EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view

The 2006 Pontiac Solstice is here.

And for those of us who like the idea of an affordable, two-person open roadster, this all-new model from General Motors gives us a second choice. The only other car in this class is the Mazda MX-5 Miata, which has been around for 16 years and itself enters a new generation this fall.

The Miata has been so successful — at least for a niche vehicle — that we have to wonder why no other automaker has tried to compete with it until now. We thought that Honda would be going after the Miata with the introduction of its S2000 a few years ago, but its price tag of nearly $34,000 is about $12,000 higher than that of the base Miata, and $14,000 above the $19,995 that Pontiac has on the sticker of the base Solstice.

Where Honda created an expensive two-seater for the enthusiast crowd, with an engine that had nearly double the power of the base Miata, Pontiac brought in the Solstice with specifications similar to those of the 2006 Miata — including the horsepower (170 for the Miata with manual transmission vs. 177 for the Solstice).

Mazda has upgraded the Miata for 2006, including an increase in power from last year’s 142 for the base engine. But the company has actually lowered the price, so you can buy an entry level model for about $22,000, compared with closer to $24,000 last year.

That’s in reaction to the introduction of the Solstice and the impending arrival of its sibling, the Saturn Sky roadster, which will show up early next year as a 2007 model. The Sky comes down the same assembly line as the Solstice, but has different exterior styling. Just about everything else is the same, including the drivetrain.

The Solstice went on sale in early August, and the sticker price rings this car up as quite a bargain.

While it starts at under $20,000, a Solstice loaded with everything you can get — including leather interior — tops out at about $25,000. But the Solstice looks like it should cost much more — it’s as rich-looking as cars such as the BMW Z4, which begins in the mid-$30,000s.

Getting a Solstice anytime soon might be a problem, though, if you’re not already on a waiting list and have been promised a car.

The first 1,000 of the Solstices were sold through a TV show, “The Apprentice,” and after cranking those out, the plant in Wilmington, Del., began sending the cars to Pontiac dealers. But initial plans were for production of 7,000 this model year; Pontiac has more than 13,000 orders in hand.

As is often the case with limited product introductions such as this, many dealers will get only one of the cars this year, and those will be either kept by the dealer or sold at a premium — either by the dealer or the retail customer who buys it from the dealer.

And those that do find their way to dealerships often will be marked up well above the manufacturer’s sticker price. Some of the cars sold through “The Apprentice” already are showing up for sale on eBay, at prices up to $10,000 over sticker.

I haven’t heard of any shortages of the new Miata, though, so perhaps that would be a better choice if you’re in a hurry to buy a two-seat roadster for under $25,000 this year. I like the Solstice’s exterior better, though. The front end with its aggressive-looking grille just makes the car look classier and more expensive than the new Miata. Whether the car’s long-term reliability and resale value will ever be able to match those of the Japanese-built Miata remains to be seen, though.

Under the Solstice’s hood is a 2.4-liter GM Ecotec inline four-cylinder engine rated at 177 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque.

A close-ratio Aisin five-speed manual gearbox is standard, and a five-speed automatic will be available later this model year. The car has rear-wheel drive, of course.

Our test car came with the manual gearbox, which usually is preferred by enthusiasts who buy cars such as this. But Pontiac probably will end up selling more automatics, since they usually are preferred by female drivers. Women are expected to be the majority of buyers of the Solstice in the long run, just as they have been with the Miata. One thing I really liked about the Solstice was that I could lower the manual soft top from the driver’s seat without getting out of the car, which is nice in a car that doesn’t have a power top.

It lowers very easily after unlatching it from the middle of the windshield and opening the trunk (which opens to the rear). The canvas top folds neatly into the top of the trunk, then the trunk lid closes over it, keeping the top completely out of sight. The overall look with the top down is quite beautiful.

The cockpit is a tight fit for big people, however, and there is nowhere to put purses, cell phones or other carry-on items. And with the top down, the 3.8-cubic-foot trunk is filled — there is no room for even a golf bag. The Miata has the edge there — it has a usable trunk, although it is small.

The Solstice is quite fun to drive, particularly with the top down. On a Saturday cruise with the sun beating down on us, my companion and I enjoyed topless driving for about three hours, having greased ourselves with sunscreen first. But after lunch, we opted to put the top up, as the hot midday sun was a bit too much (it was mid-October, but the temperature was still in the upper 90s).

With the top up, the car is a bit harder to get into and out of, and not quite as much fun — these cars really are made for top-down driving.

The Solstice is not as easy on gas as I thought it would be. EPA ratings are 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, but on our back-roads drive we probably got no better than 22 or 23. I was driving it like a sports car, though, not like a family sedan. That means I was getting full power and torque out of each gear on startup, which can tend to use more gas than is absolutely necessary. But I suspect that most enthusiasts will want to drive the car the same way I did. That’s what makes it the most fun.

GM introduced the Solstice as a concept vehicle at the 2002 Detroit auto show, and frankly I never though the car would actually be produced.

Apparently GM got lots of favorable response to the concept, however, so the decision was made to bring the Solstice to market.

Dealers are overjoyed because the car will bring in potential customers who wouldn’t have come close to a Pontiac showroom before.

While many of them won’t end up buying a Solstice, probably because they’ll realize that it’s not practical for them, they might end up choosing another of Pontiac’s excellent new vehicles, such as the G6 (which will get its own convertible version early next year).

Among standard features are racing-inspired sport bucket seats; leather-wrapped manual shift knob; AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with six speakers; tilt steering wheel; three cup holders (for just two seats); cloth top with glass rear window, including a defogger; dual front air bags; daytime running lights; battery rundown protection; four-wheel disc brakes; power rack-and-pinion steering; stainless-steel exhaust with chromed outlet; 18-inch painted aluminum wheels; and remote trunk release.

Air conditioning is a $960 stand-alone option, but a necessity for those in hot climates who want to drive these cars with the top up some of the time.

Options on our test car included the air conditioning, along with a “Convenience” package” ($495) that added cruise control, a driver-information center, and front fog lights; a “Power” package” ($625) that tacked on power windows/mirrors/door locks with keyless entry; antilock braking system ($400); premium Monsoon audio system ($395); XM satellite radio ($325); limited-slip rear differential ($195); AM/FM/compact-disc stereo with MP3 playback ($195); and carpeted floor mats ($60).

Total sticker was $23,615, including $575 freight.

Our car did not have the “Premium” package ($690), which includes leather seats (ebony or steel/sand two-tone), leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering wheel radio controls

OnStar, GM’s in-car communications and navigation service, also is available on the Solstice.

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G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

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At a Glance – 2006 Pontiac Solstice

The package: Subcompact, rear-drive, two-passenger, two-door, four-cylinder, soft-top convertible sports car.

Highlights: All-new for 2006, this is Pontiac’s first open-top roadster, designed to compete against the popular Mazda Miata and give Pontiac dealers a car that will draw new customers into its showrooms.

Negatives: Noisy inside with the top up; a tight fit for larger people.

Engine: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder

Power/torque: 177 horsespower/166 foot-pounds

Transmissions: Five-speed manual (five-speed automatic optional)

Length: 157.2 inches

Base curb weight: 2,860 pounds

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, power; antilock optional.

Steering: Rack and pinion, power

Trunk volume: 3.8 cubic feet (top up)

Major competitors: Mazda Miata, Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, Mini Cooper convertible

EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city/28 highway

Fuel capacity/type: 13.8 gallons/unleaded regular

Base price: $19,420 plus $575 freight

Price as tested: $23,615 including freight and options

On the Road rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary due to manufacturer and/or dealer discounts, rebates and incentives.

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