2008 Pontiac Solstice (USA)

Behold, a second red sports car, to follow the Nissan 350Z Roadster, with which I started out on my 2 week vacation. Like the Nissan, this one was also not in plan. I had a reservation for something much more prosaic, and thanks to a combination of leaving the booking late and Mr Hertz running low on cars in Phoenix and thus inflating the prices to absurd levels, this one was going to come from Avis. I had already made a reservation for what Avis calls a “Cool Car” for later in the holiday, so I knew what was on offer on their website, and the Solstices did not seem to feature any more. Nevertheless, I thought I would ask, and was delighted to find out that they still had them, and that the price was not a huge amount more than I was going to pay for a mid-size sedan. The friendly lady at the desk allocated a red model to me, and I headed down to the Avis floor of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Rental Car Centre.

The key fob was in the door, and I noted that it had a button on it to open the boot, so I pressed that, rather than try to find any alternative release. Just as well, as later I discovered that the only other way to open the boot is a small button almost hidden from view inside the glovebox, and I would never have found that very quickly in a rental car garage. As the car was parked up with the roof up, first of all, two flaps that peg onto the boot lid fly up, and then you can lift the rear-hinged boot lid up. A quick look in there proved what I had suspected. The suitcase stood no chance of fitting in. I crammed it rather precariously onto the passenger seat, and headed to the hotel, grateful for the fact that I had arrived in the evening, and my final morning will entail a check out from the hotel and a journey straight to the airport, as I would not want to drive anywhere much with a case perched like that on the passenger seat. Be very clear that this is not a car with any real measure of practicality about it. If it is to have two occupants, then they’d better bring not much more than a toothbrush and change of underwear, as that is about all there is room for. If you want to drive with the roof down, then you’d better forget even that, as virtually all the luggage area is taken up with the roof.

So, with the first problem solved, I now only had the weather forecast to worry about. No matter which predictions I looked at, it seemed that the first day was going to be universally cloudy until late in the day, at which point the heavens would open and rain would fall from the sky in great quantity. As you can see from the accompanying pictures, that is not exactly what happened.

So next morning, in the daylight, it was time to look more closely at the Solstice. I have to say that I have always rather liked the look of this car. With the roof down, that is. Roof up, and it looks rather gawky, but with the roof stowed away under the rear luggage cover, it looks great to my eyes. It is a small car, though, and that plus the practicality issues are probably the reason why sales volumes were never that great. Just under 68,000 were built in the model’s 5 year life, with production ending in July 2009 when the plant was closed and the demise of the Pontiac brand was announced. That makes it a rare sighting, and I do not recall seeing another example on the road all the time I had the test car.

First challenge, even though it was early in the morning, and not exactly warm, was to put the roof down. Inside the cabin, all I could see was a large lever in the centre of the car on the header rail. Twisting that through 180 degrees was clearly a task, but there were no instructions on what to do next. Certainly there were no power switches, as this hood is operated by people power. It would certainly be easier to do the job with two, but once you know what to do, it is not hard for one person. Open the boot, then pull the roof away from the screen header rail, which you need to do on each side of the car. Once the locating pins are clear enough, you can now push it backwards, which will have the effect of folding it, and into the luggage area it goes. You do need to push it down hard on each side, then you can slam the luggage lid hard. Putting the roof up is a simple reverse of this process, and again is easy, though you need to go round to either side of the Solstice a couple of times.

Time to set off and drive it properly. In a way, it is unfair to sample this car immediately after the sublime 350Z, as any car with a 2.4 litre 4 cylinder engine and a lot less power is going to seem somewhat inferior. Developing 173 bhp, this is never going to make the Solstice more than moderately brisk. The engine is smooth enough, but it has no real aural appeal. It does its job, though, and I was able to inject the car into traffic with the necessary gains in speed coming without having to rev it anywhere close to the red line. Late in the model’s life, a GXP version was announced, with a 2.0 turbo engine, developing 260 bhp. I can imagine that this would transform the car. As it stands, the entry level model is more about cruising and enjoying the fresh air than a performance-enhanced adrenaline rush. That is all the more so for the rental car, as it came with the five speed automatic transmission that was an option for those who did not want to change gears themselves. It does its job smoothly. All this does benefit the fuel economy, though. I achieved 28 5. mpg (US), which equates to 34.4 mpg (Imperial), which is not bad for a car that I drove with the roof down on the freeway and lots of stop/start on the hilly roads of the Gates Pass Road outside Tuscon.

No prizes for steering and handling prowess, but no brickbats, either. After the Nissan, the Solstice did just feel as something was missing, and yet in absolute terms, the car does well. The steering is light, and positive, and the handling is safe, with good levels of grip available from the rather chunky 18″ wheels. The ride is firm, and the car does seem as if it can be unsettle by bumps and bad ridges in the road, requiring an amount of concentration to drive it on anything than the smoothest of roads. You would not expect the Solstice to be quiet, and it is not. With the roof down and the side windows up, though, it is perfectly acceptable on the freeway, with negligible buffeting. I did even drive part of the day with the windows down, but that was less pleasant when passing huge trucks (as you do!).

You really do sit down low in the Solstice, but even with the roof erected, I did not find any difficulties in getting in and out of the car. The challenge is that with such a low driving position, visibility is not brilliant. The door mirrors are quite small, and are mounted rather higher than usual relative to your eye line, so I found them of limited use. With the roof up, the view behind is limited by the rather small glass rear window. With the roof down, there are no problems in seeing traffic behind you, but reversing the car and precision parking is definitely not so simple, at least until you get used to the Solstice and its dimensions. You can see precious little of any use over your shoulders, and the door mirrors are no help in this challenge. The seats do have adjustment fore and aft and the backrest can be set at the angle you want, so I was easily able to get a comfortable seating and driving position.

Unlike many low volume cars, this one does appear to be specially designed even on the inside, with a dash that bears little resemblance to any other Pontiac or GM product. The plastics are not of the highest quality, being rather hard, but I have seen far worse, and at least all the pieces seemed to fit well together, and there were no squeaks or rattles even after 2 years hard rental car life. The main dash moulding is black, but there is an inlay of a rather dark grey which looks far better than many attempts I see where the effort to introduce variety in tone and colour looks unspeakably tawdry. The dials, and there only three, are grouped together in an arc in front of the driver, and were just slightly too high for me with the wheel adjusted to its highest position. They are, however, easy to read, though the odometer has graphics that look like my 1980s pocket calculator. The few other switches are on the dash, clearly marked, and easy to find. There is a standard stereo system which did reasonably well until I was on the freeway with the side windows lowered then it became almost inaudible. Air conditioning switches are also in the centre of the dash, and the system generated plenty of heat to warm me through on an early morning start with the roof down, heading south down the I10 freeway to Tucson. The gearlever is perfectly placed and angled, not that you will need it much as there is no manual selection of gears available. There is a pull up handbrake in the centre of the car between the seats. Oddments space is at something of a premium. There is a small glovebox, but it is very small indeed. On the rear bulkhead between the seats, there is a small cubby with a particularly flimsy feeling plastic drop down lid, and there are two cupholders that spring out. There are no door pockets, but there are pockets in the back of the seats, and you could put small items behind the seats. This complete absence of cabin stowage meant that I could safely leave the car parked up with the roof down, as there was nothing at all for anyone to steal.

In absolute terms, it would be hard to recommend the Solstice. For sure, it was cheap, with the last models like the test car having retailed at less than $25,000. But the practicality aspects are just so limiting, that you would have to ask yourself very hard if you could really accept and live with them. If that renders the car as a “toy”, for roof down motoring on a nice day, then all well and good, but there are other such cars available for similar money. Objectively, the Mazda MX5 would have to be declared a far better proposition, as it has all the benefits and none of the weaknesses of this Pontiac. But if you really wanted this car, perhaps because you just loved the looks, I could understand why you might just think it was money well spent, and you would be happy. I am sure that we will see the Solstice become “collectable” quite quickly so maybe snapping up one of the last of these cars, and putting the miles on it sparingly is not such a bad idea after all.


2010-02-13 15:17:53

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *