagination.
Everything most people really want in a modern automobile is optional on the Solstice. If you want cruise control, you’re spending $465 for the Convenience Package, which also includes fog lights and a driver information center. If you want power windows, remote locks, and electric mirrors, the $625 Power Package gets added to the bottom line. If you want air conditioning, it costs $960 extra.
Now you’re over $22,000. A leather appointed interior comes in the Premium Package, which is nicely priced at $690. Other goodies on the option list include antilock brakes for $400, a limited slip rear differential for $195, front floor mats for $60, and 18-inch wheels in either a polished or chrome finish for $545 and $795 respectively. OnStar telematics with a one-year Safe and Sound subscription costs $695, and an upgraded stereo with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and Monsoon speakers costs $890. Add XM satellite radio for another $325, not including the monthly subscription fee. Indeed, a fully-optioned 2006 Pontiac Solstice is priced higher than $26,000. And that’s with a manual transmission. An automatic arrives later in the model year, pushing the price close to 27 grand.
Color choices have interesting names. Select from Aggressive (red), Envious (green), Cool (silver), Mysterious (black), Sly (dark gray), Deep (dark blue), and Pure (white). Interiors can be outfitted in the standard Ebony (black) cloth or optional leather in Ebony or a two-tone Steel (gray) and Sand (tan) color scheme. Top colors are all black all the time (Midnight?).
Nuts and Bolts
In accordance with traditional roadster design principles, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is designed and engineered for fun. It is the first vehicle to be built on GM’s new Kappa platform, a small, rear-drive architecture that will spawn the 2007 Saturn Sky, and a roadster to be sold in Europe as an Opel or Vauxhall (or both). Kappa has also been used to create two compelling concept cars called the Chevrolet Nomad and the Saturn Curve. The Kappa platform is comprised of twin hydroformed frame rails that run the length of the car, surrounding a central tunnel that contains the transmission and driveshaft, creating a strong and stiff foundation for several different types of vehicles.
A short- and long-arm four-wheel independent suspension with 27.2mm front and 24.2mm rear stabilizer bars connect the Solstice to the road through standard 18-inch silver-painted alloy wheels wearing P245/45R18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. Hydraulic power rack-and-pinion steering guides the Solstice’s front wheels, while the rears are driven by a five-speed manual transmission connected to a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 177 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 166 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Redline is 7,000 rpm, and the Solstice’s base curb weight measures 2,860 pounds, giving it a 1:16.2 power-to-weight ratio.
Pontiac recommends premium fuel for the Solstice, but says it is not required. According to the EPA, the Solstice should get 20 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, and we extracted 21.7 mpg out of our test car while climbing a mountain range and revving the engine on twisty two-lane roads. Not bad.
Revving the 2006 Pontiac Solstice isn’t much fun. The engine dislikes life near redline, whining and thrashing as the 7,000-rpm rev limit approaches. Power is decent, but the car doesn’t feel as quick as we expected it to, and the clutch engagement point is rather high. When running through the gears, if you shift the rather clunky transmission out of second too early, the Solstice drops you off a cliff in third. Plus, gear whine and drivetrain lash were problems in our test car, leaving us with the impression that the Solstice’s powertrain is unrefined. Still, we averaged 21.7 mpg during a drive that included plenty of high-rpm driving and elevation change. Given the reality of fuel prices today, the Solstice can certainly be considered a “cheap thrill.”
If the Pontiac Solstice disappoints in terms of its powertrain, it wins your heart with its handling. Thanks clearly go to the wide 18-inch tires, which assist in giving the Solstice terrific grip, balance, and control. The Solstice exhibits little excess body motion, excellent weight transition, and high handling limits, and the tail rotates nicely if you lift off the throttle or apply a bit of brake mid-turn. Steering is linear with perfect heft on center, successfully filtering major road anomalies without killing communication. Crisp turn-in – quick and direct – makes it easy to place the Solstice exactly where you want it. The car remains balanced on bumps, and the steering wheel feels great in your hands thanks to soft and smooth leather that’s perfect for shuffle steering.
Great handling doesn’t come at the expense of ride quality, making the 2006 Pontiac Solstice a fun cruiser on warm summer nights. The motor emits an entertaining burble at low rpm, and the suspension is firm and well connected but not punishing. At speed, the Solstice manages most dips without bottoming or scraping its front air dam. The view over the hood is cool, with the Solstice’s fenders bulging up higher than the low, flat hood. However, the side mirrors are too small, the windshield pillars are a bit thick, and the passenger’s seat and right decklid fairing block over-the-shoulder visibility a bit. Top up, rear visibility is fine through the vertical rear glass, and the wider spots of the top are notably trim.
Is the 2006 Pontiac Solstice fun to drive? Yes, but the car does feel a little heavy and clunky at times, and the drivetrain needs more power and refinement. We’d bet the Solstice GT, which is rumored to have a turbo- or supercharged engine making more than 215 horsepower, will be an absolute blast to drive.
Beauty inspires lust. That’s why Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are hot Google search terms, that’s why honeymooners adore hot and humid Hawaii, and that’s what is going to sell the 2006 Pontiac Solstice. (Now, to get Jolie or Pitt in the Solstice’s passenger seat for a lap around Maui…)
Look at this car. There’s nary a fault on it, except for the fact that the plastic lower front air dam makes it appear that something is hanging very low from the engine bay when viewed from the front. Otherwise, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is perfection, right down to the amber side marker light deftly integrated with the front wheel well and fascia. It is simply gorgeous, one of the most beautiful automobiles ever created.
If that praise is a little over the top, raise the roof and the Solstice looks less appealing, like Angelina or Brad in track pants and a trucker cap. With the oddly-shaped top clamped into place, it looks unsealed where it clips into the trunk lid, giving the car an unfinished appearance. And the side glass features a trapezoidal shape because the roof rises high at the rear of the passenger compartment, offering plenty of head clearance for taller drivers but also giving the Solstice an ungainly look.
The Pontiac Solstice’s cheaply outfitted interior also brings you right back down to earth. Select an Ebony cloth or leather cabin, and dour best describes the passenger compartment. Though chrome detailing helps to liven things up a bit, the black and dark gray decor needs more contrast to lighten the mood – something like light gray seat and door panel inserts. If you can, choose the Steel and Sand interior combo, which is a bit busy in appearance but ultimately looks more upscale and helps tone down the plethora of low-grade plastic parts.
Thanks to a tall cowling and low-mounted seats, the driver-centric dash is somewhat imposing but looks good from a distance. The Solstice’s chrome-encrusted gauge binnacle reminds of the Ford Mustang, and includes a tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge, and warning lights. In sunlight, all that chrome sparkles – a little too brightly. Proper Germanic door grips decorate both front doors, and the passenger gets an extra one to grip on the center console. The Solstice’s steering wheel is an excellent design but is a tad too large for such a small and sporting car, a complaint we’ve also voiced about the Corvette. Because the control panel is designed with circular themes, the squared-off “passenger airbag” warning indicator looks like an afterthought, tacked on at the top of the swept arc that defines the upper reaches of the cockpit.
Comfort and Convenience
Comfort and convenience are oxymorons in most roadsters, but the 2006 Pontiac Solstice proves an exception in some respects. Though our XL-sized test driver said, “I feel like I’m wearing jeans that are a size too small,” thanks to tight seat bolsters and substantial lumbar support, plenty of Solstice owners will find this roadster to be roomy and comfortable. The steering wheel is nice to grip, and the spots on the door panel and center console where the driver braces his legs for hard driving are smooth and flat. The upper door panels are coated in hard plastic, but they’re too high to use as an arm- or elbow-rest anyway, so that’s irrelevant. Any low-slung sports car is hard to get into and out of, but the Solstice has wide doors and plenty of leg room so even larger people can easily slide in behind the wheel.
Underway, turbulence is a problem, whether the roof is raised or lowered. When it’s up, wind rustles over the center of the roof, starting at relatively low speeds and getting louder from there. When it’s down, lots of wind buffeting gets into the cabin, even with the side windows raised. The Solstice is not a car for preserving your coif. Fortunately, you can buy a dealer-installed wind blocker that mounts between the seat headrests.
In terms of ease-of-use, the Solstice is generally simple and straightforward. Some control markings have symbols that take a moment to decipher, and the power window controls are very awkward to use because they’re mounted closer to your left elbow than your wrist. Plus, the auxiliary steering wheel controls have small buttons that almost make it easier just to fiddle with the regular buttons and knobs on the dashboard, and in direct sunlight the radio display and trip computer completely wash out. The main cupholders are located out of the way, deployed from the rear bulkhead, but they’re also hard to reach. A third cupholder pops out of the right side of the center console. Storage areas are limited to an average-size glovebox, a rubber-lined bulkhead storage bin, small slots running parallel to the door sills near the floor, and “kangaroo pockets” on the front edges of the seat cushions.
Our biggest complaint about the Solstice, not surprisingly, is with the trunk. Small and oddly shaped, the trunk must be loaded from the side over the Solstice’s waist-high haunches because it opens clamshell-style. With the top down, there’s little room for anything because it folds into the trunk on top of whatever might be in there. Top up, there’s more space, but the rear corners of the top clip into the clamshell lid and must be popped and snapped every time the trunk is used. Plus, the trunk lid needs to be slammed hard to close properly. Pontiac forces this hassle upon owners to preserve the sexy headrest fairings and the Solstice’s smooth, buttoned-down appearance when the roof is stowed, but with a roadster form-over-function should be expected. To help alleviate the pain caused by this compromise, Pontiac is considering a fitted-luggage option available through dealers.
If there’s anything about the 2006 Pontiac Solstice that requires immediate resolution by GM, it’s quality – and that includes the unrefined engine and clunky manual transmission. From materials to construction, the Solstice needs improvement in these areas to remain a desirable and viable product for years to come.
Inside, the materials look OK at a glance, but the hard plastic surfaces come straight out of the GM pickup truck school of interior design. Our Cool (silver) over Ebony test car’s black plastic interior panels were obviously cheap. The gray-stitched leather offset this a bit, as did the dark gray metallic dash insert with its rubbery surface feel. And the chrome accents throughout the cabin were nice, too, if you don’t mind that they twinkle in the sunlight. But we would like to see more extensive use of soft-touch, matte-finish materials and real aluminum trim inside this ride – even if the price tag needs to rise by a few hundred bucks.
And those materials need to be solidly affixed to their moorings. Our test Solstice featured a loose gauge binnacle and center console plastic that could be lifted up from the floor just like in an old Chevy Camaro. Every cupholder tray is flimsy, and the A-pillar trim is squeezable. True, most of the Solstice’s bits and pieces don’t wiggle around much and fit together pretty well, but we’d like it if they didn’t wiggle around at all.
Exterior build quality on our test car was not good. We found inconsistent fits for the fascias, the rubber trim on the passenger door, and both the headlights and taillights. The front left plastic wheel well liner sagged, and we spotted paint runs on the edges of the hood. To tackle its main competitor, the Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car lauded by “Consumer Reports” as one of the most reliable vehicles on the market, Pontiac will need to pay more attention to the details.
Solstice vs. Miata
Sixteen years ago, the Mazda Miata redefined a dead segment, spawning in the process a roadster revival that continues unabated today. As evidence, enthusiasts have been panting in anticipation for the arrival of the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, and now that the Solstice is on the road, everyone wants to know how it stacks up to the iconic Miata, which is also all-new for 2006.
We happened to be driving the new MX-5 Miata the week we took our test drive in the Solstice, and though we didn’t drive them back-to-back, here are our unvarnished impressions based on an unofficial comparison “test”:
Powertrain – Miata has a slicker shifter with shorter throws, and a more refined engine that is happy to run to the red. Solstice has the Colorado gearbox with whine, lash, and longer throws that are sometimes clunky. Plus, we kept graunching third gear during quick downshifts. Solstice engine has pleasing burble at low rpm, but engine whines and thrashes as revs climb. Plus, the distance between the gearing in second and third is cavernous. Advantage = MIATA.
Braking – Miata pedal feels better with more natural progression and easier modulation. Solstice features less travel and feel. Brakes on either car are effective. Advantage = MIATA.
Handling – Miata’s steering is razor sharp, almost darty, and the steering wheel vibrates excessively in the driver’s hands.. Plus, Miata exhibits a bit more body roll in tight turns. Solstice feels solidly planted, features very little body roll, and the steering is linear and light off center with a pleasing heft on center. Wheel doesn’t dance in your hands like the Miata. The Pontiac is more confidence inspiring, even if the Solstice’s added heft is evident. Advantage = SOLSTICE.
Ride Quality – Solstice is a little more firm than Miata, feeling solidly planted but a bit more ponderous. Miata is lighter on its feet and better at soaking up bumps, but feels less connected to the road. Neither car beats up occupants. DRAW.
Fun to Drive – Miata is better at going and stopping, while Solstice is better at turning and handling. Differences, however, between powertrains and that light, tossable feel every roadster should have, weigh in favor of the Miata. Advantage = MIATA.
Comfort – Solstice has nice flat door panels and center console trim. Miata sticks cupholders on the doors, fer cryin’ out loud, which can dig into the driver’s left knee and cause painful bracing in quick right-handers. Both seats have more lumbar support dialed in than some might prefer. Miata quells wind buffeting better and has a superior trunk design, but Solstice is easier to get into and out of. Miata’s top is simpler to use. Advantage = MIATA.
Quality – Miata is a paragon of refinement compared to Solstice. Solstice has too much cheap, GM-truck-grade plastic slathered all over the interior. Plus, the Solstice’s exterior build quality was terrible. Advantage = MIATA.
Design – Solstice is sexiest car on the outside, while Miata is preferable inside (except for stupid door-mounted cupholders). Ergonomically, it’s a draw. Advantage = SOLSTICE.
FAQs and Specs
Why should I buy a 2006 Pontiac Solstice?
Buying a 2006 Solstice is next to impossible, since Pontiac told us that the entire first year of production is sold out. If you do find one at the dealership, you’re likely to pay a hefty dealer premium to get one into your driveway. And if you can’t operate a manual transmission, you’re out of luck – at least initially. Our recommendation is to wait for dealer prices to come down.
What’s the best thing about the 2006 Pontiac Solstice?
There are three main reasons to buy a Pontiac Solstice. First, the car is gorgeous. Second, it handles beautifully. Third, it’s made in the U.S.A.
What’s the worst thing about the 2006 Pontiac Solstice?
Reasons to skip the Pontiac Solstice include its unrefined powertrain, its low quality interior plastics, and its form-over-function trunk design.
Will there be a Pontiac Solstice GT model in the future?
General Motors won’t confirm it, but a turbo- or supercharged Pontiac Solstice GT model is due for 2007, and a hardtop coupe model might arrive for 2008. Since the Chevy Cobalt SS and Saturn Ion Red Line have supercharged versions of the Solstice’s Ecotec four-banger under their hoods, it’s not hard to guess that the Solstice GT will have the same engine, putting out around 215 horsepower. And if the Solstice GT runs with the same gusto as the Cobalt SS and Ion Red Line, it oughta be terrific fun to drive.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Pontiac Solstice
Price of Test Vehicle: $26,095 (including $575 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine
Engine Horsepower: 177 at 6,600 rpm
Engine Torque: 166 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,860 lbs.
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/28 mpg (est.)
Observed Fuel Economy: 21.7 mpg
Length: 157.2 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Wheelbase: 95.1 inches
Height: 50.1 inches
Leg room: 42.7 inches
Head room: 38.5 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: 2
Max. Cargo Volume: 3.8 cubic feet (top up!)
Competitor: 2006 Mazda MX-5 Miata
Photos courtesy of General Motors