You can thank General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz for this recurring dream. A fetching red roadster whizzes along the historic highway snaking through the Columbia River Gorge. It's a blissful top-down day with minimal traffic, zero enforcement, and corners galore. A spunky four-banger hums merrily on its way to 7000 rpm. The steering is crisp, the chassis trained to charm every bend. The driver's psyche is in sync with the roadster's rhythm.
Twenty-three years ago, when this dream began, Lutz saw himself driving a cute Ghia Barchetta that Ford would sell for $8500. That inspiration was shipped to Australia for manufacturing, where it devolved into the mediocre Mercury Capri. Unfulfilled, Lutz dreamed on during his Chrysler stint. The 1997 Dodge Copperhead and the 1998 Plymouth Pronto Spyder concepts accurately captured the gist of his vision-a sports car for the masses-but neither mustered sufficient momentum to drive off the show stand.Four years ago, when Lutz joined GM, his dream seeds found fertile soil. Seizing an opportunity to revitalize Pontiac's tired blood, Lutz challenged GM's global design staff to a crash contest. The winning entry-sketched by Franz von Holzhausen-was selected to roll across the stage at the 2002 Detroit auto show as the Pontiac Solstice.
Fast-forward to a heavenly summer day on Oregon's Historic Columbia River Highway. The third try was the charm, and Lutz is watching real Solstice sports cars strafe some of America's most entertaining back roads. One notable deviation from the dream is that the happy faces savoring the red roadster are ours, not just his. Another divergence is that this is a true Double-Mint moment, because two sweet sports cars are vying for $20,000 investors at precisely the same time.
So we've gathered up our freshest driving impressions and test results to resolve the obvious issues: Is GM capable of building a world-class, lightweight sports car? And does the Solstice stack up to the classically excellent Mazda MX-5?
If this were a beauty contest, the Solstice would pocket all the marbles. Top down, it gushes charisma by the drum. The side view looks like a Hot Wheels for adults with tires too big for its britches. The nose and rump have the sexiest curves this side of Hollywood and Vine. Retro head fairings provide an artistic alternative to seatbacks that jut out like tombstones. Von Holzhausen-who, ironically, has moved on to Mazda-created something special here, and GM deserves kudos for preserving the purity he penned four years ago.
The cockpit mood is simple and inviting. The seat-bottom cushions are a little soft for our tastes, but the backrest bolsters cuddle the ribs just right. The shifter, pedals, and left-foot rest have been spotted by someone who comprehends that sports cars aren't just for profiling. Low seats and an ascending beltline make you feel as if you're wearing a metal turtleneck, but the beauty of this ensemble is revealed upon reaching escape velocity: raise the windows, set the climate control, and you can cruise comfortably for hours on end in the low-turbulence cockpit. The high sides and head fairings hold the wind at bay without spoiling the view.
On Portland freeways, the Solstice came across as an easy-riding, half-asleep softie. To rouse the genie within, we took the first exit toward the gorge and dropped the shift lever down two gears. Moving the steering wheel a few degrees off center cues the front tires to shake hands with the pavement. Throttling the tach needle over 3000 rpm wakes up the 2.4-liter, 177-hp Ecotec I-4 for road games.
By the third corner, we were tuned in to what Lutz has been dreaming about all these years: the simple joys of sun in your hair, a secluded byway going nowhere, and an exercise machine between you and the pavement. The Solstice's steering effort builds in a smooth, even crescendo. Turn the wheel, and the chassis takes an arc as if it's reading your mind. Determined gas-pressure dampers hold the body flat and maintain a steady frame of reference. The steering's sensitivity, response, and feedback clearly have been calibrated by true friends of the road.
Long before his roadster dream began, Lutz worked at BMW, where properly groomed suspensions are standard operating procedure. Some of his insights have been successfully passed on to Steve Padilla, the GM engineer responsible for ride and handling, who added his own gymkhana and road-racing experience. The result is a Solstice too good to be a Pontiac.
To probe the deeper reaches of this roadster's character, we pressed the pedals harder. The eighteen-inch Goodyear Eagle RSA four-season radials hang tight, but their absolute grip is less impressive than the car's behavior at the hairy end of its handling rope. Beyond the long, linear range, there's mild understeer. This is your clue that cornering nirvana can't last forever. After due warning, the front of the car slips wide. Dial in a touch more lock, and the rear tires will hit their limit, but the Solstice never scolds an aggressive driver. Lift, and the front tires recover. Add throttle, and the rear drifts wider. Dab the brakes, and nothing untoward happens. En-counter a mid-corner bump, and the dampers soak up the disturbance without shaking the chassis's set.
Give partial credit for this behavior to robust underpinnings. The Solstice is built on a steel spaceframe consisting of four hydroformed tubes and several stamped panels stitched together by welds and adhesives. The Corvette pioneered this construction in 1997, but the Solstice goes a step further by adding hydroformed skin. All the steel that wears paint, except for the small panels behind the front wheels, is shaped by presses employing 2000 to 4000 psi of water pressure.
This is more innovation and risk taking than we're used to from GM, but it doesn't end there. To help meet the $20,000-base-price target and to trim fourteen months out of the gestation process, Solstice engineers performed crash tests with advanced mathematical analysis instead of running prototypes. Using hand welding instead of robotized tools saved additional investment. To avoid having to reinvent the wheel, many of the Solstice's constituent parts-seats, mirrors, instrument cluster, switches, controls-were drawn from existing parts bins.
These creative shortcuts inflicted only a few shortcomings. The hydroformed spaceframe is rock solid and shows no hint of cowl shake, itchy trim, or door rattle. GM claims that the Solstice's exterior detailing-such as the artfully creased clamshell hood-is beyond the capability of conventional presses. After a few days of studying the roadster from every photographic angle, we know that those who bathe their cars by hand will achieve ecstasy caressing these surfaces.
The major downer is weight. Mazda engineers whittled and shaved the MX-5 until they got it down to a svelte 2489 pounds. The Solstice has a 20 percent larger engine and casts a 5 percent larger shadow, but the fast-build process allowed no time for dieting, so it hugs the road with 2879 pounds. The extra weight pushes the 0-to-60-mph run over seven seconds and adds deliberation to the Solstice's best moves. Third gear is sluggish. Less is always more when you're talking sports cars and curb weight. Fortunately, there's a 250-hp turbo Solstice warming up in the wings to take full advantage of all the substance engineered into this chassis.
The crazy-quilt bill of materials worked out better than expected. Everything you see and touch harmonizes nicely. Opel Corsa bucket seats have been modified for extra support and trimmed to look and feel at home. The dash and instrument cluster have attractive finishes and snug fits. A handy storage compartment, borrowed from the Cadillac XLR, resides between the seatbacks. There are three cup holders, storage pockets sewn to the forward edges of the seat cushions, and slots molded into the threshold trim for pens and coins. Our gripe list contains two items: the knobs that adjust seatback angle are inaccessible with the doors latched, and the tunnels housing the tachometer and speedometer are skewed toward eyeballs in the sky.
One of the toughest problems to solve was how to build a convertible top that delivered the original show car's promise. Mimicking Ferrari and BMW cabriolets, the Solstice has a soft roof with flying buttresses. The look is smashing in the stowed position, less attractive erect. Raising and lowering the ragtop takes a minute or two with the car stopped and consists of half a dozen easy steps. Contrast that with the MX-5 process, which is functionally equivalent to flipping your hoodie at the onset of rain; it's a one-hand operation easily completed at a stoplight.
The less said about the Solstice's trunk, the better. With the top erect and the rear-hinged deck lid up, you'll see a large carpeted box parked in the middle of the cargo hold. That's a 13.8-gallon fuel tank with nowhere else to go. You can cram duffels around it as long as they don't exceed a measly 3.8 cubic feet. Stowing the top consumes most of that space. With the top down, your luggage must be small enough to slip through an eight-inch slot behind the fuel tank.
Like the MX-5, the Solstice is lots of car for the money. The $19,995-base-price dream came true. Load in all the Premium (trim), Power (assists), and Convenience packages plus the freestanding options, and the sticker just barely tops $25,000. Naturally, Pontiac dealers will expect a generous tip for allowing you to purchase one of the 15,000 or so Solstices scheduled for production during the coming twelve months (7116 were "presold" in the ten days following a cameo role on NBC's The Apprentice reality opera). With a planned annual volume of 20,000 to 30,000 cars, it won't take long for supply and demand to align so that you won't have to spend silly money to buy into Lutz's dream.
So where does this leave the Solstice versus the MX-5? The featherlight MX-5 wins most performance categories, but the margins of victory aren't enough to matter. Visually, there's no contest: the Mazda is the spitting image of its 1989 forefather, the Solstice a 1955 California Special sports racer buffed up for life in the current millennium. Odd as it may seem, our crystal ball says that Hollywood starlets-in-waiting soon will be lining up at Pontiac dealers.
The crux of the matter is which roadster delivers the better drive.
Consider the MX-5 the hummingbird of the two, bursting with nervous energy, buzzing with anticipation for the chase, always hinting "Let's go!" through a hyperactive steering wheel. It's delightfully light on its toes and begs to be tossed into every bend. Consistent with Mazda's zoom-zoom prerogatives, the new MX-5 is tuned to entertain, with an engine that wails the high notes, a resilient structure, and an underdamped suspension. With lighthearted driving fun as its only priority, the MX-5 expects the driver to pay attention and to supply timely corrections. This is the Lotus Elan that won't stain your garage floor or leave you stranded.
The Solstice is, by comparison, a barn swallow, smooth and swift in low-level flight, highly agile, able to zig-zag at speed. It has fine feathers and a subtly sweet song. But what we admire most are this bird's heart, soul, and substance. The spaceframe provides an unyielding stage for the steering and suspension to shine. The two-way communication through the wheel is in the enthusiast's exclusive dialect. The damping is dead dependable, the behavior at the cornering limit rewarding whether you're a novice driver or an inveterate speed addict. This is the Pontiac that thinks it's a Porsche.
As always, we reserve the right to change our minds. After we clock these contenders on a racetrack and let them live in our garage a few months, the standings may differ. But today the bouquet goes to the Pontiac Solstice.