Monday, January 02, 2006

Solstice Inspires Memories of Original BMW Z3

A dark blue Pontiac Solstice has been the ride-of-the-week over the holidays and it has been an enjoyable introduction to a car that may yet prove to be a milestone in th recovery or descent of both its divisional maker and parent corporation.

Auto critics and Pontiac officials have been comparing the Solstice to the Mazda Miata, but as I have tooled around in my test car this week the thought kept coming to me that I'd driven it before. Long before in fact, because visions of the original BMW Z3 kept popping into my mind.

After re-reading Tony Swann's 1996 review of the first Z3, I understand why. The Miata is principal current market rival for the Solstice, but this two-seater Pontiac strikes me as more analogous to the Bimmer.

Checking specs on both vehicles reveals the Solstice is within an inch or two on every critical dimension, with length/width/height data at 157.2/70.3/50.1 for the Pontiac and 158.5/66.6/50.7 for the Bimmer. Similarly, curb weights are 2,860 pounds for the Pontiac and 2,680 pounds for the Bimmer.

The biggest difference between the two is under the hood where the Solstice features a 2.4 liter Ecotec four-cylinder producing 177 horsepower, while the Z3 checked in at its original debut with a 1.9 liter four good for 138 horsepower.

The power difference is reflected in 0-60 mph times: My tester managed a 7.35 while I seem to recall my 1996 Z3 tester was in the low eight second bracket, as was Swann's. The two powerplants were about par with each other in terms of vibration, quietness and thrash, as I recall.

Frankly, I always viewed the Z3 as more of a styling exercise than a serious attempt to do a BMW interpretaion of the classic roadster. The lack of power was cured with the addition of a straight six that made the Z3 seriously fun.

Again, there is a parallel here with the some aspects of the Solstice, although I find it more fun to drive than I did the Z3, and not only because of the extra horsepower turning the Pontiac's rear wheels.

I didn't get any track time with the Solstice but there are a lot of wonderful back roads near where I live to get a solid feel for how the Pontiac roadster takes to the asphalt. Pontiac claims a "near 50/50" weight distribution and the Solstice certainly feels balanced and lithe when pushed into a series of left-right-lefts.

The steering is quick and precise, the brakes shave off speed efficiently. The Solstice comes standard with 18-inch Goodyear Eagle RS-As that provide more than abundant grip. I say more because a little less of it in back could ease the understeer that takes over if you really pop the Solstice into a moderatly tight turn.

So, the Solstice doesn't quite handle like a Formula Ford but it is an exceptionally entertaining roadster on the right road and would be a neat tool for spending time at a track during an event like the Friday at the Track series at Summit Point Raceway. But you will need to get a roll bar installed for that kind of activity.

Other observations: The interior looks fine, especially the main instrument pod, but the emergency brake is too far back, which puts it inline with the driver's shoulder plane, thus making it difficult to use.

Also, the cupholder is virtually useless and 3.7 cubic feet of storage, with the top up, is all but useless, and raising and lowering the top needs some major work. Oh yes, one more thing: the five-speeds gearing could be a bit closer.

Still, the Solstice impressed me greatly. The exterior, of course, is smashing good looking, especially the way the fender lines flow front to back and how the short front and back overhangs emphasize the tautness of the silhouette. The front end grabs me, too, and who can't love a clamshell hood?

At $21,000 and change, the Solstice is definitely a bargain, at least in my view. I definitely prefer it to the Miata, which I've never been particularly fond of (too slow, too precise, too perfect), and on the quality front my tester seemed tight and right.

But is the Solstice enough to re-ignite the creative juices within Pontiac and GM? I don't think there has ever been much doubt about the engineering prowess GM is capable of displaying. The question is whether the bean-counters and the suits give the go-ahead to put that prowess to best use.

The Solstice shows inspiration on the styling side, as well, and I can't help but think the upcoming Saturn Sky will be even more of an inspiration. But again the suits and the bean-counters have got to give the green light to the risk-takers in the studios.

In any case, I am eager to get behind the wheel of the upcoming Solstice GXP, with its turbo power, enhanced handling and more aggressive visage. That's the Solstice that is really going to have an impact on the serious enthusiasts.

One more thing: Nobody will ever, ever mistake the Solstice for a Fiero and Mr. Lutz, I apologize for all those previous cracks. You done one heckuva job getting this one to market!