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.