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 Solstice's optional seven-speaker Monsoon stereo is the only relief from a drought of cabin tech.
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.
Optional steering wheel buttons control the optional OnStar and Driver Information Center.
The bottom line with the 2006 Pontiac Solstice's interior is all about the bottom line. GM will be able to make a lot of noise about how it's offering the Solstice for less than $20,000, and on the surface, this looks like a good deal for such a handsome car. However, there are few consumers who will want to drive a brand-new car off the lot with wind-up windows and manual locks, and the optional air conditioning is essential for anyone wanting to avoid sweaty traffic jams. All told, the options on our test model came to $6,000, a substantial addition to the base price, especially considering that most of the features--ABS, CD changer, and power wing mirrors--are standard equipment on most $20,000 cars that have rolled off the production line in 2006. Even floor mats are optional on the Solstice; for God's sake, GM, can't you just include these things as standard and tack a couple of grand on the sticker price?
"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.