The parking attendant said it best. "Doesn't look like a Pontiac," he noted as we pulled into a Manhattan garage in a silver Solsticethe all-new convertible roadster with the curvy looks and fun-loving attitude. Pontiac's fleet has undergone an extensive makeover, seven new vehicles in the past two years, from the G6 to the GTO, that emphasize style and higher performance. Yet the brand remains a problem for GM; it isn't cool like Toyota's Scion, prized for its reliability like Honda or renowned for its engineering like BMW. Not even Oprah's giveaway of 276 G6 sedans to her TV studio audience, which generated a trunkload of press, did much to lift sales.
Enter the Solstice, a vehicle that, at first glance, ought to sell itself. Luxuriantly curvaceous, its standout design feature is a broad hood and front end that slope gracefully down. The rear is compact, musclebound and squat, accentuated by sculpted fairings behind the seats. The overall profile conveys a neat blend of attitude: a little daring, just shy of being menacing. It doesn't drip machismo like Nissan's 350Z or feature the delicate bone structure of a Mazda Miata. With a starting price around $20,000 the Solstice is the cheapest roadster on the market (a hair under the new Mazda MX-5). GM plans to produce just 16,000 to 18,000 units for the 2006 model year and dealers are already asking several thousand dollars over sticker.
Unfortunately, the Solstice's curb-appeal loses its luster once you take the car for a spin. Like many a roadster it is shamelessly impractical. Drivers under 6 ft. may feel visually challenged, since one sits a few inches above ground and Pontiac skimped on a height-adjuster for the seats. Rear visibility is fine with the roof down, but when it's up the glass rear window provides minimal views. The cockpit feels sports-car Spartan; our test car featured a two-tone "sand-and-steel, " design scheme, with a five-speed manual shifter (don't ask for an automatic, Pontiac isn't making one). Those bezels around the gauges? They have the glint of chrome but turn out to be plastic. Then there's the question, which may arise on a weekend jaunt, of how to transport a couple grocery bags with the top down. Stowing the soft top is a snap: just press a button, unlatch a hook and it folds into the trunk with minimal effort. But don't plan on carrying more than a few Twizzlers since only a sliver of cargo space remains.
All these things are minor annoyances, though, compared to the car's Achilles' heel: its powertrain. It's widely known that GM had to work wonders to keep the Solstice under $20,000, cobbling together parts and components from various vehicle lines. The naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine delivers 177-horsepower and 166 lb. ft of torque. According to Road & Track, it propels the Solstice from zero-to-60 in 7.2 seconds. But the engine feels inadequate at highway speeds. Flooring the throttle at 60 m.p.h. in 5th gear produced not a roar but a gentle puff of speedembarrassing in a car with pretenses to sprightliness. While the vehicle cornered adequately, thanks to the rear-wheel architecture, it did not feel nimble. Perhaps that won't be a deal-killer to most folks. But if you crave speed in your roadster, the Solstice is better admired than driven.