The buzz surrounding the Pontiac Solstice is huge. GM says that when the car went on sale the Internet while being promoted on an episode of ‘The Apprentice’ late last year they sold over 1,000 in 41 minutes and saw more than 7,000 orders in the first ten days. Folk flutter around the Solstice like moths, wanting to find out how it drives and how much it costs. After all, it’s the first real Mazda MX-5 rival, well, ever and it’s American to boot.
The Solstice has as much patriotic goodwill behind it as a Fourth of July parade. I have to admit I didn’t car for Pontiac’s looks at first, but I did eventually warm to its pleasing muscular coke-bottle shape. I also began to appreciate its profile, with its dramatic overhangs, huge wheels and racy bulges on the rear deck. The detailing is poor, though, with oddly shaped lights and grille that looks like an afterthought. Fortunately, that won’t be an issue when the car reaches Europe. You’ll be getting an Opel derivative of the Saturn Sky, with a tidier front and less contrived detailing.
Park the MX-5 alongside the Solstice and you really see how crisp the Mazda’s detailing is: the lights, front and rear, are beautiful and more sophisticated than a cocktail party at the Stephen Fry’s, and the surfacing is clean and utterly devoid of superfluous garnish, with the exception of V-shaped bonnet indentation and twin tail pipes.
The only issue I’d have with its design would be the wheel arches, which make even the top-of-the-line 17-inch wheels look small. Inside, it’s a whitewash for the Mazda. Everything about its cabin exudes quality and class – note the piano-black dash trim, the chunky steering wheel and the thoughtful rendering on otherwise mundane features like the cup holders and air vents.
There are flaws, though, such as the too-narrow seats, the overuse of laser-red dashboard illumination and the slightly overwrought stereo controls. Still, these are small quibbles in an otherwise excellent cabin. By the time the European derivative of the Solstice arrives, GM had better get the interior straightened out. There’s nothing awry about the driving position; the seats are more comfortable (though less supportive) than the Mazda and all the basics are where you expect to find them. But… (deep breath) the dashboard design is so bland it looks almost homemade; the stereo is anaemic; the position of the electric window switches boggles belief; there’s no central locking button on the dashboard, the dial illumination switch is, ironically, unlit and there’s really nowhere to put your mobile phone or a wallet.
More shockingly, you can easily mash your fingers against the dashboard as you take fifth (if you wrap your hand around the gearlever as I often do) while the overall quality of construction is several rungs below that of the Mazda. You feel that Mazda carefully crafted the MX-5’s interior while Pontiac hobbled the Solstice’s cockpit together from the parts bin.
Actually, that’s not far from the truth. The ventilation controls come from Fiat, the steering is Saab’s, the seat frames are nicked out of the Corsa and even the mirrors are leftover Barchetta units. At least the Solstice’s roof looks wonderful when in place, with its thick buttresses and upright rear window, and is even better looking when the hood is down, exposing the racing bulges and adding real character to the car’s profile and rear view. But the roof’s execution is a complete disaster, requiring the driver to lift up the rear-hinged boot lid by hand to get at the stored roof, while also making him push both flimsy buttresses back into place manually upon re-erection. Roof-up, luggage space is almost non-existent thanks to a bulky rear differential that swallows up most of the available real estate. Roof down, boot space is laughable - and you even have to lift the hood up to get to the single pair of underpants you were able to wedge into a corner.
The MX-5, on the other hand, doesn’t care if the roof is up or down. The boot opens and closes just the same and the space in there doesn’t vary. The roof can be dropped in about 4 seconds and if your arm is strong enough, it can be lifted up again in the same about of time without even having to get out. No, it doesn’t have the buttresses or the power bulges, but I’ll happily sacrifice form for function in this instance. In terms of drag-strip performance, the Solstice should use its superior power and torque to peel away from the Mazda, but because it weighs a whopping 200 kg more than the feathery MX, it actually feels no faster.
The automatic MX-5 was sluggish to launch, but once off the line it was able to stick with the Solstice right up to about 120 km/h, at which point we called off our unscientific tests in the interests of license preservation. Official figures have the manual,160 bhp,2.0-liter MX-5 reaching 100 km/h in just 7.9 seconds with a top speed of 210 km/h, while the 177 bhp,2.4-litre Solstice supposedly needs only 7.2 seconds to reach 100 km/h before topping out around the 200 km/h mark. Whatever the figures claim, as far as I’m concerned there’s no perceptible difference between these two cars. This is the second new MX-5 I’ve driven and because this one came with the optional 6-speed automatic, it didn’t have the rear LSD or the Bilstein dampers of the first Sport MX I drove.
While it felt fundamentally the same, there are subtle differences that make it, bizarrely, a better car to drive than the supposedly sportier model. It rides with more composure for a start, and though it rolls more, that roll takes the hyperactivity out of the turn-in, making the MX-5 feel more like an MX-5 and less like a Porsche Boxster on its sixth cup of coffee. With a softer set-up, the MX-5 is a joy to sling around because it breaks loose more progressively and conveys more information about car and road to you in the process. The steering and brakes could still use a touch more meat for my taste, though, and I wouldn’t recommend the automatic to any enthusiast even if the optional shift-paddles do lend it an F1 vibe. Those gripes aside, the MX-5 is still a fine little roadster – better than it ever was, which is saying something.
The Solstice feels much, much bigger than the MX-5 at normal speeds, with a considerably slower turn-in and comparatively cumbersome controls. As a consequence, it feels a lot less responsive than the MX-5 and it certainly wouldn’t excite many enthusiasts on their brief test drive from the dealership. Turn up the heat, though, and the Solstice sharpens up considerably. Once you get past the initial laziness of the chassis, the Solstice’s steering firms up substantially, offering less feedback but more weight than the slightly over-assisted MX-5. Like the Mazda, it has to overcome body-roll before it settles into a corner properly but once hunkered down, it bites hard into the asphalt, particularly at the rear end where it feels very especially planted and secure. Push it too far and the Solstice understeers progressively and controllably, which isn’t necessarily what you want in a rear-drive roadster, while the brakes are strong and the pedals are perfectly positioned for enthusiast driving.
As to which car is better to drive, I have to admit the Solstice was much better than I had expected, but then so was the more softly sprung MX-5. The crisper gear change of the (manual) Mazda; it’s livelier chassis and its quicker, more delicate steering appeals to me as a driving enthusiast more than the squishier, less urgent Pontiac. There’s no denying the Solstice has real balance but you have to drive the absolute nuts off it for before it starts to reward you. And there aren’t too many occasions when you can do that in the real world, now are there?
As a consumer, putting my own hard cash into one of these cars, the Mazda is the clear, runaway winner. The Solstice isn’t a car I could live with day to day: The roof is a pain, the quality is poor, the interior lacks storage space and it looks like it might be very expensive to fix even a minor ding (behold the clamshell bonnet, for example). I’m glad that someone decided to take on the Mazda MX-5 and while the basic concept of the Solstice is right on the money, the final execution falls way short of the sky-high standard set by the Mixer.
There is great potential in the Solstice, mind, and we hear that GM is working hard to get the car right for Europe expect a sportier suspension, a better interior, hornier looks and more power amongst the refinements. Hopefully, they can package the roof a little better too, all of which would make it a very viable alternative to the ubiquitous Mazda MX-5. But there’s a long, long way to go before that happens and because there is no flag waving goodwill or comb-over tycoons to prop up sales, GM had better not take any shortcuts this time around.
Mazda MX-5 2.0 Sport (EU Spec)
Engine: 1,999 cc,four-cylinder,160 bhp,188 Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, RWD
Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 7.9 sec
Top Speed: 210 km/h
Weight: 1100 kg
Economy: 8.2 L/100 km
Boot Capacity: 150 litres
Irish Price (1.8),€34,055