November 7, 2005 Review and photos by Laurance Yap In my entire experience as an auto journalist, I can't remember a car that I wanted to love more than the Pontiac Solstice. I stood on my feet and cheered when Bob Lutz drove it out onto the big GM stage at the Detroit auto show. A year later, I did the same all over again when the company announced that not only would it build the Solstice, but that it would be built on a unique rear-drive platform specifically engineered for lightweight, two-seat sports cars. The Solstice is now on the road, finally - and it looks like a concept car come to life. None of the original car's curves seem to have been toned down for production; it still swoops and bulges in all the right places. The car's stance is just right, on giant - and standard-fit - 18-inch wheels and tires. The details, which made the car such a lovely thing to look at on an auto show stand, are all still there, from the triangular indentation in the side to the single polished exhaust tip and the snarling Pontiac nostrils (unfortunately, in Ontario, spoiled by a license plate holder that looks like it's been added as an afterthought). Drive down the 401 and people gawk and point; they weave in and out of traffic to get closer to you; they slow down as they pull alongside to give you the big thumbs-up. Can I call this the prettiest car of the year? It's pretty gorgeous inside, too. The original Solstice concept's interior was clean to the point of being stark, and the production version has stayed true to its origins. Too true, one could argue. The design still looks superb, with a giant swooping dashboard divided by a swath of contrasting colour that clearly defines the driver's compartment from the rest of the cabin. It's also of impressively high quality, with well-chosen materials (the leather on my red tester was part of a $2,110 trim package that included a multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, fog lamps and a trip computer) and tight panel gaps. The seats have a nice long bottom cushion and are comfortable to sit in for long periods, and the major controls - steering, pedals, shifter - are all in the right places. But in terms of everyday usability, the Solstice's interior comes up short. Other than a tiny bin between the two riders, and a couple of pockets on the front edges of the seat cushions, there is zero storage space. Pontiac's press kit makes a point of mentioning that you can plug an iPod into a convenient jack on the radio's faceplate, but after you've done so, there's nowhere to actually put your iPod; it can either slide around on the floor or slide around on the seat and you can only tuck it into the seat-front pocket if you don't have a passenger. Normally, a cupholder would be a good place to throw your iPod or cell phone, but the only cupholder springs out of the far side of the dash, out of reach if you're the driver and its construction is such that you can't actually use it for anything but a cup or a bottle. There are no door pockets (though there are pockets on the seat-backs, which are only convenient if you're a small enough driver to have the seat pulled forward) or places to stash the CDs you might want to feed the 6-disc changer. There's always the trunk. With the roof up, there's enough space in the back for a couple of soft bags around the large hump created by the Solstice's high-set fuel tank. Roof down, however, you're left with virtually no space at all; the similarly-sized-and-priced Mazda Miata has a trunk that seems cavernous by comparison. Accessing the Solstice's trunk is also not very convenient: when you push the trunk release on the key fob, it unlocks each of the roof's flying buttresses, which you have to lift out of the way before you can open the trunk lid. Once you've loaded the trunk, you have to close the lid and replace the buttresses, which, unless you're a giant, means walking around the car to do so. Ah, but it's easy to forgive foibles like this on a sports car that looks as great as the Solstice does. Once you've fired up its burbly 177-hp 2.4-litre engine, slotted the precise five-speed Aisin shifter into first, and pulled out onto the road, you're likely to forget any frustrations about your cargo. The car feels just right in an urban setting, its suspension doing a surprisingly good job at soaking up bumps big and small, the engine offering a wide band of torque that you can surf no matter what gear you're in and the steering and brakes feel alert and responsive. At most speeds, right up to a highway cruise - you'll notice the huge gulf between fourth and fifth gears getting there - the Solstice is a flattering car to drive, moving eagerly but smoothly with your inputs, feeling quick and responsive, if not downright fast. Which is where this all would have ended had not Pontiac brought up a bunch of Solstices (Solstii?) to the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's annual Car of the Year TestFest. One of the best things about the event is not only the opportunity to drive every car in a certain class back-to-back with its newest competitors, but also to spend time on Shannonville racetrack evaluating their behaviour in more extreme conditions than you may encounter on the street. While the Solstice was a pleasant, fun car to drive on public roads, it was quite a handful on the track. In damp conditions, its rear end would skip sideways with very little provocation, even in very gentle, large-radius corners. It would struggle to put down the power even in a straight line. The shifter, which felt tight and accurate on the road, refused to be rushed between gears, and the car would wobble on its relatively soft suspension with every shift. It was a disappointment, given the promise of the Solstice's looks, and how good it felt on the road. To be fair to Pontiac, the Solstice is not a track car, and nor will most of its buyers likely subject their vehicles to track abuse in the way that, say, owners of Civic Sis and Mazda MX-5s will. And also to be fair, another Solstice I tried out later the same day in dry conditions felt quite a bit better. Still, its rear end - dancing around on all-season Goodyear Eagle RS-As while the Miata hugged the road with Yokohama performance tires - was far too lively even for my hooligan tastes, and it remained the only car in its class whose keys I didn't grab for another go when the track was empty at the end of the day. How much of this really matters? I can't say for sure. The Solstice never felt unstable on the road, but I drove it during two hot, dry summer days. And because it looks so sporty, and has such great specs - independent suspension all around, big tires, available limited-slip differential, Bilstein shocks - drivers are likely to push this car harder than they might another Pontiac, and might be surprised what happens when they reach the edge of adhesion. At least the MX-5 offers, as an option, an electronic stability control system to augment its (arguably) superior roadholding. Certainly, Pontiac's advertising is positioning this vehicle as a real sports car rather than a boulevard cruiser. Maybe the anticipation over the past few years, waiting for the Solstice to hit the market, had built up an unrealistic set of expectations. The car was so hot back then in Detroit that you could hear it sizzle; its stance, its low-slung interior, huggy seats, curvy styling, maybe made promises that no car, really, could ever keep. To offer an extreme sports car with such an eye-popping price - less than $26,000 for the prettiest car of the year! - was always going to be a monumental challenge. So my disappointment with the Solstice must be tempered by the fact that I'm glad it simply exists, that I think its mere presence in the automotive landscape has already made the world a better place. The Solstice may not move the game on in terms of dynamics or practicality, but it's proof positive that GM, more than anyone, still has the capacity to turn dreams into machines.