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MSN Preview: 2006 Pontiac Solstice

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Preview: 2006 Pontiac Solstice

by Mike Meredith

Pontiac builds an exciting, new roadster that should draw lots of attention.

When the Solstice Concept debuted at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, our immediate reaction was that this car should be built—as soon as possible. A short time later General Motors announced the Solstice would be produced by its Pontiac division. Even though nearly four years have passed since the concept debuted, GM has created the groundbreaking Solstice in record time.

The resulting Solstice remains true to the striking, distinctive design of the concept car—which is an accomplishment in itself, since the initial passion of a concept can sometimes be lost when the project transforms from paper to production. With fluid lines, aggressive fenders housing standard 18-inch wheels and tires, a high decklid with sculpted fairings behind the seats and a completely stowed convertible top, Solstice looks like nothing else on the road.

An important car for Pontiac, the 2006 Solstice is the first car to be built on GM's all-new Kappa rear-wheel-drive platform. It delivers nearly the exact look of the concept car, but also a sporty, fun driving experience.

And perhaps even more important for consumers, Solstice hits the price target—under $20,000—set by car czar Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman of global product development. Solstice pricing starts at $19,995—including destination fee.

New Ecotec Engine, Solid Platform
The 2006 Pontiac Solstice is powered by the latest variation of the 2.4-liter Ecotec inline four-cylinder engine, delivering 177 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque in the first longitudinal application of the Ecotec for the rear-wheel-drive Solstice. The 2.4L Ecotec is mated to a close ratio Aisin 5-speed manual transmission, borrowed from the Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck—yes, from a pickup truck. Pontiac paid careful attention to the linkage so shifts are quick and smooth, and if they would have never told us the origin of the transmission, we would have never guessed.

Solstice benefits from a rock-solid platform which GM refers to as a lower-dominant tube structure. The center tunnel, which houses the transmission and driveshaft, is reinforced and enclosed at the bottom to enhance stiffness.

The chassis utilizes hydroformed frame rails, which run the full length of the vehicle, combined with additional stampings to form a rigid structure on which body panels are attached. The hydroforming process, which uses water pressure to form the desired shape of the component being created, is typically used in light-duty truck frames for strength and rigidity. Solstice is the only GM car other than the Chevrolet Corvette to use an entirely hydroformed chassis.

Hydroforming also produces most of Solstice's body panels—the first such extensive use of sheet metal hydroforming for a production vehicle. Formed panels include the hood, exterior door panels, rear decklid, and quarter panels, allowing the design to remain true to the original concept.

The suspension is independent short-arm/long-arm in both front and rear, with Bilstein coil-over mono-tube shocks at all corners. The rack-and-pinion steering has traditional hydraulic power assist, rather than electric power assist, which is used on other new GM vehicles. Eighteen-inch aluminum alloy wheels with 245/45R18 Goodyear Eagle RSA are standard, along with large four-wheel disc brakes from the GM Epsilon platform, on which the Saab 9-3 is based. (General Motors owns Swedish automaker Saab Automobile AB.)

Driving Impressions: It's All Good
The Solstice is downright fun to drive, both because it attracts a lot of attention with its great styling, and because it delivers the quick, nimble driving dynamics of a satisfying sports car.

Noticeable within the first few minutes of driving, Solstice's solid, stiff platform offers a smooth, controlled ride. There is no cowl shake, even over rough surfaces, and the suspension works well to control the car, soaking up whatever the road surface delivers.

The car feels balanced with a front-to-rear weight distribution of nearly 50/50, and the steering is very quick. There is no traditional 'steering feel' or direct feedback, but the steering response is very true and consistent, holding steady through the corner with no bump-steer on rough surfaces.

The smooth, precise clutch take-up makes it easy to get Solstice rolling from a standstill, and enables clean gear changes at speed. The direct, positive shift linkage has short throws between gears and provides definitive feedback when shifted to the next gear. It may take a little more effort than some competitors—the Honda S2000, for example—but the result is a very confident shifting experience.

The firm brake pedal needs little movement even for aggressive braking, which creates a solid platform for heel-and-toe downshifts—great for drivers who might employ this technique. The direct throttle response of the 2.4L Ecotec delivers enough power for spirited acceleration from a standstill and fun through the corners. Since no sports car enthusiast will ever argue against more power, undoubtedly there will be some drivers complaining that Solstice needs more horsepower to deliver on its promise.

At highway speeds it's tempting to leave Solstice in fourth gear for better throttle response, because in fifth gear it feels pretty flat at 60 to 70 mph, but that has big impact of fuel economy. The 2.4L Ectotec works well overall, delivering an estimated fuel economy of 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined.

Only the 5-speed manual transmission is available at launch. Hard-core driving enthusiasts will argue that an automatic transmission isn't even necessary for this type of car; however true that might be, a 5-speed automatic will be offered later in the 2006 model year.

Tight, twisty two-lane roads reveal Solstice's true agility, with quick response from both steering and throttle. In fact, the throttle can be used to steer: smoothly lifting off the throttle mid-corner tucks the front of the car in to tighten up the line as naturally as can be. The side-to-side transition between corners is quite smooth, without the need to pause the steering in a neutral position before entering the next corner.

Sleek Styling
The Solstice has a cloth soft-top that stows completely under the rear decklid—a unique feature among direct competitors such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata or Toyota MR2 Spyder. The dual fairings that rise up behind each seat are a distinct styling element contributing to the overall aggressive look of the car. But this styling comes at a price in terms of cargo space. Once the top gets stowed beneath the decklid, the minimal 3.8 cubic feet of storage available with the top up shrinks to enough room for two small, soft-sided bags. Toss in a medium-size camera bag and a backpack and the space is at its limit.

The manually operated top is easy to use, although it does require being outside the vehicle. Pulling the lever releases the two rear buttresses that fold forward to allow the rear-hinged decklid to open. The top then folds completely into the storage area and the decklid gets shut, completely covering any sign of the top.

With the top in the closed position, the glass rear window (with integrated defroster) is in a vertical position, offering drivers surprisingly good rearward visibility and minimal blind spots for a convertible top.

For drivers under six feet tall, Solstice has a comfortable compartment with sport-style seats that offer good lateral support. For drivers over six feet it's a tight fit, but with some careful seat and steering wheel adjustments there is as much room as any comparable car.

The driver-oriented interior has a cockpit-style design that wraps around the driver. The instrument panel features two large, deep binnacles housing the tachometer and speedometer. All controls fall easily to hand with the mirror adjustment and window switches on the door panels; headlight and wiper controls on stalks behind the steering wheel; and climate and audio controls on a center stack that flows into the center console. Three twist knobs control air flow and temperature, and the audio system has straightforward controls that don't require the owner's manual for operation.

Driving toward the sun low on the horizon in the early morning, we encountered a reflective line in the windshield from the change in surface between the face of the dash and the upper dash panel, which made it a little difficult to see when going in and out of shaded areas.

Rob the Parts Bin; Focus on the Important Parts
An interesting aspect of building the Solstice in the shortest period of time—and hitting the Lutz price target—was the use of as many existing components as possible for parts that did not need to be created new, while still maintaining the character of the original concept.

To that end, Solstice's uses the fog lights from the Pontiac Grand Prix, the backup lights from the GMC Envoy, the mirrors from a Fiat (GM holds an equity stake in Italian automaker Fiat Auto S.p.A.), the heating and air conditioning controls from the Hummer H3, the transmission from the Colorado truck, and the rear axle from the Cadillac CTS.

According to Solstice vehicle line director Darren Post, using existing parts for these types of components allowed GM to direct more time and money toward the ride and performance, and to include components such as the Bilstein coil-over mono-tube shocks, properly weighted power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, a short-throw shift linkage and eighteen-inch wheels.

From our perspective, attention was focused on the right areas to deliver a vehicle that lives up to the excitement created by the original concept in 2002.

As stated earlier, the 2006 Solstice begins at $19,995, including destination fee. Standard equipment includes racing-inspired sport bucket seats, a leather-wrapped shift knob, an AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers, a rear window defogger, rake-adjustable steering, a cloth convertible top with a glass rear window, and dual front airbags.

Option packages include a Power package (power door locks, power windows, power mirrors and remote keyless entry), a Convenience package (cruise control, driver information center and fog lights), and a Premium package (leather seating surfaces in either Ebony or Steel/Sand two-tone, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering-wheel-mounted radio controls). Other options include air conditioning, carpeted floor mats, an MP3-capable audio system, a Monsoon Premium seven-speaker system, OnStar, and XM Satellite Radio.

Although Solstice will never be a high-volume car, it comes to market as an example of what General Motors, and Pontiac in particular, can deliver in terms of new-car styling, performance, and quality. It's fair to say that many eyes will be watching the Solstice to see what to expect in more mainstream cars. MSN Autos had an early chance to drive the Solstice. We think sports car enthusiasts will like what we found, and the promise it holds for future cars from General Motors.

Another Favorable review... http://autos.msn.com/advice/article.aspx?c...=LP%20Passenger

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