An Aggressive Red 2006 Pontiac Solstice arrived in our garage this afternoon, so we huffed and puffed and put the manual top down and set out to vent a little road rage in the San Francisco sun.
From the outside, the latest GM two-seater looks very sexy, with flared wheel arches and front fenders, gleaming 18-inch alloy wheels, and a split honeycomb front grille. And inside, the Solstice continues to walk the sports-car walk, with a short manual gear stick, red-on-white racing dials for the tach and speedometer, and a redline inviting drivers to venture up to 6,900 revs before shifting. Leather bucket seats, chrome-trimmed dials, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel add a refined footnote to the sporty script.
But behind the cosmetics, the Solstice is a less of a hot rod than its looks suggest--more of a sports-car simulator than the real thing. The first suggestion that it has more bark than bite is its low resting heartbeat: the thing idles at around 800 revs, meaning that it takes a whole lot of effort to get it up to any kind of attack speed. First gear seems to go on forever, and those driving in the city will find little use for anything higher than second, as the Solstice lacks the torque in third gear to keep up with the traffic flow. And the gearbox fails to redeem itself even when driven like a sports car; our senior car tech editor, Wayne Cunningham, found that his major complaint with the car was its inability to deliver a smooth transition when accelerating through the gears at speed. Running the Solstice up to 5,000 revs in second gear, then shifting to third causes the engine to plunge down to less than 3,000rpm with a dramatic loss of power.
The Solstice's manual shifter is in keeping with the rest of the car. From the outside, it looks like a sporty, short-throw stick, but this is a cosmetic device, as the transmission is anchored way beneath the part of the shifter visible to the driver, making for longer-travel shifts. Despite these gripes, the Solstice is really a fun drive, mainly thanks to its outstanding handling and suspension. Throwing the car through a series of twisting roads overlooking the Pacific Ocean, we were impressed with the responsiveness of the power rack-and-pinion steering and the firm feel of the four-wheel independent suspension and Bilstein monotube shocks. With the gas pedal floored, the Solstice makes a nice guttural sound when held to more than 4,000rpm, and it is here that the engine, and its driver, is happiest.
We didn't expect much in the way of cabin tech on the Solstice, so we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with XM Satellite Radio (with track, artist, and category labels), as well as an MP3-friendly six-disc in-dash CD changer, and an auxiliary input jack allowed us to hook up our Creative Zen portable MP3 player. Sound quality from the optional seven-speaker Monsoon premium audio system is adequate; a subwoofer located behind the passenger seat kicks out a solid bass line, but range is limited, especially with the top down.
GM's Driver Information Center nestled in a dot-matrix LCD in the instrument panel displays trip information, current gas mileage, and range to empty. Our car was equipped with optional OnStar and a range of other optional packages, which gave us cruise control, air conditioning, ABS, and (rather incredibly for an option) power windows.
Unsurprisingly for a soft-top roadster, there is very little cargo space in the Solstice. Other than a couple of CDs and a pair of sunglasses, which you can cram into a compartment directly behind the driver's seat, the only luggage that can be accommodated is a can of soda.
This is not a car in which you would want to commute to work or take on a long road trip, and the car's performance may not live up to its initial promise, but for a blast around on a summer afternoon, the Pontiac Solstice is a fun drive.