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Solstice to bring open-top flair to Pontiac

March 06, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It could be considered impractical as well as downright impertinent to launch a two-seat open-top sports car these days.

In a world run by the "bottom line," most don't fit any high-volume, high-profit business plan simply because they're seldom used as primary transportation: a two-seat roadster is a discretionary purchase for folks who already have one or more sets of four-season wheels.

But, if you're Pontiac, it would appear that you can make the bottom line work, keep the bean counters happy and still let your imagination run truly wild. The Solstice is living, breathing proof . . . at least it will be when it's launched this fall.

It's a breath of fresh air, literally, both for prospective buyers and Pontiac, which hasn't been in the two-seater business since it built the Fiero of the late 1980s, a car that was developed on its own platform as a stand-alone vehicle.

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Pontiac has learned a thing or two since then and the Solstice is being built on the brand new shared "Kappa" platform. This General Motors-designed rear-wheel-drive architecture will also be shared by the new Saturn Sky, an edgier-looking version of the Solstice.

Platform sharing among existing GM divisions helps reduce costs as well as the risks, allowing the Solstice to hit the market at a projected list price of about $20,000.

If Pontiac can pull it off, the Solstice will be the first serious contender to the Mazda Miata, the reigning king of budget sports cars. The Solstice will also be close to 6 inches wider, about 5.5 inches longer in wheelbase and 2 inches longer in overall length than that particular target.

To make it big in the roadster category, it helps to flash a drop-dead-gorgeous body. Here, the Solstice really shines, with curvy sheetmetal and a big 18-inch wheel/tire package that's pushed out to the very limits of each fender. Both the hood and the deck lid are hinged in such a way that they open facing the cockpit, clamshell style. The soft top is completely hidden from view when stowed inside the trunk. No boot, cover or tonneau is required to keep a clean look.

The Solstice's cockpit is a simple and well-mapped-out affair with functional gauges and switches set against an attractive two-tone backdrop. A pair of high-back buckets offer generous side bolsters to keep the occupants glued to their chairs.

Under the hood is a 2.4-liter version of the double-overhead-cam Ecotec engine that has become the base powerplant in a variety of GM models. Delivering 170 horsepower for the Solstice, thrust should be comparable to that of the base Miata's smaller 142-horse four-cylinder since the Solstice weighs about 400 pounds more. The engine is connected to a five-speed manual transmission.

Down the road, look for added variations on the Ecotec theme to be slotted into the Solstice's engine bay, including a supercharged version with somewhere in the vicinity of 240 horsepower.

Although there is no final word yet on standard and optional equipment, you can expect an entry-level Solstice to feature just the basics, such as a manually folding top, roll-up windows and a plainer interior.

That will play into the hands of sports-car fans who typically shun the luxury stuff in favor of hardware that actually makes the car go faster, stop quicker and handle better.

Provided all the pieces work as intended and the Kappa platform and associated bits are geared for spirited driving, the Solstice will attract a whole bunch of new friends to a revitalized and rejuvenated brand. If Pontiac indeed "builds excitement," this is it.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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