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Solstice: A Brawny Beauty

Anyone who thinks that troubled General Motors (GM) can't still come up with exciting, inexpensive new models should check out the Pontiac Solstice, which starts at a mere $19,995. There's just one problem: Getting your hands on one. Within 10 days of the car's appearance on NBC's The Apprentice, eager buyers had placed early orders for 7,116 Solstices. That's nearly half this year's expected 15,000 production run, so the car is likely to be in short supply.

Never mind. If your dream is to own a cool, ragtop sportscar with American flair, order one now, even if it means waiting a few months. This heartthrob of a car is designed to compete head-on with Mazda's newly redesigned and comparably priced Miata MX-5. I gave that car my highest rating, five stars (see BW Online, 9/30/05, "The MX-5: A Gripping Experience"). And in the latest issues of Car and Driver and Automobile, the experts at both magazines slightly preferred the Solstice in their preliminary comparison tests.

TURNS MANY HEADS. I'd still give a slight advantage to the MX-5. But the important point isn't that the Solstice is better or worse than the Mazda -- it's different. While the MX-5 is modeled on classic English sportscars, the Solstice is unabashedly American, with muscular good looks that are closer to those of a Chevy Corvette than a classic Jaguar or MG. Which model you prefer will depend on personal taste. (For a look at a number of these models, see BW Online, 6/24/05, "Special Report: Cars for a Midlife Crisis").

In its styling, the Solstice is a knock-your-socks-off car. I've never tested an auto that attracted so much attention. It's only slightly wider and longer than the Miata, but looks bigger and more solid than it is, partly because it comes standard with huge, wide-track all-season tires.

From the front, the Solstice looks hard and hungry, with big oddly shaped headlights, sculpted fenders, and a mouthlike aluminum-colored air intake vent down near pavement level. From the rear, there's a single, big brutal-looking tailpipe and cowlings behind the headrests of each seat that give the rear deck a striking, sculpted look. From the side, it has a long front deck, a squatty cab, and a short trunk that come together in a distinctive profile, especially with the optional 18-inch, five-spoked wheels in polished ($545 extra) or chromed ($795 extra) aluminum.

COMPARISON DRIVE. The Solstice also has some cool design touches. When you push the open-trunk button, for instance, the two little flaps that anchor the back of the convertible top flip up automatically with an audible slingshot sound. When the roof is up, the flaps click into spring-loaded latches in the trunk lid.

The Solstice is a blast to drive, though it doesn't quite match up to the MX-5. I got together with Joseph Freda, the Calicoon (N.Y.) novelist/real estate agent I met while reviewing the MX-5, and we squared my Solstice test car off against his brand-new stick-shift MX-5. As Freda puts it, the Solstice's "ride on the highway felt stable and smooth, more cruiser than tightly strung sports car."

It's quick, with a peppy, high-tech 177-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, but it's a tad slower off the mark than the Mazda and seems to top out a little sooner in each gear. That's largely because the Solstice weighs nearly 400 pounds more than the MX-5. GM kept the price down by not resorting to expensive weight-reduction measures.

SPIFFY INTERIOR. In general, the Mazda has a lighter, refined feel, while the Solstice veers more toward the muscle car end of the spectrum. "The [Solstice's] drivetrain felt coarser than the Miata's [and] the shifter felt clunkier, not as crisp," Freda says.

The Solstice's interior is very clean. This is a "Lutz car" -- one of the hot new models being pushed by industry veteran Bob Lutz, GM's vice-chairman charged with adding pizzazz to the auto maker's lineup (see BW, 7/18/05, "GM's Design Push Picks Up Speed"). As with all Lutz cars, the Solstice's interior is uncomplicated and well made. The seats are more supportive and comfortable than the Miata's, for instance. And good-looking leather upholstery comes at no extra cost.

The Solstice's price remains reasonable even when you add options to the stripped-down $19,995 base model. Basic stuff such as cruise control, fog lamps, power windows and door locks, and keyless remote entry increases the price by just $1,090. Air conditioning costs an extra $960, antilock brakes $400, and a high-end sound system $495. Then again, with the Solstice in short supply, some dealers may try to charge a premium for it.

FLOOR ROOM ONLY. The car's big failing is its lack of storage space. Its tiny trunk is oddly shaped because the gas tank creates a hump in the middle of it. There's room only for small, soft-sided luggage. And when the convertible top is down -- and into the trunk -- a couple of gym bags and an extra pair of shoes fills the trunk. Because the Mazda's top doesn't retract into the trunk, it has more carrying capacity.

The storage situation isn't much better inside the Solstice. It has one small compartment between the seats at the back of the cab and a tiny glove compartment. With the top down, about the only space to stow an attaché case, portable computer, knapsack, or large purse is on the floor on the passenger side. That just isn't very practical.

The Solstice also has a number of smaller design flaws. When you open the doors during a rainstorm, for instance, water drips down the sides of the convertible top onto the seats. On the Miata, a drip edge keeps that from happening.

NEEDS SOME TUCKS. Finally, there's the question of cupholders. The Solstice has three -- but two are between the seats at the back of the passenger compartment, so you have to go into contortions to reach them while driving. The third pops out on the passenger side and is convenient for the driver to use when alone -- but jabs a passenger's leg.

You'll put up with a lot of inconveniences if a sports car looks and drives like a dream -- and this one does -- but the Sostice has a few more drawbacks than necessary.

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