- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “Parts is parts”? Well in the case of Pontiac’s new Solstice two-seat roadster, that ain’t necessarily so — these parts come together to concoct a stellar example of a fun-to-drive, sensational-looking and affordable “drop-top” sports car. The major tendency of the majority of “buff” books is to compare the new Solstice with the new Mazda Miata (whoops, make that the new MX-5) roadster.

OK, that may be fair enough on the one hand, as they are both front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-cylinder-powered two-seat roadsters that fall into basically the same price range. On the other hand however, the Pontiac is American, while the Mazda is Japanese.

The Solstice is brand new with a radically different, eye-catching design and boasts higher displacement, more horsepower and a higher torque rating, while the MX-5, though it represents a major restyling with many other significant improvements as well, has been around for a considerable period (since 1989), having actually pioneered the resurgence of the two-seat sport roadster when many naysayers felt that the genre was destined for extinction.

The 2006 Pontiac Solstice, which is based on GM’s Kappa small-car RWD platform, has a lot going for it. There are also some negative issues from my perspective, that if corrected, would serve to make it an even better choice in the roadster marketplace. Pluses include the dramatic and racy styling presentation — it’s downright sexy in its visual appeal. It is rounded on both ends, with very short overhangs, and there are fairings incorporated into the reverse-opening deck lid that suggest speed, even when it is parked — especially with the top down.

The manual convertible top features saillike panels that extend past the vertical, flat rear window on the same order as the BMW 6-Series ragtop. The Solstice attracts considerable attention — the majority of it positive. The car rides low over large alloy wheels shod with performance tires that substantially fill up the wheel wells. There is no spare, but rather a repair kit.

The interior sports a design quality that is as futuristic as the exterior — form and function blend harmoniously, creating a desirable place to be, unless you happen to be exceptionally tall. Seats are both comfortable and supportive. Power comes from a potent enough (for some) 2.4-liter DOHC, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that churns out 177 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque. The engine mates to a five-speed manual gearbox . An automatic will become available soon.

The parts bin of several existing GM vehicles contributed to the rapid evolution of the Solstice from concept to production (less than three years): fog lamps are from the Pontiac Grand Prix; the gauge package comes from the Chevrolet Cobalt; mirrors originated on the Fiat Barchetta; while the differential is Cadillac CTS and the transmission courtesy of Chevrolet’s Colorado.

Issues that may be a turnoff for some individuals include the fact that to lower or raise the convertible top, one must be out of the car. The first step is to open the trunk — either by way of a glove-box-mounted release, or via the remote key fob. This releases the top side flaps, which flip up, allowing the rear-hinged deck lid to be raised manually.

Next, the windows need to be lowered and the header release handle turned to facilitate lifting the top and folding it back into the well, which further minimizes the trunk’s cargo-carrying capacity. After pushing the top down securely, the deck lid may be closed. Raising the top is a reverse procedure, with an added requirement — the top’s side flaps must be manually pressed back into place after lifting and unfolding it, returning it to the header, and turning the handle into the locked position. Simply accessing the trunk replicates the top-lowering action, as well as the final closing step.

Continuing with improvement ideas in search of perfection: the front-hinged hood’s release isn’t marked or prominent at all, and is thereby somewhat hard to locate without fumbling around under the dash. For proper closure, the hood must receive even pressure from both sides simultaneously to latch securely.

Many will perceive the Solstice to be a “chick” car, particularly as there is a vanity mirror only on the driver’s side. There’s also currently no steering-wheel adjustment. The base sticker on the test car was set at $19,420. with options elevating the final amount as tested to $25,000. Extra cost features included:

• Carpeted front floor mats.

• Air conditioning.

• Limited slip differential.

• Four-wheel ABS.

• Premium package with leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped wheel and redundant radio controls.

• Polished aluminum wheels.

• Monsoon audio system.

• AM/FM radio with in-dash six-disc CD changer and MP3 player. XM satellite radio.

• Power Package with power door locks, windows and outside rear view mirrors, plus remote keyless entry.

• Convenience Package with cruise control, driver information center, steering-wheel-mounted cruise and driver info center controls and integrated fog lamps.

Adding to the “eye-candy” appeal appeal of the Solstice are the twin honeycomb grille inserts and matching rear lower valance, the “cat’s-eye” headlamps, unique taillamp treatment with large, single right-side exhaust and bright (painted) effect windshield surround.

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