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The star of Disney-Pixar's summer blockbuster Cars is a red two-seater called Lightning McQueen, a good-looking race car with a whole lot of bluster but not a lot of depth. Were it not for the fact that Lightning is, well, lightning quick, he might as well have been called Solstice McQueen. Like Lightning, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is an impressive car on the surface--our red test model turned heads all week with its flared arches, chrome grille, and gleaming 18-inch alloy wheels--but underneath, we found it wanting in character.
The Pontiac Solstice's 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder sounded good when pushed into the higher rev bands, but the car's performance failed to live up to the soundtrack. Poor gear ratios and an agricultural transmission have drivers constantly downshifting to keep the revs high enough to run with the traffic, while highway driving is equally laborious, as there is little torque to spare for changing lanes or passing.
When eventually coaxed up to speed, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice handles admirably, and a combination of wide wheel placement and solid suspension means that it eats corners and chicanes for breakfast--but don't expect to catapult out of a bend. In the cabin, Pontiac's premium seven-speaker Monsoon sound system (a $495 option) delivers a solid bass line via a subwoofer behind the passenger but little refinement at higher ranges, which is where you will need to keep it if driving on the highway, as the Solstice turned out to be one of the noisiest cars we've driven.
The base-model Solstice ($19,915) is perhaps as stripped down as a new car can get: There are not many cars on the market today that come with manual windows, manual wing mirrors, and manual door locks. Our test model came loaded with options, including the Premium Package (leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and redundant radio controls) for $695; the Convenience Package (cruise control, a driver information center, and steering wheel controls) for $465; the Power Package (power door locks and remote keyless entry) for $625; an air-conditioning system for $960; 18-inch alloy wheels for $545; ABS for $400; the Monsoon audio system for $395; XM Satellite Radio for $195; one year of OnStar for $695; a limited-slip rear differential for $195; and an acoustic headliner for $60. After punching all that into a calculator and adding a $575 destination charge, we could drive our model off the lot for $26,490.
The 2006 Pontiac Solstice is more of a car you wear than a car you drive. After gymnastically installing oneself in the cockpit, there is little room for anything other than a couple of CDs for the ride (to be stored in a tiny compartment between the two seats) and a can of soda, which can be stowed in a pop-out cup-holder tray also in the center console. With the top up, there is adequate clearance overhead for six-footers, but taller drivers will almost certainly need to scoot the seat back as far as possible to use the pedals, especially given the frequency that the clutch is called into action (see Performance).
Our Solstice came with optional leather seats, which provided a snug embrace, especially when throwing the car around corners, although they offered little ventilation, and long periods waiting in traffic became an uncomfortably sticky ordeal. Customers wanting to feel--as well as look--cool in the Solstice have to fork out an extra $1,000 for the car's mediocre air-conditioning system, which is controlled via one of three dials in the center dash.
As with all roadsters, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice is best driven with the top down, which involves a relatively laborious manual procedure to squash the canvas canopy down far enough to be able to close the trunk. Unlike Mazda's 2006 MX-5 Miata, the Solstice cannot be converted without opening the trunk, which is a pain if it suddenly starts to rain while stuck in traffic or--as we found--if burning up in direct sunlight. With the roof in the boot, there is just enough cargo room for two half-full grocery bags.
Despite the laundry list of options that came with our Solstice, the cabin was conspicuously spartan in terms of onboard tech. The head unit for the optional seven-speaker Monsoon stereo system provides a basic interface, including EQ controls, a number of preset buttons, and standard audio-navigation toggle switches. On a positive note, the system supports MP3 and WMA playback and provides detailed ID3-tag information for track, artist, and folder on demand via an information button. Navigation of folders and files is intuitive, as is the selection of the optional XM Satellite Radio.
The system also offers an auxiliary input jack in the front of the head unit to enable the connection of iPods and other portable MP3 players. Perhaps as a response to the open-top acoustics and the amount of noise that the 2006 Pontiac Solstice makes on the freeway (we recorded 89dB with the top up), the stereo sound quality is extremely robust (read: bass heavy), mainly due to a subwoofer installed directly behind the passenger's seat. At higher ranges, the sound quality tails off, especially with the top down.
GM's Driver Information Center is (quelle surprise!) optional on the Pontiac Solstice and controlled by a button on the steering wheel that cycles through a list of data shown via a dot-matrix display in the center of the speedometer, including average gas mileage, range to empty, and average speed. Other steering wheel buttons include stereo track/folder/radio channel and volume controls, as well ones for the optional cruise control. Neither navigation nor Bluetooth integration is available.