Memo to Mazda. Be scared. Very scared. General Motors has conjured up a car to out-MX-5 the MX-5.
The Solstice, from GM’s Pontiac division, looks sexier, handles sweetly, rides smoothly, and may even undercut it on price. And the best bit? It could yet come to the UK.
You must have heard about the Solstice. This was the concept two-seater that appeared at the Detroit motor show back in 2002, the creation of GM’s then newly appointed car czar Bob Lutz.
Rapturous applause and cries of ‘gotta build it’ prompted GM, against its better judgement, to give it the green light for production.
It didn’t matter that ‘The General’ lacked a suitable platform, or wasn’t geared-up to build a low-volume, cheap-as-dirt two-seater. Sports car lovers wanted it and Lutz, fresh from his reign at Chrysler, had the power to make it happen.
Fast-forward 36 months and the first Solstices are being delivered to jubilant US owners. And, amazingly, the promise of that original concept has been delivered. It has two seats. It has rear-wheel drive, it’s powered by a willing four-cylinder engine and it starts at $19,995 (£11,200).
Heck, Elton John spent more than that on his hair. The reason the Solstice is so good is that GM didn’t compromise. The car’s chassis – hydroformed, super-stiff steel tubing – was created specially for the Solstice. GM designed a complete new suspension. It borrowed a rear diff from a Cadillac.
And to replicate the complex curves of the concept’s body, the steel outer panels were expensively hydroformed, instead of being stamped in the traditional way.
In the metal, the Solstice looks gorgeous. It’s all round and curvy with strong, muscular haunches over the wheels and big 18-inch rims pushed way out to the corners. And its silvery framed windscreen surround echoes those of old British chrome-framed sports cars of the ’50s.
Size-wise, it’s 3988mm nose to tail, which is almost identical to the Mazda. But it boasts another 76mm in its wheelbase, and 83mm in the waist for a more accommodating interior.
Slide behind the wheel and you sit deep and low in a cockpit that’s simple, functional and cosseting. The seats have plenty of side bolstering for support in corners. And the 2413mm wheelbase means there’s space for a six foot-plus driver to get comfy.
The ergonomics are outstanding, too. You don’t so much as sit in the car as wear it. The stubby gearshift is right there. The thick-rimmed steering wheel is at just the perfect angle. The pedals are spot-on for heel and toeing.
Yes, some of the trim looks a little cheap and cheerful, and GM’s designers could have been more creative in creating some extra storage space – there’s very little. But the chrome-ringed instruments look classy and all the switches and controls have a solid, upscale feel to them.
The hood works well too, though at first glance it appears like it was designed by a committee. Dropping the top involves getting out of the car for a start, unlike the Mazda’s hood which can be lowered and raised from the driver’s seat.
First you release the catch on the windscreen frame, then open-up the rear-hinged ‘clamshell’ boot lid. Fold back the canvas top into the rear compartment and slam shut the hard cover. Twenty seconds max. Once up, the top fits superbly and keeps wind noise down to a whisper. It also has a glass rear window that’s heated, and a cloth liner to cover the metal framework.
As for boot space, you’ll need to leave the Samsonites at home. Even with the top up there’s scant room. A soft, squashy bag may fit with the roof down.
At the heart of the new Solstice is GM’s latest 2.4-litre four-cylinder Ecotec motor. It’s an all-aluminium unit with overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Normally it’s mounted transversely, but here it’s been re-worked to run north-south so that it can drive the rear wheels through a five-speed manual box sourced from a Chevy pick-up.
Cranking out 177bhp, its power output is pretty much on a par with the new MX-5’s 170bhp. But the Pontiac has more torque; it packs 166lb ft compared with the Mazda’s meagre 140lb ft. What the Pontiac gains in muscle however, it loses in weight; it’s around 136kg heavier.
Twist the key and the Solstice barks into life. The Ecotec’s not a zingy revver, like a Honda S2000’s VTEC, but it spins eagerly and easily to its 6900rpm red line without sounding buzzy or coarse.
Off the line in a scrabble of wheelspin, it’ll breeze to 60mph from rest in 7.2 seconds and run to a drag-limited top speed of 123mph. But it’s the Pontiac’s meaty mid-range that impresses the most. Slot the stubby lever into fourth and the engine will pull from almost walking pace.
With meaty 245/45 18-inch Goodyear Eagle rubber at each corner, the level of grip is outstanding. You can push hard and fast into a corner and the car will simply cream around, helped by its near-perfect 52/48 front/rear weight balance and steering that’s surgically precise and perfectly weighted.
Push really hard and the front end will run wide. But ease off the throttle and the nose tucks in obediently and the Solstice continues its progress. So poised and balanced is this car, your granny could drive it like Jenson Button.
Will the Solstice ever find its way into a Vauxhall showroom? Right now, there’s nothing definite. What’s known is that Opel will get a version of the upcoming Saturn Sky, which is a re-bodied Solstice, to sell in Europe. The official line is that Vauxhall is ‘seriously contemplating’ bringing in a limited number of rebadged left-hand-drive cars, with numbers limited by likely demand as much as anything else.
Engineering the car for right-hand drive is too expensive to justify and would put the car out of its target price range – which is to compete head-on with the MX-5 in the £18-19k bracket.
What we need is Lutz to come to the rescue again. The new Solstice is just too good for it not to be available on British blacktop.