HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- Keep that seatbelt cinched because we're working the stubby shifter stick on a two-seat roadster with the soft top stowed as the sports car charges through Oregon's picturesque Columbia River Gorge.
Our romp along the river becomes so much play time, one hand plying the five-speed manual's lever and the other gripping a leather-wrapped steering wheel, right foot tapping the go-pedal and the left one pumping brake or clutch in racer fashion as the vehicle carves clean and quick lines through apexes of endless curves.
This new roadster convertible, riding on a rigid platform rigged with a broad track and long-drawn wheelbase, employs independent suspension systems fore and aft with monotube shocks connecting to 18-inch wheels and sticky Goodyear rubber to handle every contour of the convoluted river course.
Perfect weight balance -- the engine mounted up front and all power directed to rear wheels with half of the vehicle's load resting on front wheels and the other half on the rear ones -- sets up that sports car magic of predictable vehicle control for a driver.
And this one looks so keen and swift with that prominent long prow, mid-ship cockpit and a roly-poly rump capped by twin nacelle blisters trailing behind seatbacks.
Considering the sharp body styling and precise handling traits of this sporty rear-wheel-drive (RWD) roadster, one might reasonably conclude that we're driving the latest exotic mega-bucks sportster out of England, Germany or Italy.
That's not the case, however, because we're steering the Solstice, Pontiac's new made-in-America sports car in open-top roadster format that brings seats for only two and uncompromising manners but also affordable price tags.
The bottom line for a Solstice with reasonable standard equipment nips down to $19,995.
But here's the catch: Constraints at a GM assembly plant in Wilmington, Del., limit the production of Solstice to 7,000 units by the end of 2005, while advance orders of the sports car amount to double that figure.
Thus, as Solstice comes to market in the fall of 2005 as a 2006 product the initial demand for Pontiac's sports car far outstrips the factory's capacity and shoppers should expect to face a waiting list.
GM obviously scores an instant hit with Solstice, which our seat-time tests reveal is a serious and pure sports car that's not only fun to drive but quite appealing in both design and execution.
Roots of the production version trace to 2002 when a slinky Solstice show car became the star concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz subsequently tapped that show car for a production blitz while demanding that the street version adhere to the vision of forging an "affordable" sports car.
To meet such constraints -- a quick development schedule consuming only 27 months plus a price point pitched below $20,000 -- GM's designers turned to the company's extensive network of product resources, meaning they raided the vast GM parts bin.
But first, a new RWD platform had to be developed.
Codenamed Kappa, the new GM architecture is a flexible and adaptable structure designed to support a number of future GM vehicles.
The Kappa platform incorporates single-piece hydroformed rails stretched from tip to tail, which forge an incredibly firm chassis and set up nimble drive manners.
For an engine, the design team chose to modify a variable-valve version of the 2.4-liter Ecotec in-line-four plant out of Chevrolet's Cobalt, but adapt it to mount in the engine bay for a RWD application.
In Solstice, the Ecotec engine produces 177 hp at 6600 rpm with torque tuned to 166 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
For a transmission, GM turned to its Japanese supply partner Aisin with the impressive short-throw Aisin five-speed manual stick.
Later in the production cycle, Solstice will also offer an automatic shifter using GM's Hydra-Matic 5L40-E five-speed automatic.
Mechanical assets include independent suspension designs front and rear with SLA arrangements using lightweight aluminum for upper and lower control arms to pare the unsprung mass.
Bilstein monotube shock absorbers and coil springs are also in place to set up Solstice's precise handling traits.
The rack and pinion steering system has power assistance for quick response and the brakes show a disc at each wheel with rotors measuring 11.7 inches up front and 10.9 inches in the rear.
Standard safety systems aboard Solstice include dual frontal air bags and built-in roll bars tucked behind the two seatbacks.
A computer-controlled anti-lock brake system (ABS) with dynamic rear proportioning (DRP) is on the slate of optional gear, along with a limited-slip rear differential (LSD).
The driver-oriented cockpit in Solstice adds instruments inspired by easy-to-read motorcycle gauges, with two sport bucket seats flanking the console and a stereo system in the dash with AM/FM/CD and six speakers.
The soft top on Solstice contains a glass backlight with defogger element added.
It stows out of sight below deck in the trunk.
Lowering the top is easy and quick: Touch a switch on the dashboard and the rear-hinged clamshell truck lid pops open. You must fold the canvas top in accordion fashion into the well of the trunk, then snap the decklid down.
Optional gear for Solstice extends to three packages of equipment labeled Power, Convenience and Premium.
The Power Package brings power controls for door locks, mirrors and windows, plus a remote keyless entry device.
The Convenience Package adds foglamps, cruise control and a driver information center.
The Premium Package installs leather seats (either Ebony or two-tone Steel/Sand), a leather-wrapped steering wheel and radio controls on the steering wheel.
Other options include air conditioning, a Monsoon audio kit with seven speakers, OnStar telecommunications and XM satellite radio service.