The cars we loved.
It was no secret that Pontiac wanted a roadster to compete with the Mazda Miata. Before Bob Lutz became head of Pontiac, he spearheaded a roadster concept for Ford of Europe in the early 1980s called the Ghia Barchetta. Lutz could not get the ok to produce it at the time and passed the ideal off to Fords then Japanese partner Mazda. Mazda said no due to the Fiesta based front drive architecture and more importantly, they were already working on their own real wheel drive roadster that would eventually be the Miata. Meanwhile the Barchetta concept would not die and eventually became the Ford of Australia built Capri , later sold in America as the Mercury Capri.
Lutz, the man behind the Viper while at Chrysler, never forgot the drop-top ideal and made it a priority when he landed at Pontiac. The company went so far as to cobble together a concept car in 2002 for the North American International Auto Show that was jerry rigged with components from the Delta platform parts bin (think Chevy Cobalt). The slick and very beautiful working concept was made in four months and was one of the hits of the show. The production car would be based on GM’s new rear drive Kappa platform.
Fast forward a few years to 2008 at another auto show in NY. The roadster had gone on sale back in 2006 and was a standout best seller among Pontiac’s revamp line up of modern cars. While the roadster was popular, Pontiac had intended to build a fixed top coupe all along and one was finally available in 2009. The New York Auto Show concept was almost unchanged in production form.
The slinky shape was unlike any Pontiac before it. In sharp contrast to the Saturn Sky, it was organic looking with snake-like curves, made all the more impactful by the addition of a hard top. It like the roadster came with the 2.0-liter four cylinder Ecotec II engine. Its base engine produced 177 hp and was the same one in the other Kappa cars (Opel GT, Saturn Sky and Daewoo G2X).
For those who wanted to exploit the full performance potential of rear wheel drive, a GXP model was offered. The GXP designation had been a popular all out performance version of Pontiac cars since the 70s. In the Solstice, the GXP package was especially attractive In the rare coupe, thanks to 18’ chrome wheels and other aggressive design touches. There were even concessions to practicality with the inclusion of a opening rear glass hatch.
Production started at the Wilmington Delaware facility just before GM announced that it was pulling the plug on Pontiac. 1,266 Solstice coupes made it out of the factory before the plug was pulled in 2009. There were more than 64,000 Solstice roadsters built, making the coupe a very desirable future collector’s item. The fact that the targa topped coupe was the only one of the cars built on the Kappa platform to have a hardtop makes it even more special.
Besides the top, rear tail lights and glass hatch, the coupe shares all the same parts as the roadster. The GXP version’s Ecotec engine was turbocharged for 260 hp. Pontiac offered a GM Performance power upgrade that pushed the output of the Turbo engine closer to 300hp by modifying the ECU and exhaust. This same engine was also in the Saturn Sky Red Line. The GXP Solstice was one of the most aggressive looking Pontiacs in recent memory.
Part of what made the car so cool to look at also made it cramped inside its tight cabin. The low roof combined with the bulky OnStar rear view mirror could easily give larger drivers a case of claustrophobia. The snug fit of the targa panels and their thick sides restricted visibility to the sides. Despite being bigger than the Miata, it seemed more cramped – made more apparent by a fixed roof.
While the GPX Coupe could out run any Miata, it ultimately was not as rewarding to drive. The added weight of the coupe only amounted to 50 lb. more than the roadster and had no negative effect on handling. Still, the independent suspension, 5-speed manual (or automatic) transmission and small size made the Solstice more rewarding to drive than most small cars.
The base Solistice was more a highway cruiser with its softly sprung ride much like the Saturn Sky. GPX cars especially with the Club Sport package with its more aggressive summer tires had a slightly stiffer (and more responsive) ride. Generally, the Saturn Sky projected a more luxurious and refined image while the Solistice (in any trim) projected a sportier demeanor.
The GPX coupe had no trouble finding buyers, despite its starting price of $30k ($2K more than the standard coupe and $1k more than the GPX roadster). In its run, the Solostice ran away with the most popular roadster title, outselling the Miata in the first three years of its availability. The Solstice concept cars were an exercise in defining Pontiac’s style. The production cars brought that mojo to the showroom nearly unchanged, prompting Car and Driver to proclaimed the Solstice as one of the 10 most beautiful cars of 2009.
In the end Pontiac (and GM) got ahead of itself, as poor decisions from the past caught up with it. Perhaps a car like the Solstice will return as a Chevrolet or Buick in the future. With Lutz gone, who’s left at GM to pass the roadster concept to now?