2006 Pontiac Solstice review:

2006 Pontiac Solstice

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"Is that a General Motors product?" asked a passerby as we labored to put the Solstice's manual top down. His bemusement is well founded: From every angle, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice looks like it will drive like the wind. Flared wheel arches and front fenders, gleaming 18-inch alloy wheels, and a split honeycomb front grille give the Solstice an aggressive persona, which turned heads everywhere we went. For the first-time driver climbing into the cockpit, the promise of driving pleasure is continued with red-on-white racing dials for the tachometer and the speedometer, as well as a short shifter begging the driver to push the car up to its 6,900 redline. Alas, the racing fantasy lasts only as long as the Solstice remains at rest--the Pontiac Solstice does not drive anywhere near as good as it looks.

Red-on-white racing dials promise more than the Solstice's engine can deliver.

The specs told us that the Pontiac Solstice's variable-valve-timed Ecotec engine puts out 177 horsepower, but the 2.4-liter four-cylinder power plant barely produced enough torque to keep the car going at low revs. Driving in city traffic, we found that that Solstice was slow to get up to speed in first and second gears--both of which had to be held way more than 3,000rpm to come to life--and that third gear was next to useless at speeds of less than 30mph, again due to lack of torque.

According to Pontiac, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice's gear ratios "provide just the right revolutions-per-minute dip between shifts during maneuvers, allowing for quick acceleration." This is patent nonsense in our experience. Whenever we attempted to change up at speed, the engine plunged down to less than 3,000 revs, resulting in a dramatic loss of power. For any maneuver requiring the Solstice suddenly to increase speed, a downshift is almost invariably required, making urban driving a constant fight with the shifter and blowing a big hole in the car's gas mileage.

The Pontiac Solstice's short, sporty-looking, leather-wrapped manual gear stick is yet another cause for disappointment. While the shifter looks like it is set up for quick, snappy throws, the reality is that half the stick is buried beneath its setting in the center console. This means that the shifts are much longer and less nimble than first impressions suggest. We found that we often had to force the car into gear when shifting and that the Solstice emitted an unhealthy-sounding gear rattle at lower speeds.

On first appearances, the shifter looks like it will provide snappy gear changes; in reality, the gearbox is far more agricultural.

When finally coaxed up to speed, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice becomes a bit more user-friendly. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is firm and responsive, and the as-standard, four-wheel independent SLA suspension and optional limited-slip rear differential made us feel like we were on rails when attacking the twisting roads of San Francisco's Presidio national park.

The EPA says that the Solstice's Ecotec engine will get 20mpg in the city and 28mpg on the highway. In more than 180 miles of mixed highway and city driving, we observed an average of 15.7mpg. While we have to admit to using a relatively heavy right foot at times, this was mainly in an effort to keep the revs high enough to retain some control over performance and prevent the car from stalling when shifting up.

The only active safety features on the 2006 Pontiac Solstice are daytime running lights and seat-belt pretensioners that cause the seat belt to tighten if the vehicle senses an accident or when the vehicle stops short. Passive safety includes four-wheel disc brakes as standard and the optional ABS; not including ABS as standard is a major black mark against the Solstice's safety.

Both driver and passenger get dual-stage front air bags but no side or curtain air-bag protection. Our test model came with the $695 option of a one-year subscription to GM's OnStar Safe and Sound plan, which provides drivers with assistance in the event of an accident, vehicle theft, or being locked out. As of the time of this writing, the Solstice had not been rated by the NHTSA for impact or rollover safety.

On the warranty side, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice comes with GM's standard three-year/36,000-mile protection, which covers the complete vehicle including tires, and a six-year/100,000-mile corrosion protection.

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