When the Pontiac Solstice rolled into Detroit's COBO Center in January 2002, it was the immediate hit of the North American International Auto Show. The problem was putting into production what was little more than a fantasy in fiberglass. To get the show car into showrooms, engineers had to borrow a little here, invent a little there, including the all-new Kappa chassis that will eventually serve as the platform for an array of GM specialty cars.
But there was reason to wait. The sleek little roadster with the protruding nose will go far to putting the punch back into the Pontiac tagline "We build excitement." The division's tradition for brutish growlers had fallen flat of late. The Trans Am fell victim to declining sales, and the GTO, reborn in 2004, proved a short-lived and underwhelming phenomenon.
But the '06 Solstice is not your classic Pontiac muscle car, not in any way, shape or form. Oh, it's reasonably peppy, with its 2.4-liter I-4 engine putting out 177-horsepower, enough to turn 0-60 times of just over seven seconds. But rather than racing from stoplight to stoplight, the new roadster demands to be taken on long trips down winding back-country roads, as we discovered while exploring the Columbia River Gorge that separates Oregon from Washington. The stiff Kappa platform turns effortlessly, while also soaking up roadway bumps. And the oversized brakes will bring the roadster to a stop fast enough to give you a nosebleed.
Forget the Firebird. The closest comparison is that classic of affordable roadsters, Mazda's Miata. The third generation of the MX-5 also debuts this year, and it's more fun to drive than ever. Miata has the more elegant interior, though Solstice is pretty slick for its price tag—$19,995 for the base car, and less than $25,000 loaded to the gills. And there's no question Pontiac's over-the-top exterior is the more eye-catching, as witnessed by consumer response. By the time Solstice sales launched in August, 7,000 paid orders had already been placed (including 1,000 customers who made deposits during a promotion on Donald Trump's TV show, "The Apprentice"). With a slow factory ramp-up and a maximum capacity of 1,500 cars a month, it's likely to be Spring before new orders are filled. Then again, that'd be just in time for roadster season, so you just might want to ante up that deposit and sit tight.