Pontiac's answer to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, the Solstice went on sale for 2006 and was followed up by a turbocharged GXP version last year. A healthy list of changes for 2008 include several features that are now standard on both models: a CD stereo with an MP3 player input, a tire pressure monitoring system, and OnStar and XM Satellite Radio, both of which come with free service for a limited period.
Among the Solstice's most notable styling features is the reverse-hinged forward-opening "clamshell" hood, matched by a similar setup for the trunklid at the rear. Sporting a hunkered-down look, the Solstice has Pontiac's characteristic dual-port grille. The rear clamshell hides the lowered top, preserving the car's clean appearance. Nacelles that sweep behind each seat are shaped to match the head restraints.
The Solstice has 18-inch silver-painted wheels and all-season tires; the GXP has 18-inch polished alloys with summer performance tires, which aren't suitable for cold temperatures or snow and ice. The GXP includes — and the base Solstice can be optioned with — a limited-slip differential, but even with that and/or the electronic stability system, the Solstice shouldn't be anyone's first choice for winter driving.
Aside from the wheels and badges, not much distinguishes the GXP from the regular Solstice. A rear spoiler is optional for both. New paint choices for 2008 include gray and orange metallics.
The soft-top comes in black or tan. For 2008 it includes an "acoustic headliner," which is intended to decrease cabin noise.
The Solstice seats two. The wraparound instrument panel bears deeply recessed round gauges with red numerals. The driver's seat includes powered height adjustment, and the steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. GXP detailing includes aluminum sill plates, embroidered floor mats and a leather steering wheel.
Leather upholstery is optional on either model. The Solstice comes with a CD stereo with XM Satellite Radio. Steering-wheel stereo controls, cruise control, fog lamps and power mirrors, windows and locks with remote keyless entry are all standard on the GXP and optional on the base Solstice.
Function follows form in terms of cargo capacity: The 5.4 cubic feet of trunk volume, available when the top is up, is in a strange horseshoe shape that limits its usefulness. When the top is down, the trunk becomes almost useless.
Base Solstices are powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that makes 173 horsepower and 167 pounds-feet of torque. The GXP's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 260 hp and 260 pounds-feet of torque. Both models come standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but a five-speed automatic is optional. Oddly enough, the quicker car has better gas mileage ratings: All versions get an EPA-estimated 19 mpg in city driving, but on the highway the GXP gets 28 mpg, where the regular model gets 26 mpg, both with manual transmissions. With the automatic, the GXP is still 1 mpg more frugal, at 25 mpg.
The four-wheel-independent suspension has forged-aluminum control arms and monotube shock absorbers. Base and GXP models have front and rear stabilizer bars, but the GXP's are larger and give a firmer ride. Featuring a space frame structure and a 95.1-inch wheelbase, the Solstice is 157.2 inches long overall, 71.6 inches wide and 50.2 inches tall. Its track width is 60.5 inches in front and 61.2 inches at the rear.
For 2008, a tire pressure monitoring system is standard equipment. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and antilock brakes are optional on the base and standard on the GXP. Likewise, for the first time, base models equipped with optional ABS can also get the optional stability system, which comes gratis on the GXP. The Solstice doesn't have side-impact airbags, and the car has not been crash tested by our preferred source, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Snug inside, the Solstice has ample headroom when the top is up but very limited elbow space. Entry and exit aren't easy. Visibility with the top up is awful, and oddly positioned mirrors don't help much. The dashboard's thick chrome bezels can reflect sunlight. We've not driven the 2008, but hope the new top cuts down on the earlier model years' noisy top-up cabin.
The base model's performance falls short of the car's visual promise, due largely to the engine's lack of low-end torque. When pushed hard, engine noise is more annoying than alluring. Some drivers will like the short, notchy gearshift lever, which sits atop a large center tunnel. Others won't be as pleased. There's lots of clutch-pedal travel before engagement, which can make matching engine revs difficult. The clutch also is on the heavy side. Both the manual and automatic transmissions would benefit from an additional gear. On the other hand, the ride isn't bad at all, and the handling has a nice, controllable balance.
The GXP is a completely different experience, with lots of ready torque for either transmission type. This change transforms the car and its handling, and basically makes the gear count and other gripes disappear. It even gives better fuel economy.