By March 8, 2006

And I Would Walk 1000 Miles

No, this post won’t be about the Proclaimers. It’s about Inara, the 2006 Pontiac Solstice roadster I bought almost a month ago. I’ve tacked on just a touch over 1000 miles since I bought her, and I figured now was a good time for a short review.

Exterior

The Pontiac Solstice is a sexy beast. The upcoming Saturn Sky (built on the same GM kappa platform) is much more space-fighter looking, and is also very easy on the eyes. I like the Solstice because 1) I’m impatient and the Sky isn’t out yet and 2) the curves remind me more of Speed Racer’s Mach 5, which I loved watching on television as a kid.

People notice the super-curvy styling of the Solstice right away. GM employed a construction technique called “hydroforming,” which allowed for fiberglass-esque design shapes (such as the humps on the rear decklid) with more rigid metal. The stock 18″ wheels fit the wheel wells nicely and give the Solstice a very aggressive appearance.


The rear quarter panel view really highlights the roadster aspects of the car, especially the low-slung rear end and the short convertible top. The Solstice looks quite natural with the top up, unlike convertible sedans that look much better with their tops down (such as the PT Cruiser, Toyota Solara, or Crysler Sebring).


Speaking of top down, the Solstice reminds me a lot of the Shelby Cobra roadster with the top down. I think it’s the shorty windshield and the high door sills.


You can see the Solstice’s single exhaust in this rear shot. The upcoming GXP model will have a dual exhaust, which is already making the Solstice community drool with anticipation of doing an aftermarket dual exhaust conversion. The humps on the back decklid (trunk, sort of) on the Solstice are one of my favorite visual tidbits. I get flashbacks of the Batmobile of the 60s:


I really like how the hood hinges up from the front instead of the back like on a traditional hood. Someone on the Solstice forum has already reported getting their fingers smashed in this bastard, so I guess I’ll have to be careful.


As expected, the storage space on this car is practically zero. Here’s the “trunk” with the top up. No one has any idea what is under that hump in the back. It’s been christened the Secret Mayan Temple by the Solstice board I visit.


There is ridiculously less storage space with the top down. There MIGHT be room for two small, frameless overnight bags if you were to put them in the trunk before lowering the top. Luckily for me the Solstice isn’t my cargo hauler or all-in-one vehicle, so this isn’t a big issue. At least one aftermarket company is planning on building a luggage rack for the rear decklid, which might be worth investigating.

Interior

Inara is clad in black leather. It was pretty much impossible to find a Solstice without leather, and custom ordering would have put me into the summer. The leather is nice, and the seats are a LOT more comfortable than I thought they would be. I like them better than the leather seats on my MINI Cooper S, as the seats in the Cooper were a bit too wide for me and I found myself sliding on them during really sharp turns. It’s also easier to get in and out of the Solstice, even with the top up. I think the doors on the Cooper were shorter.


The interior is plastic-heavy. Unlike the Ford Excursion I recently reviewed, however, the Solstice is very plain on the inside. There aren’t a lot of interior accents, and I think that helps carry the plastic better. There are chrome-toned plastic bezels around the speedometer, tachometer, and gas gauge. The rest of the console is light silver or dark silver in tone. One of the things I like about the knobs is that they are clad in rubberized plastic that gives you a good tactile response. I don’t know why something as simple as a cushy rubber surface makes the difference in turning up my nose or smiling, but there you have it.


The steering wheel is pretty boring, but like the rest of the interior it keeps things basic. I have to say I’m not a fan of how the multifunction buttons on the steering wheel were designed. For one, they are almost all identical to the touch. It’s hard for me to feel if my thumb is on the “volume up” or “volume down” button. I can look down and tell, but then I’d take my eyes off the road. At 80MPH on a twisty road, this can be a Bad Thing™.

I think Pontiac should have put the stereo volume controls on the left side of the steering wheel and not the right. This makes it more difficult to adjust the volume during driving, since I (obviously) shift with my right hand. If I’m driving in town, my hand is almost always on the gear shift. Since the volume controls are on the right side of the steering wheel, it’s actually easier for me to adjust the volume with the big-ass center knob on the head unit.

The gear shift knob itself feels a little angular and rough in my hand. I was spoiled by the large, shiny chrome ball on the Cooper S and the MOMO shift knob of my WRX. Apparently the shift knob on the Solstice is difficult to replace, so I’ll just have to get used to it.

Performance
The Solstice is almost completely balanced. There is equal weight in the front and rear of the car. This gives the Solstice very precise, fluid handling. My Cooper S was go-kart in handling and probably more nimble, but the Solstice is very, very smooth. I’d venture to say that the Solstice could outhandle the Cooper on real roads, but the Cooper would do better on an autocross/slolam course. I’ve been able to cut through parts of my normal motorcycle route at nearly twice the posted speed in the Solstice (60 in a 35), and I didn’t feel like I was pushing the car at all.

With only 177 horsepower, the Solstice continues my backwards slide away from horsepower. I certainly wish this car had more off-the-line acceleration, but after driving the similarly underpowered Cooper S I know how to compensate for a lack of grunt. Once I get up to speed, Inara can accelerate admirably if you coax her into her power band. This results in a lot of shifting for me, which brings me to my biggest complaint about the Solstice.

The transmission sucks. It’s really tight and notchy, making the WRX feel like a tricked-out Baltimore streetwalker. I hated the transmission on the Subaru, as downshifting from second to first was almost impossible. As in the last three “performance” cars I’ve owned, the car is almost intolerably slow to accelerate from the 5MPH mark. I encounter this a lot at stoplights, especially at right-hand turns. I almost never come to a complete dead stop. This puts Inara in an uncomfortable position wherein she’s too slow for second and too fast for first. The transmission fights you every step of the way, and I have to compensate by “blipping,” or revving, the throttle to rev match the engine and the transmission.

I’ve noticed that the transmission has loosened up a bit during my first 1000 miles, but this is probably more due to me abusing the car than to it loosening up on its own. I would have also preferred a six speed instead of a five speed, but that’s a middling issue.

Visibility
Unlike the MINI Cooper S convertible I test drove, the Solstice has great visibility with the top up. I think this is mostly due to the Solstice being a true two seater instead of a two-plus-two like the Cooper. There are no significant blind spots. There are some uncomfortable visibility spots on the car however. The front end is not visible from the driver’s seat, which makes tight-quarters parking a little scary at first. Using the side mirrors is spooky also. I think this is because I sit so low to the ground and the doors are very high — it almost feels like you are looking “up” to look at the side mirrors. This is an exaggeration of course, but I can’t think of another way to describe it. Rear visibility is awesome, partly thanks to the glass rear window on the convertible top.

Inara be nimble, Inara be quick

  • Styling unlike almost any other car on the road. With limited production (less than 12,000 in 18 calendar months), the Solstice turns a lot of heads. It also has a fairly enthusiastic following among car aficionados as a concept car that came to be.
  • Great standard features. 18″ alloy wheels, cruise control, onboard travel computer, and the front-mount AUX jack on every level of stereo were great concessions by GM. The cost difference between a bare stock Solstice and a fully loaded one (barring OnStar or XM) is about $6,000.
  • The interior is spartan, but it works for the Solstice. The leather seats are also nice, although some are reporting the cushion starts to fail at around the 20,000 mile mark.
  • Handling that makes the girlies grab the “oh shit” handle and squeal with delight. Lady Jaye and I have really enjoyed our spirited rides through the twisty back roads.
  • Decent gas mileage. I’m averaging 22MPG in the city, which is better than I got with my Cooper S (19 – 21) but worse than my WRX (24 – 26).
  • Future aftermarket support. Unlike some of the other cars I looked at (such as the Scion xA and the MINI Cooper), the Solstice shares common motors and other components with mass-market cars. The engine is the same 2.0L Ecotec engine used in the HHR and Cobalt. There are already turbo and supercharger aftermarket kits on the way, and I look forward to choosing one of them once my finances stabilize.

Skids

  • The transmission is really a sore spot for me. With luck this will lessen with time, but I already dislike downshifting from fourth to second around a tight corner.
  • Visibility in the extreme front of the car is problematic. I’ve been afraid I’ll bonk Inara’s nose on something, and I often find myself parking farther out from a curb than I wanted to. Familiarity with the car should resolve this, at least partially.
  • The stock stereo is truly horrible. Any song with a modicum of bass will distort due to the underpowered head unit.
  • The trunk space is entirely too small for anything other than an overnight travel.
  • There is a fair amount of wind noise with the top up. I don’t notice this as much driving solo, as I can crank up the stereo, but talking with another person requires a slightly elevated speaking volume.
  • The gas guage is small and the reserve indicator should really be called the HOLY SHIT, GET GAS NOW indicator. I drove 30 miles after my indicator came on and ran out of gas with Lady Jaye in the car. Talk about a weenie shrinker 🙁

Inara, after running with you for 1000 miles, I give you:
Four out of five STFU mugs!

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2 Comments on "And I Would Walk 1000 Miles"

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  1. chugg says:

    Very nice review, should have posted it in the lounge. ^_^

  2. drfaulken says:

    Thank you! I tend to leave things important to me off of the Lounge, it keeps me from putting on my mean face if a troll shows up.

    Nobody likes it when I put on my mean face.