When Looks Are Everything True to its American heritage, the Solstice GXP coupe will light 'em up. By Mike Schmidt Vehicle Testing Manager Date posted: 02-23-2009 Turbocharged 2.0-liter Ecotec inlne-4 - 260 hp; 260 lb-ft of torque - 60 mph in 5.5 seconds - Removable hardtop Our hopes were high following the debut of the 2009 Pontiac Solstice Coupe at the 2008 New York Auto Show last year. We had not forgotten the ergonomic shortcomings of the Solstice. Nor had its functional limitations slipped our minds. It was mechanically the same curvaceous Solstice that had made us swoon in 2006. Only now it had a bitchin' hardtop. So here we stand again with hearts racing and gaze locked on the 2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe. The GXP offers you 260 horsepower from its turbocharged Ecotec inline-4 and big tires to put the power to good use, so it's a lot more serious than the standard Solstice coupe. Its angled roof gives the coupe an angry, menacing stance unmatched by the roadster. This is the car we secretly want to like. In the back of our minds, we hope it's different from the 2006 Pontiac Solstice we lived with for a year in our long-term fleet. And perhaps it's a measure of the intensity of this hope that our disappointment is so devastating. Looks Only Go So Far This is hands-down one of the most attractive production vehicles on the road. From the moment the Solstice concept appeared at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show, GM had the attention of everyone who loved sports cars. And as the car slowly evolved toward production until it was officially introduced as the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, we tracked its progress faithfully. It brought together the Ecotec inline-4 developed in drag racing, a manual transmission from a supplier to Mazda, and a platform with a short 95.1-inch wheelbase for maneuverability and a wide track for cornering grip, not to mention an extravagantly swoopy shape designed by Franz von Holzhausen. Even today, the Pontiac Solstice is among the best-looking production cars available. And we'll put the 2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe in the same company when it reaches Pontiac dealers in the coming months. Gone is the cumbersome retractable soft top. In its place is a roof that combines a removable, targa-style roof panel made of magnesium, with a fixed fastback that incorporates a cargo hatch. The Solstice coupe's aggressive new roof line is even more lust-inducing than the sweeping curves of the Solstice roadster. Conceptually, the Solstice GXP coupe is a great car. You can see the proof in road racing competition, where the Solstice coupe ran at the front of the pack in the SCCA's Showroom Stock B. This turbocharged version of the 2.0-liter Ecotec inline-4 makes 260 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm, plenty of power even though the coupe weighs 3,057 pounds. This is also considerably more power than you'll find in the standard Solstice coupe, which has a normally aspirated 2.4-liter Ecotec that does 173 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque. And it doesn't stop there. Acceleration for the GXP looks good. From a standstill it reaches 60 mph in 5.5 seconds (5.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and completes the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 100.3 mph. This performance is quicker than the last Mazda Miata PRHT we tested by 2 seconds to the 60 mph mark. The GXP is four-tenths of a second slower to 60 mph than the 332-hp Nissan 370Z we tested recently, and the Z-car is also only narrowly faster through the quarter-mile with its run of 13.4 seconds at 104.6 mph. So how is the 2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe not the best car ever? Personality Is What Matters Beyond the roof assembly and taillamps, all other body components between roadster and coupe are identical. Now look beyond the fastback roof line and ducktail spoiler. When we delve into the real personality behind the GXP coupe, its American heritage is clear. Give it lots of power and make it go fast in a straight line. Check. Make sure it does burnouts. Check. Wait a second; we're out of boxes to check. Comfortable cockpit with practical storage? All-day freeway comfort? We can't even stow the narrow hardtop inside the car? Never mind that; send this car through production. In Detroit, we only drive sports cars on Sunday afternoons anyway. This is the character behind a Solstice, and one not everyone can embrace. Don't expect to drive it to the mountains for a long vacation. Don't expect it to out-maneuver the Miata on a winding road. But be certain that when the light goes green, you'll smoke him and that jerk in the Porsche Cayman off the line every time. The Solstice GXP is an American sports car. It makes the numbers, but it has an unrefined and brutish quality about it. From its stark interior to the balky action of the five-speed transmission's shift action, this car pays no mind to refinement. Look no further than the Chevrolet Corvette for the personality lesson. When Personality Runs Out The Solstice GXP coupe offers no steering feel, and there is little sense of the car's limits or tire grip The Solstice GXP will never lose its looks, but its personality runs thin once the wear bars in the Goodyear tires start to show. Sure, we accept the Solstice as it is. But this car serves up a handful of crucial and unforgivable disappointments. Some key functional obstacles in the Solstice coupe came righteously through the family tree. These ergonomic challenges of the roadster's interior design are well documented. Most remain unchanged in the coupe. A lack of rear storage was another complaint on the roadster. Pontiac addressed this in developing the coupe, sort of. It added a flat rear load floor, in-floor rear storage cubbies and cupholders located behind each headrest. The optional Capuchin monkey package is a must-have to transport drinks from rear cupholder to hand, as they are otherwise inaccessible by either occupant. According to Pontiac, no drivetrain or suspension changes were necessary to shift from roadster to coupe body structure, since the overall curb weight increase was minor. As a result, the handling characteristics remain unchanged. The suspension is still underdamped and feels like it hits the bump stops through transitions. This hampers slalom speed during our tests, which the GXP coupe completed at 66.7 mph. The Miata (70 mph) and 370Z (70.4 mph) were considerably quicker under similar conditions. What's the Story Here? Stubborn understeer is characteristic of the Solstice on the limit. Be wary of the quick snap into oversteer. There is nothing ground-breaking about the 2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe. Its new hardtop improves the looks of the already attractive roadster. But aside from this subtle change, the car remains a Solstice. The inherent limitations of this vehicle remain, no matter how much we hope they'll just go away. Maybe we expect too much. Though it has been conceived as a Miata fighter, the Solstice seems to promise so much more in the way it looks and the way it performs, as if it really wants to be more like a Nissan Z-car, especially since it wears a price tag that's like that of a Z-car. But the result still seems strangely unfinished. To find closure with the Solstice, we've decided to think of it as GM's project car — a work still in progress. All we can do is wait and hope that Pontiac earns enough cash to finish off this car's development and build us the Solstice we still long for. The low sweeping roof line limits visibility in exchange for looks, but it does not impede headroom. Shift action is very deliberate between gates; fans of crisp, short-throw shifters will not approve. MSRP of Test Vehicle: $33,585 What Works: Innovative exterior design; 260-hp turbo engine. What Needs Work: Interior ergonomics; lack of interior storage for hard top. Bottom Line: Maybe we expect too much. Performance Ditch the $545 chrome wheels. Slide on something with a flat-black finish instead and the exterior look will be complete. 0 - 30 (sec): 2.1 0 - 45 (sec): 3.6 0 - 60 (sec): 5.5 0 - 75 (sec): 7.9 1/4 Mile (sec @ mph): 13.8 @ 100.3 0-60 with 1-ft Rollout (sec): 5.2 30 - 0 (ft): 29 60 - 0 (ft): 117 Braking Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Average Slalom (mph): 66.7 Skid Pad Lateral acceleration (g): 0.84 Handling Rating (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor or Very Poor): Good Db @ Idle: 52.6 Db @ Full Throttle: 80.1 Db @ 70 mph Cruise: 70.6 Edmunds Observed (mpg): 24.4 Acceleration Comments: There is too much rear tire grip to do a drop-clutch launch. So there's a bit of clutch-slipping finesse in a good launch. Shifter is OK, but clutch uptake is too close to the floor. This makes shift times slower. Engine sounds burdened but you can't argue with these numbers. Handling Comments: Benign but stubborn understeer on the limit. Very, very difficult to kick the tail out. With ESC on "competitive" it actually kept the car on the arc better by applying the inside front brake. It has zero steering feel. This is one of the most frustrating cars in recent memory to slalom. Why? There is no sense of the car's limits or tire grip. The front-hinged seat bottom is distracting. Underdamped suspension feels like it's hitting the stops. Inherent understeer snaps into oversteer too quickly. But again, it makes a decent number despite all these shortcomings. Oh, one more. There is yaw delay followed by a huge gain from the soft suspension as the body rolls side to side. Braking Comments: The first stop seemed like an anomaly -- all of the rest were 4-5 feet longer and less controlled, with bobbing nose and wiggling tail. Fade began after the sixth stop.