Let's not beat around the bush: The Pontiac Solstice is the very best small car to ever be designed and produced by an American company. The best. And it may also be the first roadster capable of challenging Mazda's MX-5 as the best entry-level sports car.
Built atop what GM calls its "Kappa" platform, most of the Solstice's goodness stems from the all-steel chassis that takes much of its engineering inspiration from the Corvette. Like the Corvette, the chassis uses a large center tunnel and hydroformed frame rails. Also like the Corvette, its suspension utilizes aluminum upper and lower control arms fore and aft.
The Solstice lacks the Corvette's transverse leaf springs (no big deal, coils are better), rear-mounted transmission (no big deal either) and composite floor (bummer), but feels even stiffer than its bigger brother. This isn't a good-for-GM structure, it's world class by any manufacturer's standards. And it means the body panels atop it carry almost none of the structural load.
Connecting the chassis to the ground are 18-inch wheels inside P245/45R-18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-season tires. These tires are big, but compared to the stickiest rubber out there, the RS-As are no great shakes. Heck, Ford ships Crown Vic' cop cars out on RS-As. Still, they're quiet, ride beautifully and will probably last for 40,000 miles.
The Solstice's chassis is so well tuned that, despite the modest nature of the tire construction, initial turn-in is excellent, the rack-and-pinion steering offers decent feedback, the adhesion levels seem lofty and breakaway is gentle at the limit. They also allow the Solstice to be a good cruiser and daily commuter-two tasks the Miata has always felt strained when undertaking. Still, this car has to be even better when wearing more aggressive rubber.
Most of the Solstice's body panels are, like the frame, hydroformed. And from the clamshell hood, across the fairings behind the driver's and passenger's heads, and to the short rear deck, this is one great-looking car. In fact, it looks better in real life than it does in photos ... and it looks great in the photos.
All this doesn't mean the Solstice is beyond criticism. Many of the parts that make up the car were swiped from the GM parts bin. Some of those are neat like the fog lights in the front fascia from the Pontiac Grand Prix, the reverse lamps and reflectors in the rear fascia from the GMC Envoy, and the side view mirrors from the Fiat Barchetta.
But it lacks other elements that a sports car should have. For example, the instrumentation is swiped from the Chevy Cobalt SS and while it's easy to read, it isn't very comprehensive. The seat frames come from the Mexican-market Chevy Corsa and while they've been re-covered and re-bolstered for this application, they're not quite as supportive as they should be.
Beyond that, the manual top mechanism doesn't have the ease of use that makes the Miata's such a joy. To stow the top, the driver has to get out of the car and do some maneuvering. Putting it back up is a bit of chore too. Also, the top's design robs the Solstice of most of its useable cargo space. GM showed the car with two golf bags in the trunk, but they were puny travel bags and it's tough to imagine a case of beer sitting back there for a trip home from the store without breaking a few bottles. And, damn it, we're not going to drink from cans.
Fortunately, the rear window is glass, so it should stay clear through the life of the car.
The drivetrain is a mixed bag as well. The 2.4-liter version of GM's Ecotec 16-valve DOHC four makes a decent 177 hp but it doesn't have a lot of sporting character. It's hard to argue with GM about the engine's flexibility and overall behavior, but the engine doesn't seem to want to run for the redline the way a sports car engine should. Maybe a cam change and a switch to a more rowdy exhaust system would change that initial impression.
Two transmissions are offered with the Solstice, a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic. Only the manual was sampled and it worked well with the engine's 166 lb-ft of peak torque, masking any valleys between the gears.
At 2,860 pounds the Solstice is no lightweight and that's OK. This is a car that has its own unique personality and that personality is never less than engaging. With its 50/50 weight distribution, this is a car that steers and brakes (using four-wheel discs with ABS) with precision, and you can still drive cross-country in comfort. That's a tremendous achievement for GM.
But the promise of GM's Kappa platform is immense beyond this first car. Next up is the cosmetically different Saturn Sky. Then there should be turbocharged versions of both cars (the Solstice GXP and Sky Red Line) and somewhere out there are coupes and sport wagons waiting to be conceived and born. The Solstice is just the start of the Kappa dynasty.