The Pontiac Solstice is a classic front engine, rear-wheel-drive roadster in the tradition of the MGB or, more appropriately, the leader of them all-the Mazda Miata, or as it's known today, the MX-5.
It's surprising how close a competitor the Solstice is, too, in standard mettle. With 177 horsepower from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, there's enough to keep up with the Mazda's 170-horsepower mill. The manual shifter gives short throws and an engaging feel, like the Miata.
Of course, the Solstice goes its own way with its styling and packaging. The body contours look almost inflated, like its skin is pulled tight, especially up front, where the trademark grille sits flush with the bulging front panels with hidden bumpers. The headlamp covers pull way back into the front fenders. The sides show some of the famous "coke bottle" styling of 1960's Pontiacs, while the tail is high and rounded, with taillamps that sit almost on top of the fenders and pull back like the headlights do up front.
Inside, a bold, sweeping dash flows uninterrupted into the center console between the seats. The instruments are distributed across the dash like merit badges on a boy scout's sash, leaving lots of textured plastic around them. The effect, while sporty, feels a little plain, and the plastics are so-so in quality. The chrome instrument binnacle is borrowed from the Vibe and looks appropriate, if perhaps a little heavy.
While the slim buckets do a fine job of holding driver and passenger during vigorous driving, the Solstice's interior isn't up to the task of carrying much else. Kangaroo pockets in the front of the lower seat cushions hold small, flat items like maps, and slim slits along the door thresholds hold modest items (a pencil?). A small bin sits between the seats at shoulder level and holds a stack of CDs. It's hard to open while you're driving.
The trunk is no better. The top folds into it, and most of the trunk floor is taken up by a large lozenge that is probably the fuel tank. I found that I could arrange my laptop and briefcase around the sides of it, and you can stuff several plastic bags of groceries in there if you're careful with the eggs and Hostess fruit pies. The problem is, where do you put that suitcase when you're taking a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe?
Complaints aside, drop the top on a nice day, climb in, and all's well with the world. To accomplish this, first sit in the car and unhook the two windshield header latches. Next, press on the key fob to open the trunk, and the top-extending flying buttresses flip suddenly forward. Then, manually lift the rear-hinged trunk lid and fold the top into the trunk. Now, slam the lid authoritatively, and the cloth top is completely hidden. Finally, climb into the Solstice and row through the gears contentedly.
My test car was the GXP model, which improves on the standard ride's 177 horsepower by throwing on a turbocharger. Suddenly, you're looking at 260 horsepower from this little car, and that means it moves out smartly when you release the clutch.
If you drive aggressively, you'll still get decent mileage. I achieved 22.8 mpg in mixed, not terribly aggressive motoring. The EPA gives the Solstice GXP a 22 City, 31 Highway rating. Interestingly, the GXP does a little better than the standard, nonaspirated model. The EPA's 2007 Green Vehicle Guide awards the Solstice with either engine a 6 for the Air Pollution score and also a 6 on the Greenhouse Gas scale-a little above average.
To help you handle the GXP's increased muscle, Pontiac gives you a host of extras. Stabilitrak uses electronic sensors to keep you out of a jam. If it senses a difference between where you've got the car pointed and where it's headed, it steps in and corrects it automatically by braking a particular wheel or modulating acceleration. A limited slip differential in the GXP aids traction as well. Bilstein shocks, 18-inch wheels wearing performance tires, and four-wheel disc brakes complete the picture.
My Aggressive (Red) tester started out at $25,395, but by the time you factor in the optional leather seats, boosted audio system (with subwoofer directly behind the passenger), air conditioning, rear spoiler, XM Radio, and premium acoustic headliner, the tab rose to $29,389. That's about twice the price of the original Miata. Solstices start at just over $22,000.
I had a couple little gripes. Pontiac gives you an old-fashioned mast antenna, which sticks up in your right peripheral vision as you motor sans top. The window seals didn't always do their job, and the wind whistled on the highway. But like most convertibles, once that canvas is folded, all is forgiven. The Solstice is a nice change for GM-something compact and exciting-and we should be happy to have it.