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Pontiac Solstice: Its Style Gets in the Way

Driven at Home and On the Road
At AutoPacific‘s Detroit office, we recently had the opportunity to drive the Pontiac Solstice, though the rainy Michigan weather precluded any top-down stick time. This Michigan experience supplemented an opportunity to drive the Solstice in Oregon last August, in ideal conditions far from the daily grind. The 300 miles or so spent driving in Oregon (on roads chosen in part for their ability to help the car shine) included wonderful, sweeping roads and perfect top-down weather. Sunny skies and warm temperatures meant the top only came up for about 50 of the Oregon miles, and then only out of obligation to test it that way.
You can also check out a VehicleVoice video podcast of initial reaction to the Solstice by VehicleVoice contributor George Peterson at the LA Auto Show. Jim Hopson, Pontiac-GMC Communications Manager gives us a walkaround introduction of the upcoming Solstice GXP.


My Disappointment
As the co-owner of a 1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata and a 2002 Audi TT coupe, my automotive purchases seem to always prioritize fun and styling over practicality and interior space. Our household tends to choose style and fun over practicality and function. With no kids, two-seaters are just the right size for my husband and myself. Two-seat convertibles prioritize fun and style over function and space, and we fully embrace the idea. On paper, I’m the type of buyer who should have already put down a deposit for either Pontiac Solstice or Saturn Sky. And I wanted to like the Solstice and Sky enough to recommend them over the Mazda, to be genuinely excited about a homegrown product. But I find myself disappointed instead.

Driving: Open Roads Versus Commuting
On open roads in Oregon, downshifts were mostly needed to take best advantage of the winding, well-surfaced roads. Solstice drove well in this environment. In stretches without turns and cruising nearer highway speeds, the car was not happy in fourth or fifth gear; one keeping the engine too high in the rev band and the other too low. In Michigan, with a commute mostly on 30 to 45 mph surface streets and lots of stoplights, a bigger distraction was the lack of low-end power,
Motive power in the Solstice is from a 170HP 2.4L DOHC 16v I4, which should mean plenty of power for a sub-3000-pound car. Its engine note is nice, more like a burbly V6 than a buzzy four-cylinder. But a too-tall first gear leaves the Solstice heavy and sluggish off the line, when equipped with the five-speed manual. It may be better served with a six-speed manual. Though the five-speed automatic was adequate in our day-to-day Michigan driving, a car with the aggressive, sporty looks of the Solstice isn’t a touring convertible. The Solstice begs for an involved driving experience, which for most includes a manual transmission.


Great Looks, But Difficult to Live With
Driving a convertible demands compromises by its nature, but the Solstice demands more than is necessary. The mechanism for raising and lowering the top requires that you get out of the car, something I find unforgivable (though there are other AutoPacific staffers, who also have two-seat convertible ownership in their past, don’t think it is quite so bad). On the plus side, the Solstice top folds into the trunk, protecting the roof and giving it a clean look. If your Solstice is a part-timer, working with the top could be part of the charm and experience. But as a daily driver, anything that makes dropping the top more complicated gets in the way of the car’s reason for being.

In the Solstice-as-toy world, the inconvenience of a three-step process for opening and closing the trunk is not that important. In Solstice-as-daily-driver world, incorporating it into a daily procedure could get quickly tiresome. When the top is in the up position, the latches holding the top down have to be released before the rear-hinged trunk can be opened, done remotely with the key fob. These same latches must be re-secured after closing the trunk. The process is further drawn out by the fact that most can’t reach both latches at one time. You have to slam the trunk down (it does not close easily), secure the latch closest to you, and walk around the vehicle to secure the other latch; three separate steps instead of one.
Solstice offers only 3.8 cubic feet of cargo space, which should be sufficient. We were able to creatively pack our purchases from a typical grocery-store trip (for our two-person household) in the space that was there. Where the Solstice cargo space is poor is the reason creative packing was required: Solstice cargo volume is in deep, narrow recesses unfriendly to anything boxed or square. If you have two small sets of golf clubs, in special small soft bags, there is a crevice at the rear of the trunk in which they fit. Even down to your selection of golf clubs, Solstice demands that you choose your cargo to fit its odd shapes. Again, fine for a toy, difficult for life.


Part of life with a convertible is poor visibility with the top up. Convertible tops have back windows smaller than normal and usually exceptionally large C-pillars. But visibility in the Solstice is truly awful. Top up, the driver’s side blind spot is big enough for a semi to sit in, turning your head to see only gets you a look at the top itself, and there is little help from the side-view mirrors. Also top up, the scene in the rearview mirror is dramatically pinched because of the buttresses of the convertible top. Top up or down, forward left and right visibility is hindered by the large size and rake of the A-pillars. The sculpted sheetmetal behind the driver and passenger are a core element of the cool Solstice design, but they also contribute to reduced visibility when the top is down.

Paying the Price for Top-Down Driving Experience
There are elements of the Solstice driving experience that are satisfying and thrilling, as it has good reflexes and a ride that is nicely balanced. But when it comes to things like operating the trunk, the way cargo space was managed, and raising and lowering the top, the Solstice is optimized as a toy, but priced within reach of those who cannot afford a toy but can afford to use it as a daily driver.
In optimizing the Solstice for style and compromising functions, Pontiac doomed daily driver owners to frustrations to mar the overall experience and may ultimately leave them dissatisfied. After eight years with a Miata, I could see myself with another two-seat convertible, but not one as difficult to use as the Solstice. Mazda is on its third generation Miata and has taken all it learned from the first two to create an even more user-friendly package without giving up its core personality, but they were on the right track from the beginning. My 1997 Miata has been as easy to use and to own as it has been a joy to drive, while the Solstice makes you pay for the experience of top-down driving and its good looks with exceptionally poor visibility and a difficult-to-use package.

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