2006 Pontiac Solstice

Sultry Solstice

By Cocoa Efficient

Remember Pontiac?  Back in my heady high-school days they built the cars everyone wanted. There was the long and sleek Grand Prix, the ever-so-Mrs. Robinson Grand Ville convertible and the to-die-for Firebird.  I fell in love with one of these relics, a very rare special edition known as the Skybird. It was a 1979 Firebird painted Sky Blue with a matching Sky Blue velour interior and 15-inch Sky Blue Snow Flake rims. She was a thing of beauty, a product of a different era when GM led the industry in innovation and style—even if it was over the top.

It’s been a long time since a Pontiac tickled my fancy in the manner of the Skybird, so you can imagine my surprise when I got my first look (and drive) at the new Pontiac Solstice roadster. I was overwhelmed by a wave of simultaneous hot flashes and flash backs. Where did this little beauty come from? Perhaps some unholy mating of a G6 with a hot Italian drop-top occurred when no one was looking? Or maybe GM’s Bob Lutz managed to loosen the grip of enough over-zealous micro-managers to let the design staff’s creative juices flow again. Whatever happened at Pontiac, the result is undeniable: the Solstice is a visual Grand Slam. Is the Solstice hot enough to dislodge the Mazda Miata and BMW 3 Series as the new homo convertible of choice? Perhaps, but good looks alone will only get you so far in the world. You have to have substance, too. Just ask Nick Lachey.

Photos don’t do the Solstice justice. The car’s seductive curves, wide body, huge wheels and fat tires all scream out “temptress.” I’m telling you right here and now, if this car were a shoe, it would be a six-inch Stiletto in bright red. From its split honeycomb mesh grille to its clam-shell trunk, every inch of this car is electrifying. Despite the need to scavenge from other GM divisions (the back up lights come from a GMC Envoy and the ventilation knobs are pulled straight from the Hummer H3), the Solstice comes off as fresh and new and it certainly looks more expensive than it’s $19,995 starting price. The exterior treatment is finished off by a fancy canvas roof with flying buttress rear quarters. Though this design looks hot when new, my eye caught notice of the material that forms the flying buttress corners. It did not remain smooth after just a few uses, giving the convertible top the same disheveled look worn by a one-night-stander rushing off to work.

Inside, the story is not so rosy. Pontiac uses a lot of ho-hum plastics to form the dash and doors cards and the beige and black dash colors says to me “hey, those guys that did the Bonneville dash need something to do, let’s give it to them.” It’s hard to understand how this dash got out the door when the interior of the Solstice’s sister car, the 2007 Saturn Sky, is so drop-dead gorgeous? Ah, sweet mysteries of life at GM.

Entry and exit requires big quad muscles as the Solstice sits so low you basically fall into and out of this car. Once seated, say hello to a comfortable set of sport bucket seats, a thickly-wrapped leather steering wheel and a five-speed manual shifter that falls readily underhand. I love that all the controls are easy to view and operate and the optional Monsoon sound system blows away everything else in this class. Unfortunately with the top down, the Solstice’s trunk is reduced to the size of a Daisy Duke lunch-box and the manual top pales in comparison to the Mazda MX-5’s simplistic one-handed operation. Lazy drama queens will no doubt have their panties in a bunch as the Solstice won’t offer an automatic transmission option until later in the model year. Sorry ladies, if you want to be seen in the latest and greatest, you’ll have to teach your right hand some new tricks, like shifting.

I was introduced to the Solstice at Willow Springs, a fabulous race track located in Southern California’s high desert. Imagine, Miss Effi hurdling at insane speeds around an enclosed track, pearls, purse and pigtails flying in the wind. And I didn’t even lose my wig!  Not that I didn’t try, mind you, but the Solstice’s base 2.4-liter Ecotec engine is not what I’d call wicked fast. This is the optional engine used by the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion and though it’s powerful enough to muster 177 horsepower, the Ecotec lacks the mid-range punch to make the Solstice come to life. The five-speed manual’s widely-spaced gearing doesn’t help matters much, either. Peak power seems to come online just as the engine begins to sound as if it’s going to throw in the towel (around 5000 rpm). For now, I’ll just say the Solstice’s engine is adequate for cruising, but nowhere near powerful enough to fulfill the promise made by the car’s racy good looks. GM has hinted that a supercharged version is not far off, so if speed is more important than charm, you may want to wait another year.

Handling, on the other hand, is the Solstice’s strong suit. This car corners like its riding on rails; credit the wide chassis, 18-inch tires and near 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution for this. The Solstice’s suspension soaks up everything from minor road blemishes to huge distortions without chatter or wheel hop, which means no stabbing yourself in the eye with the mascara wand at high speeds. The steering feel is nicely weighted and free of play, although there is some disconnect due to the power assist. In all, I found the Solstice a satisfying ride, both on the street and the track, and you can’t beat the head-turning factor. I’ve haven’t gotten this many looks since my botched Tijuana facelift.

Now for the heartbreak. The Solstice is a low-volume vehicle with only 18,000 units scheduled for production in 2006. Getting hold of one will be trickier than finding a hot virgin in West Hollywood, so be prepared. Though the Solstice comes nicely equipped with an AM/FM stereo with CD, glass rear window with defroster, sport bucket seats, tilt wheel and automatic headlights, if you can get hold of one be sure to order it with the $625 Power Package that adds power windows, power locks, keyless entry and power mirrors. Other popular options include anti-lock brakes ($400), air conditioning ($960), Monsoon sound system ($395) and leather seats ($690.)

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