2006 Pontiac Solstice

Don Sherman
Brian Konoske

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.

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