EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

Visually, Pontiac’s two-seat roadster is a knockout. One of my friends asked if it was a Porsche. That’s a high compliment, particularly for a car whose base price is $19,915.

The front-engine, rear-drive Solstice was first shown in 2002 as a concept car at the Detroit auto show. It was one of the first vehicles inspired by Bob Lutz, a consummate car guy who is vice chairman of General Motors.

The Solstice competes directly with the new Mazda MX-5, formerly called the Miata. The Miata has been king of its segment, and the redesigned model is the best yet. Can the Solstice dethrone the king?

The Solstice is new from the ground up. Details from the concept car, such as the forward-opening clamshell hood, have been carried over to the production version. The body wraps tightly around the wheels, engine and cabin. The car is slightly larger than the Miata, and heavier. The cockpit is dominated by the console that sweeps into the dash.

Large 18-inch wheels fill the fenders and contribute to the muscular look as well as good cornering. Body-color panels extend into the cabin, and the folded convertible top hides under the rear clamshell opening. A downside is that the luggage space is pretty much swallowed up when the top is down, so weekend trips require light packing if you’re planning on motoring al fresco.

The Solstice uses General Motors’ 2.4-liter, Ecotec four-cylinder that produces 177 horsepower. The test car had a five-speed manual transmission.

While 177 horsepower may not sound like a lot, the curb weight of 2,860 pounds gives the Solstice a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 16.2 to 1. Pontiac said it hits 60 mph in roughly seven seconds. A higher horsepower GXP powered by a 2.0-liter turbo with 260 horsepower will be out soon.

The aluminum Ecotec has dual-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Counter-rotating balance shafts keep vibration to a minimum. The camshafts are driven chains that don’t need replacement. To reduce noise and vibration, accessories are mounted directly to the engine and the engine mounts are hydraulic.

My main objection to the Solstice was the noise and coarseness of the engine and transmission, surprising considering the work that was done to make it smooth.

A convertible sports car needs a solid chassis to deliver on its promise of outstanding handling. To that end, Pontiac developed an entirely new chassis made from hydroformed frame rails that run the full length of the car. This basic chassis also will be used for the upcoming Saturn Sky. To give the chassis the required rigidity even without a top, the frame rails are joined to stamped steel sections and a reinforced center tunnel.

The Solstice has a nearly ideal 50/50 weight distribution, Bilstein shocks, rack-and-pinion steering and forged aluminum control arms. The large wheels and four-wheel disc brakes contribute to its handling prowess.

The cockpit-style interior is definitely small. The gearshift sits high on the center tunnel. Big, bold gauges are a bit like those from a motorcycle. The pedals are placed for easy heel-and-toe driving.

To keep the Solstice priced competitively, GM relied on creative selection from its corporate parts bin. Backup lamps are from the GMC Envoy, while the door handles, fog lamps, seats, engine and transmission are shared with other GM vehicles.

A Solstice equipped with OnStar will have hands-free voice recognition and an advanced crash notification system that makes crash data available to 911 centers to help them dispatch the appropriate emergency help.

Price

The base price of the test car was $19,915. Options included cruise control, power door locks, power windows, keyless entry, air conditioning, AM/FM radio with six-disc changer, XM satellite radio and carpeted floor mats. The sticker price was $23,815.

Warranty

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Engine: 2.4-liter, 177-hp 4-cyl.

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Rear-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 95.1 inches

Curb weight: 2,860 lbs.

Base price: $19,995

As driven: $23,815

MPG rating: 20 city, 28 hwy. At A Glance

Point: The Solstice is cute, cleverly designed and affordably priced. The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder has decent performance. A balanced chassis and big wheels give it good handling.

Counterpoint: The cabin is small, the engine is noisy, and the trunk space is lost when the convertible top is down.

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