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What the Toronto Star thinks of Solstice

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Hey — good looking!
Pontiac Solstice feels right in urban setting

Slow on the track, but it's still one hot car
Nov. 12, 2005. 01:00 AM

I can't remember a car that I wanted to love more than the Pontiac Solstice.

I stood on my feet and cheered in 2002 when Bob Lutz, who was then GM's product boss, drove it out onto the big stage at the Detroit auto show.

A year later, I did the same all over again when the company announced that not only would it build the Solstice, but that it would be built on a unique rear-drive platform specifically engineered for lightweight, two-seat sports cars.

See the Solstice on the road — finally! — and it looks like a concept car come to life. None of the original car's curves seem to have been toned down for production; it still swoops and bulges in all the right places.

The car's stance is just right, on giant — and standard-fit — 18-inch wheels and tires.

Drive down the 401 and people gawk and point; they weave in and out of traffic to get closer to you; they slow down as they pull alongside to give you the big thumbs-up.

It's pretty gorgeous inside, too. The original Solstice concept's interior was clean to the point of being stark, and the production version has stayed true to its origins.

Too true, one could argue. The design still looks superb, with a giant swooping dashboard divided by a swath of contrasting colour that clearly defines the driver's compartment from the rest of the cabin.

But in terms of everyday usability, the Solstice's interior comes up short. Other than a tiny bin between the two riders, and a couple of pockets on the front edges of the seat cushions, there is zero storage space.

Ah, but it's easy to forgive foibles like this on a sports car that looks as great as the Solstice.

Once you've fired up its burbly 177 hp, 2.4-litre engine, slotted the precise five-speed Aisin shifter into first, and pulled out onto the road, you're likely to forget any frustrations about your cargo.

The car feels just right in an urban setting, its suspension doing a surprisingly good job at soaking up bumps big and small, the engine offering a wide band of torque that you can surf no matter what gear you're in and the steering and brakes feel alert and responsive.

At most speeds, right up to a highway cruise — you'll notice the huge gulf between fourth and fifth gears getting there — the Solstice is a flattering car to drive, moving eagerly but smoothly with your inputs, feeling quick and responsive, if not downright fast.

Which is where this all would have ended had not Pontiac brought a bunch of Solstices last month to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's annual Car of the Year TestFest.

One of the best things about the event is not only the opportunity to drive every car in a certain class back to back with its newest competitors, but also to spend time on Shannonville racetrack evaluating their behaviour in more extreme conditions than you may encounter on the street.

While the Solstice was a pleasant, fun car to drive on public roads, it was quite a handful on the track.

In damp conditions, its rear end would skip sideways with very little provocation, even in very gentle, large-radius corners. It would struggle to put down the power even in a straight line.

The shifter refused to be rushed between gears, and the car would wobble on its relatively soft suspension with every shift.

To be fair to Pontiac, the Solstice is not a track car, nor will most of its buyers likely subject their vehicles to track abuse in the way that, say, owners of Honda Civic Sis and Mazda MX-5s will.

But it remained the only car in its class whose keys I didn't grab for another go when the track finally became empty.

Maybe the anticipation over the past few years, waiting for the Solstice to hit the market, had built up an unrealistic set of expectations.

The car was so hot back then in Detroit that you could hear it sizzle; its stance, its low-slung interior, huggy seats, curvy styling, maybe made promises that no car, really, could ever keep.

To offer an extreme sports car with such an eye-popping price — less than $26,000 for the prettiest car of the year! — was always going to be a monumental challenge.

So my disappointment with the Solstice must be tempered by the fact that I'm glad it simply exists, that I think its mere presence in the automotive landscape has already made the world a better place.

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