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Technology & Systems


Pontiac's Sexy Solstice Guarunteed to Brighten Your Life
By Andrew Gardner; photos by the author
Sep 17, 2005, 01:41 PST
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Big things can come in small packages. And big things can make small packages. The Solstice can attest to both truths. That the big thing - General Motors - has made a small package is self-evident. But not all small cars are created equal; not all small cars are endowed by their creator with the qualities necessary to make them "big," or great. An individual car's qualities must be carefully weighed before asserting that the first truth here applies. The Solstice wins out big time by delivering on what counts, but there are certainly weighty cons to consider. To the scales, then, ladies and gentlemen.



Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Solstice embodies these certain unalienable rights. The ownership of such a vehicle is one's own Declaration of Independence. Your ability to have one implies or creates a freedom from excessive responsibility; the severe lack of trunk space and pure impossibility of carrying more than one passenger quite forces you to leave it all behind. The adequate interior room greatly overshadowed by the infinite headroom offered by the lowering of the manual convertible top creates a very physical sense of freedom; it's a metaphorical yet real removal of boundaries. Stepping into the Solstice after having lowered the top is indeed a liberating exercise.



The third right (or left), the pursuit of happiness, is best carried out on a windy road, and best with a capable automobile. Fortunately, the Solstice behaves very much like a roadster; it is and it feels lightweight, though 2860 pounds is certainly not ultra-lightweight. It is nimble, sharp, and quick in its lateral excursions. Turn-in is very positive, body roll is under control, and balance is superb – fore/aft weight distribution is very nearly 50/50. The Solstice dances with the winding road very easily, very happily, responding so keenly to your steering inputs with its 16.4:1 steering ratio. It digs in quite well. It adjusts its line properly to throttle input, tightening its line at lift off, and opening up the line or drifting at smooth throttle input. You can get the rear end out easily enough, though certainly not too easily, with a jerk of the wheel and deep stab of the throttle. Or you can bring the car up to its limits of adhesion under heavy throttle in a corner and lift off abruptly, and the rear end will come about to say hello, and then you simply counter-steer and get it back in line. It does what you want, beautifully.



This behavior is the result of a good suspension setup, but first the result of a good chassis. The Solstice’s frame starts with completely hydroformed rails – a unique trait the Solstice shares with the Corvette. Other structural members and brackets are MIG-welded to the main rails. The transmission tunnel is reinforced to boost chassis strength. The strong structure, with a bending frequency of 20.8 hertz and a torsional frequency of 18.8 hertz, is not quite amazing – that’s a lot less stiff than a good sports sedan, but then those have have closed tops. The Solstice’s chassis is right on par with other roadsters, and it is strong enough that engineers designed the body to be non-load bearing. This resulted in a body designed purely for looks, so the production car is a dead ringer for the concept.



With a sturdy chassis in place, engineers were able to setup the tune very well, certainly stiff enough to allow such great turning behavior and yet producing a very comfortable ride. The Solstice features forged aluminum short-long arm upper and lower control arms, with coil springs and Bilstein monotube shocks. The balance of the design is a bit more everyday driver than weekend racecar, but still Toyota Camry lovers would complain some about the bumpiness. The rear end is just a little bit too tipsy relative to the front, exhibiting perhaps a bit too much vertical displacement and a transitional roll period that lasts too long. The slightly softer rear end makes for a more stable vehicle, not prone to twitchiness, while the solid front keeps the turn wheels well planted and fairly evenly loaded, so the turn-in is fantastic. The sum, the net behavior of the car as it travels as a single cohesive unit is that this is stable but very controllable, to the point where you can force it to be seemingly out of control yet bring it back in line.



At speed, the freedom you experience in removing the top is coupled with the freedom the air then feels to join you in the cockpit. It is refreshing but a bit intrusive. The Solstice is drop-dead sexy, simply one of the most appreciable designs on the road, and part of the appeal is a roofline that is low and that slopes down towards the front. Thus, the windshield header is not high enough to keep the wind completely off the heads of taller people, and the "V" between the front of the side windows and the corners of the windshield lets in some air which flows into some outboard portion of your head and/or shoulder, depending on your height. This is the first Solstice annoyance.



The second annoyance is with the transmission. With the clutch in, as you shift from first to second, you get a soft impact sensation through your hand; it seems there may be a clearance issue between the shift linkage - with the bottom of the lever arm in the particular locations in which it resides in on its way into second gear - and the driveshaft (potentially). We can go on to complain about the level of noise from the rest of the powertrain that comes into the interior, but that would be silly because this is intended to be a purist roadster, a car with a light weight obtained partially through sparing use of insulating foam.



A positive on the powertrain note is that the shift linkage is good, aside from the one potential clearance issue. The feel is good and the action is clean. The shifts are long in the perspective of the Solstice's class, while the shifting is about as heavy as in the competition’s manual transmissions. The ratio of third gear seems too tall in relation to second, as acceleration takes a dive after this gear change is made. In a five-gear transmission, third should definitely not be made to feel too tall. Fourth (a 1:1 ratio) and fifth (overdrive) are for cruising and fuel economy, not third. Third is the one you use on wide, sweeping bends on your favorite road. Third gear just needs to be there for you when you suddenly find you've topped out of second gear in a corner.



The other powertrain bit - the engine - does not fair so well under a critical eye. The engine lacks guts. It does not have the power to inspire, to move. It hums along. It's a four cylinder motor, a bit smaller than the S2000's but on par with the new Miata's. It's small, but certinly dimensionally appropriate for the vehicle. The issue is evident in the name GM gives this powerplant: Ecotec. Pontiac engineers beefed up the Ecotec to handle the extra power it would produce in the Solstice, and they included features like piston-cooling oil jets and an integrated oil cooler. Yet, this engine architecture just doesn’t quite seem to be a performance motor.



Interestingly, the Ecotec looks pretty good on paper. The horsepower peak of 170, which arrives late at 6600 rpm, is certainly adequate for such a light car. More importantly, the torque peak of 166 lb-ft is at 4800 rpm. The most significant statistic, however, is that variable valve timing – a welcome addition for the Solstice’s 2.4L version of the Ecotec -  helps bring about a 3200rpm-wide window (starting at 2400rpm) where 90% of that 166 lb-ft is available. But the display of this power is poor. The engine feels reluctant to accelerate even under this feathery burden. Even with the clutch in, the motor just doesn't feel very snappy. That 150 or so lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm is barely enough to make the rear wheels chirp after dropping the clutch. And it doesn't sound very good either. It's an economy car motor. It could use a different cam, some revamped programming in the electronic powertrain control – including better response from the electronic throttle control, just simply more attention. A supercharger would be great but that's not even necessary. The motor just needs some love – the competitors’ motors got plenty. If the Solstice got that, it would be perfect.



There's two more bad points to hit before the good. The interior quality is shameful. The design is fabulous, with that sexy "L" shape in blue-gray that wraps around the shift knob and flows up to the dashboard and around the gauges. The seats look and feel very comfortable, especially clad in leather. But the plastic material on the door looks really cheap, and it fits poorly; you can easily see a gap between the door cover and the backing that wraps around the door handle. The gap between the front of the ragtop and the windshield header is significant enough to make you question whether the top is closed all the way. And there is overspray, where they tried to paint two different colors on the top of the dash - gray at the windshield horizon and tan over most of the top plane of the dash - and some tan leaked onto the gray. On  a roadster, certainly, this is close to acceptable. But GM had a chance to really wow the market with this car inside and out; with interior quality they went cheap. For owner’s, SEMA has provided a bright light: the Solstice was one of the most frequently customized car’s at this past November’s show. There must have been about 10 Solstices at the show in various states of trim, and from a variety of aftermarket companies – the Solstice rivaled literally any other production car on the market in terms of number of different companies customizing it. This car is ripe for an aftermarket interior upgrade and there will definitely be somebody willing to help with that.



The last complaint: GM was proud they were able to develop this car from a pure concept car in just over 2 years, but you pop open the trunk and see horizontal metal members about a quarter-inch in diameter. One may hope they are to help stiffen the chassis and enhance performance, but given their size one is driven to believe they are measures quickly fabricated to minimize some sort of structural vibration problem. Various wire bundles and other little functional knick-knacks are also visible in the trunk.



What, you don't like this decorational bric-a-brac? Then close the darn trunk already and go drive! The holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without tons of dazzling lights and wreaths and ornaments covering every tree and wall, and a first generation roadster wouldn’t be a roadster without some fun quirks like the stuff found in the trunk. Point is, it doesn't really matter, but it shows a lack of proper development time. On the plus side, those little horizontal members, if they are indeed vibration absorbers, are doing their job, because the Solstice rides like it was very well built. It does its roadster job very well.




On the outside, there is nothing but drop-dead sexiness. The Solstice is quite simply gorgeous, mmm-mmm-mmmmmmmmm!. Lovely scallops adorn both front fenders, and tight but smooth-topped waves flow over the rear fenders. The roofline is low and forward-sloping. The doors are mostly simple but serve as an excellent transition from the front to the rear. The Solstice knows you want it. It is such a confidently, low-slung, beautiful car. It is dressed to kill, and built to thrill.



The body panels are made of hydroformed sheet metal, an automotive industry production car first. Those sexy, deep curves are possible because hydroformed sheet metal can have deeper draws than traditional stampings. A water bath resists compression as the single die tool pushes the sheetmetal onto the water, thus forming this body you can’t stop drooling over. All but one pair of panels (and it’s a small pair at that) is made through this new process.



The Solstice’s sheetmetal even opens beautifully for you. The clamshell hood looks almost as good rotated fully about its front hinges as when it is locked into place and a part of the very complete, lovely body. The decklid pops open in a fashion similar to the hood, though is slightly less dramatic for its smaller surface area. With everything open, this car looks incredibly exotic. Can you imagine owning a machine like this for $20,000? Those curves get it real respect. It is one of the more commented-on cars on the road. It even got a big thumbs up and an approving glance from one lucky 2006 Corvette Z06 owner. It's just so sexy. It's just so far beyond almost everything else out there, and especially considering the price. You gotta love it.



So what's the balance of things? It's got very good suspension tuning; it’s a blast to drive but comfortable to ride in for extended lengths of time. The interior is poor, but that's ignorable. If you're inside the car, you should be focusing on your right to pursue happiness on any given road. If you're in the trunk, it should be momentarily to operate the top or drop in a small piece of luggage. Wanna enjoy some fine artwork? Step back from the interior, close the doors and...just...golly, look at those lines! They're almost inappropriate! It would have never had a place on Leave it to Beaver - Ms. Cleaver would have fainted at the sight of the Solstice's sensuousness.




The powertrain is weak, but shifting action is good and there's enough power to chirp the tires under acceleration, and you will have no trouble performing smoky donuts. The steering and handling are wonderful, such that it is a great joy to drive the Solstice, despite powertrain woes. It's a perfectly fun little weekend driver, or a race-to-work-the-long-way car, or drop the top and feel the wind tickle your hair and left arm and remember you're alive car. It is, literally, what any decent or better roadster is - sensational. And one can be had for just $20,000. Honestly, what else can you get for that price that offers this kind of handling? Is there anything even twice this price that could be such a sex symbol? What else can you even buy within this price range (ok, its key competitor of course, but what else?) that simply drops its top? It’s even cheap as a convertible, let alone a car that gives an amazing driving experience. There is a lot of love, a lot of value, in this tiny little package. That's why we know you will want to take one home and hold it like you’ll never let it go.





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