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.