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Pontiac Solstice - Suntan motion


On days like these, the alarm clock does not offend quite as much. Getting up early is actually enjoyable and the morning coffee tastes that much more refreshing. And there is something in the air that makes you murmur to yourself, ‘This is going to be a good day’. 

I don’t quite know what it is about roadsters, but every time I am scheduled to drive one, I end up doing the whole ‘great day ahead’ routine. Nature is at her best, and out in the great wide open, you would give a damn for the dynamic envelope. A missing roof is sometimes worth 100 bhp. What’s more, on a perfect day, a roadster will even fool you into believing that everything is just right with the world. 

Anyway, back to reality. We were in Rochester, Michigan. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the only weather protection we needed was sun cream. We were here to drive the General’s prodigal son – the Solstice. 

Built on the new Kappa platform, the Solstice has gone from an idea to concept in 14 weeks. What’s more, in just nine months after its first public appearance at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, it has become a driving reality. And it was here today in body and flesh (okay, sheet metal and trim) for us to take in some wholesome Vitamin D.  

But in my first few miles in the all-American alternative to the Mazda Miata, I am surprised as to how non-American the whole driving experience is turning out to be. Not to mention that the equipment is a complete antithesis to the Pontiacs of yesteryear. Firstly, the motor has half the number of cylinders of what is the norm this side of the Atlantic. Yet, there is a hint of the characteristic torque from the 2384cc, 177 bhp four-pot motor. But the chassis is from a different continent altogether. Borrowed from GM’s European division (VX220) the extremely talkative chassis is making for some  unbelievable conversation. 

It happens right from the moment you clamber aboard – no, actually you sit on the ground and slide the car under you! Even on the narrow double yellow Rochester black tops, the sparkling dynamics beg you to explore the twilight zone between grip and slide. Also, since you don’t walk into the car, but wear it, the entire car seems to pivot about you with the steering wheel (small and thin-rimmed as it is) sending all the right messages. 

What’s even better is that even though it’s a sportscar, it’s without the added character of snappy clutches and vein-popping steering. The clutch is light, the gearlever is an easy moving little stump of a thing and everything is proportional to the effort you use. But don’t think of this as a hair dresser’s convertible, it’s big enough to accommodate an NFL quarterback – though once inside, he wouldn’t necessarily be the happiest guy around. Because that’s where there are some serious issues.   For one, the interiors have worse plastics than I have seen on some Fisher-Price toys and your elbows need to have fingers if you need to get the windows down. Not to mention that the cupholders popped out every time I moved my right arm. As for the instrument cluster, well I have seen better clusters on scale models. These are not errors that you’d expect from the biggest car maker in the world.  

And when you are thundering down the road on your favourite bit of coastline, and the heavens suddenly open, you need to pull over, pop open the rear, pull the cover out, slam the boot back, lock it in place, get back in the car and twist the windshield latch. Okay, so it isn’t the simplest bit. Or the most convenient.

Yet it’s easy to forgive these fundamental errors. It is a driver’s car alright. Now, I am not a phenomenal driver, but in this car you just don’t need to be one. Sliding the tail is the simplest trick in the book. Getting it back is even simpler. It is so easy to exploit the handling limits and once there, it’s as if everything happens in slow motion without it ever threatening to bite your arm off. 

Grip levels from the 245/45 Goodyears are strong, but not exceptional and you don’t have to drive like you are sitting on a wasp to look like you are in a Hollywood chase sequence. Don’t think of this as a problem, it’s the way it’s supposed to be. Maximum fun, minimum fuss. Okay, so may be I am a bit phenomenal.

But even in a straight line the DOHC four-cylinder Ecotec engine – an enlarged version of the 2200cc Ecotec motor that pulls around most of the sundry GM products seems to be doing a darn good job of tugging along the roadster. It’s a willing motor and after having experienced the substantial push in both the first ratios, I don’t feel a reason to doubt the 7.2 seconds that Pontiac claims the Solstice takes to get to 96 kph.  

As for the soundtrack, let’s just say that it’s the best stereo system I never heard. Although it is to be understood that someday, a Yank will shrug his shoulders, spit out an ol’ ‘what the heck’ and shove a V8 in there. Not without reason either. As of now, the Solstice tips the scales at a rather high 1,297 kilos. Not what I or the 875 kg VX220 would call lightweight. It’s chubby for sure.   Blame the parts bin committee for that. In sports car kingdom where ‘Less is More’, the Solstice has more borrowings than a 50-year old gambling alcoholic. The transmission is from the Chevy Colorado, with reduced throws and altered linkages to alter shift feel.The seats are from the Opel Corsa, HVAC systems from the H3 and back-up lamps from the GMC Envoy. And the borrowing doesn’t end there, either. The latches are from the Corvette. The badge, however, is from Pontiac and the seat of the pants feel is up there with a Lotus. 

But it hasn’t always been so good at Pontiac. Enthusiasm levels among customers for General Motors’ sporty car division had dropped to a level where people just weren’t walking into their showrooms anymore. Bob Lutz, GM’s vice president for global products, had a problem to fix right away. He knew they needed a halo car and back came the GTO. Yet, somehow the magic of the Goat was never really rekindled and the shadows continued to grow longer. Pontiac needed yet another show car. 

Enter the Solstice. A two-seater, back-to-basics roadster that has enough pizzazz to get people talking about Pontiacs again. On the face of it, you would think the Solstice has set out to achieve the impossible. I mean, in a land of muscle cars, how can you expect a pint-sized roadster to bring back an all-American brand? Obviously someone forgot to tell that to Mr Lutz. 

But that’s not the point here. You see, when you make something that looks so good, everyone wants a part of the action. Want an example? When GM put the first 1,000 Solstices on sale on The Apprentice, the entire lot was sold out before the end of the 60-minute programme. This, for a car which most of them hadn’t even seen in flesh, let alone read the spec sheet. 

Personally, I am not a big fan of the way it looks – the Saturn Sky is a much sharper car. The Solstice is an extremely wheel dependent design with enormous wheel arches and it’s bling enough to be clogging up MTV airwaves soon. I’ll admit it certainly looks way better in the flesh and the chunky proportions are fundamentally attractive. The flying buttresses are lovely details, while the sawn-off little rear is probably its best design feature. However the trademark split Pontiac grille on the front doesn’t quite keep the taste
police away.

As is, the Solstice is great for boulevard duty. On my 50-mile drive through Michigan suburbia, the Solstice caught eyes and clung on to them. Not to mention the number of mobile phone cameras that were fired in my direction. This looks like the one Pontiac that really seems to have connected at a very basic level with Americans; something that is rarer than a well-done steak. 

But in all seriousness, the Solstice is an extremely fun car, in a ‘my first sportscar’ kind of way. A Pontiac is finally turning corners, in more ways than one. So then, will it sell? Something tells me it just might. But not just because of the way it looks or its brilliant 20,000 dollar price tag. You see, the reason it will do well is that it has two seats and three cupholders. Perfect for the Yanks!