Home » Why The Pontiac Solstice Deserves Its Flowers: GM Hit Or Miss

Why The Pontiac Solstice Deserves Its Flowers: GM Hit Or Miss

Pontiac Solstice Gxp Ts3
ADVERTISEMENT

While the electric revolution has me excited for how much quieter and more refined everyday cars can become, the enthusiast side of me feels a pang of fear for the future of affordable performance cars. The truth is, the bulk of performance EVs put out fantastic numbers, but are currently expensive and fall a bit short in subjective categories like feel. Even sophisticated adaptive dampers can’t perfectly mask two tons of mass, and there’s something engaging about rowing through the gears in a manual transmission at perfectly legal speeds. The truth is, we’ve had some properly fun entry-level sports cars in the 21st century, and one of the more intriguing examples of the past 20 years is the Pontiac Solstice.

This little sports car seems to have been largely forgotten in the automotive consciousness, which is a shame because it was a bright light during a relatively dark time for General Motors. Think about it — the Solstice and the Pontiac G5 were sold out of the same showroom at the same time, and while the latter was an economy car that didn’t measure up to the competition, the former was something else entirely.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Not only was it a product of singular vision, but it showed what GM engineers could do on a relatively modest budget, stickered for around $20,000, and provided Americans with a homegrown option for affordable roadster fun. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we take a stroll through the corridors of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning to separate the valedictorians from the dropouts.

A New Hope

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 01

From the turn of the millennium until about 2008, sports car buyers were spoiled for choice. In addition to the archetypal Mazda MX-5, Honda had the S2000, Nissan had the 350Z, and Toyota had the MR2 Spyder … and that’s before we even move upmarket. Small roadsters were a big deal in the 2000s, and GM wasn’t about to miss out on this sub-Corvette market. Well, specifically, one man wasn’t about to miss out: then-chairman of GM North America, Bob Lutz.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 25

Lutz had a dream of an affordable American sports car, a dream that didn’t quite go places when he was previously at Ford and Chrysler. The Ghia Barchetta ended up becoming the milquetoast front-wheel-drive Mercury Capri, and the Dodge Copperhead concept was a brilliant show car that just didn’t make the transition to production.

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 1d

A plan was set for the Solstice to feature a hydroformed chassis built using Corvette expertise to compensate for the reduction in structural rigidity convertibles normally see over coupes; short-long-arm independent suspension at all four corners; a longitudinal layout with rear-wheel-drive; and a price tag less than half of what the Chevrolet Corvette commanded. Sounds like quite the product to pull out of thin air, especially on a relatively shoestring budget of $250 million.

Yesterday’s Jam

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 29

ADVERTISEMENT

It goes without saying that building a new sports car from scratch is expensive. For a low-margin, low-volume vehicle, it often doesn’t make sense to start fresh, so GM absolutely raided its parts bin for all it was worth to create the Solstice. The 177-horsepower 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine in the base Solstice came from the Chevrolet Cobalt, while the five-speed manual transmission came from the Chevrolet Colorado, where it was already an upcycled Aisin R154 from the Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo – same bellhousing-to-case pattern, modified internals and tailshaft, new shifter.

Pontiac Solstice Gxp 2007 1600 05

Oh, but it goes so much deeper than that. The rear CV axles are out of a Cadillac STS; the reverse lights are from a GMC Envoy; the combination fog lights and turn signals are from a Pontiac Grand Prix; the steering wheel and passenger airbag are from a Cobalt, as are the steering column and gauge cluster; the exterior door handles are from an Impala; the interior storage bin is a Cadillac XLR lift; and portions of the HVAC system including the A/C evaporator core, blower motor, heater core, and blend door actuator are shared with the Hummer H3. Even more: the front brake calipers are shared with the Chevrolet Malibu, the vapor canister purge valve is from a Buick Lacrosse, the vapor canister vent valve is from a Chevrolet HHR, and the rear view mirror is shared with an Oldsmobile Intrigue.

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 07

Tally it all up, and the Solstice used parts from almost every U.S.-based GM brand in operation during the 2000s, which didn’t just keep costs down, it helped GM develop the Kappa platform and put it into production in a mere three years. The first concept car dropped in 2002, while the first Solstices rolled into showrooms in 2005 for the 2006 model year.

ADVERTISEMENT

Rubber, Meet Road

Pontiac Solstice 2006 1600 2a

So, did Lutz and the gang pull it off? Well, despite a curb weight of 2,860 pounds — four more than a more powerful Porsche Boxster and 386 more than a Mazda MX-5 — the Solstice was still a hoot, as Car And Driver reported:

One needn’t be a sadist to flog the Solstice, but it never hurts to be a sadist. Getting up to highway speed is only a couple of redline shifts away. The 177 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque aren’t going to smoke the tires, but there’s a willingness to please that will keep you grinning. Drag racers might want to wait a year or so for the rumored turbocharged version, which should make more than 250 horsepower.

The Solstice might not have the power to kick out its tail at the exit of a corner, but entering a corner near the limit is easy because the steering offers crisp turn-in and the wide all-season 245/40R-18 Goodyear Eagle RS-As are predictable and easy to slide around. If you do carry too much speed into a corner, understeer will rear its shuddering head, but a slight lift off the accelerator will transfer enough weight off the rear tires to cause them to slip wide, which has the effect of tucking the car back into the corner. The wheelbase measures 95.1 inches, but start pushing the Solstice, and it feels like it Shrinky Dinks to about 80 inches.

In fact, the Solstice made such a positive first impression, from its gorgeous, curvaceous sheetmetal to the way it drove, that Car And Driver initially declared it a subjectively better roadster than the new-for-2006 third-generation Mazda MX-5. Now that’s quite the coup. Initial sales were brisk too, blowing expectations out of the water. General Motors only planned on selling 7,000 Solstices in the first year of production, but Pontiac got flooded with 7,000 orders in the first ten days of the Solstice going on sale.

Saturn Sky 2007 1600 03

Soon after, Saturn Sky, Opel GT, and Daewoo G2X platform-mates appeared, followed by turbocharged Solstice GXP and Sky Red Line variants using the 260-horsepower two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine also seen in the Chevrolet Cobalt SS. With this formidable new engine, zero-to-60 mph times fell to 5.6 seconds in Car And Driver testing, meaning this little roadster punched well above its weight class. The final cherry on top? A Solstice Coupe with a lift-off targa roof. Okay, sure, you couldn’t actually store the hard targa panel anywhere on the car, but it was a neat addition to the range. Alas, it came at just the wrong time.

ADVERTISEMENT

Curtain Call

Pontiac Solstice Coupe 2009 1600 08

A few years into Solstice production, cracks started to form. Sure, convertible top operation on the Solstice was always a pain, and luggage space with the top down was virtually nonexistent, but the bigger issue was the financial crisis that laid ahead. When the Great Recession hit, lots of people simply didn’t have the money or leverage for a weekend roadster, and sales slumped. In 2006, Pontiac sold 19,710 of these little roadsters in America. In 2007, that number only dropped to 16,779 despite the first-year rush being fulfilled. However, 2008 saw sales dip hard to 10,739 units, and 2009 was almost dry, with 5,642 Solstices sold. Things rebounded for 2010, with 7,409 of these roadsters heading out the door, but those were all leftover models. The Delaware plant that made the Solstice shut its doors in 2009, followed by the Pontiac brand itself as GM found itself a casualty of the recession.

Pontiac Solstice Gxp 2007 1600 03

The Pontiac Solstice was undoubtedly a hit, it was largely doomed by factors beyond its control. Still, it’s a miracle that GM would let a car like this make it all the way to production, and unsurprising that the American public absolutely leapt on it. Affordable enthusiast cars have always excited — the Solstice, Mazda MX-5, and Subaru BRZ are proof — but it takes bravery and cleverness to build them. The Pontiac Solstice was American ingenuity at its very best, and deserves to be remembered.

(Photo credits: Pontiac, Saturn)

ADVERTISEMENT

Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

Relatedbar

Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
58 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nicklab
Nicklab
12 days ago

I cross shopped a used Solstice before buying my BRZ and while I liked the looks and the potential performance, I could not get past the lack of space and abysmally cheap interior feel for something I was going to drive daily.

AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
17 days ago

Always loved the looks of the Pontiac. I’d really like to have one of the coupe’s. Easily see those going for $20k used nowadays

Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
17 days ago

I’m honestly surprised by all the praise in the comments. I only know one person who owned one of these and he said it was sluggish, heavy, and handled poorly. It was a non-GXP model.

Allen Lloyd
Allen Lloyd
17 days ago

Fiero owner here, one of my favorite things about GM fans is their sense of optimism. Sure the (insert model name here) was garbage, but if they had just done one more revision it would have been amazing!

My biggest issue with these is the Saturn just looked soooo much better. From an engineering standpoint these are amazing. The problem is the Miata shows that sometimes simplicity is just the better option, especially when talking about things that benefit from less weight.

Vee
Vee
15 days ago
Reply to  Allen Lloyd

That’s the truth of GM. There’s always one big obvious flaw that they engineer into the vehicle that everybody but them seems to recognize. The Corvair’s tires. The Vega’s paint. The Fiero’s engine. The C1500 454SS’s transmission. They treat specialty and high performance vehicles like volume selling sedans in terms of cost and it always comes back to bite them in the ass.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
19 days ago

Call me a GM apologist but I think I’ve voted “hit” for everyone in this series. These were winners. I prefer the Saturn styling over Pontiac, but both are winners.

Chronometric
Chronometric
19 days ago

Notta Miata

Von Baldy
Von Baldy
19 days ago

I remember driving one of these, and boy howdy, as a 250 fat boy, was kinda snugish, but it was a hoot to zip around in.
Pity the trunk space was worthless in it, the top while kinda goofy wasn’t a big deal.
Now of only these had say, the shortstar or the ls3 in it

Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
Carbon Fiber Sasquatch
20 days ago

This is a car that definitely needs a comeback. I really want a yellow solstice with a stick, I don’t car if it’s a turbo or not. Call it a Chevy, call it a Buick, hell call it a GMC! I would love to see what new cheap roadster would be like from GM. It would probably get the 1.5T but I’d be happy with the 1.3T if I’m honest.

Greensoul
Greensoul
20 days ago

I actually found a 1/24 scale model of a Saturn Sky red line edition. It sets in the display case next to my Solstice. Barbie and Ken cars. Solstice for Barb, and a Sky for Ken.

58
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x