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Pontiac’s underrated American British sports car

18 September, 2015


Designed to take on the Mazda Miata, Honda S2000 and Porsche Boxster, the Solstice was a runaway success in the US, and proved itself as a more than capable rival for those sports cars

Established in 1926 as a division of General Motors (GM), Pontiac quickly gained a reputation for building solid and reliable cars, although they were not especially powerful. That would all change when Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen took over in 1956, as he quickly adopted model changes that lead to a total rejuvenation of the marque. With the youthful presence of people such as John Z DeLorean also on board, Pontiac would, in effect, kick-start the US muscle car boom with its GTO, and take up a new role as GM’s performance arm.

While Pontiac may have made a name for shoehorning massively powerful V8 motors into humdrum saloons, it left it to another division of GM — Chevrolet — to get on with the business of designing and building a home-grown sports car.

Medallion-wearing Burt Reynolds wannabes may have been happy with their ‘screaming chicken’–emblazoned TransAms, but by the early ’80s, moves were afoot that lead Pontiac to dip its toes into the sports-car market. By that time DeLorean had parted ways with GM, and was busying himself conning money out of the British Government as he attempted to get his gull-winged DMC-12 sports car onto the market.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, GM’s Advanced Design Three studio had taken the concept of a cheap commuter car and transformed it into something of a first for a US auto manufacturer — a mid-engined sports car. After a series of prototypes were built, the new design was passed over to Pontiac, which, as the company’s performance division, was expected to finalize the car’s engineering and ready it for series production. On September 14, 1983, the Pontiac Fiero was officially launched — and while mid-engined cars had been around in Europe since the ’60s, the Fiero was a truly revolutionary car by US standards.

Sadly, the Fiero was initially lumbered with a lame four-cylinder engine that could only wheeze out a miserable 68kW. Although the car sold well it was largely unloved, and any halfway decent Japanese hot hatch could blow the Pontiac into the weeds.

In 1987 Pontiac finally woke up, and after briefly trying a turbocharged model, slotted a fuel-injected 2.8-litre V6 into the Fiero. I drove one of these V6-engined Fieros many years ago (New Zealand Classic Car, October 1995), and with a touch over 100kW on tap the car offered a reasonable amount of power, but it was hardly going to set the performance world alight — too little, too late, and in March 1988 the Pontiac Fiero was no more.

Fresh start

Winding the clock a few decades on from the Fiero, Pontiac once again decided to have a punt at the affordable sports-car market, which, at the time, was dominated by the Mazda Miata (that’s MX-5 to you and I), Honda’s S2000 and the Porsche Boxster. With those rivals in mind, the Solstice first broke cover at the 2004 North American Auto Show, and the small and stylish roadster soon had the US motoring press salivating at the thought of the car becoming a production reality.

Not wanting to lose the momentum gained from that debut showing, Pontiac buckled down, and by mid 2005 the first production examples were being put together.

As designed by Franz von Holzhausen (later the main designer at Tesla), the production Solstice remained close to the original concept. Built on GM’s Kappa platform and powered by a 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylinder engine, the Solstice convertible was a hit with buyers, and Pontiac struggled to assemble enough cars to meet demand — over 7000 orders being received within the first 10 days after the model’s official launch. 

With the success of its new sports car confirmed, Pontiac introduced a more powerful version — the GXP — in January 2006. The turbocharged, 2.0-litre Ecotec inline four fitted to the GXP represented a real milestone for Pontiac — as well as being a smoother engine than the 2.4, it was also GM’s first-ever direct-injection petrol engine. In 2008 the stylish Solstice coupé joined the line-up, this model being fitted with a removable hardtop.

Already well priced, the Solstice outsold the Mazda MX-5, the Pontiac’s main home-market rival, in 2006, and the later GXP followed with an equally keen price on launch and a big increase in power (194kW rather than 132kW) over the standard Solstice — all at an additional cost of only US$2710. The GXP also featured a stiffer chassis, altered gear ratios and stability control. Styling was unchanged other than for the addition of some extra grilles around the fog-lamp housings.

Although there was an initial sales boom in 2006 and 2007, demand for the Solstice slowly dwindled despite the appearance of a further series of publicity-seeking concept cars. In its final year of production, 2010, only 20 examples were built. 

Summery Solstice

Having never seen one of the Pontiac-badged sports cars in the flesh, I jumped at the chance of updating my Fiero driving experience when Roger Phillips, the head man at UDM Special Interest Vehicles, told us that he’d just landed a Solstice GXP — the only example currently resident in New Zealand.

So, without further ado I soon found myself strolling around our test car. I have to say that I was rather taken by the GXP’s styling — although less by its overly large, aftermarket rims — the car seemingly endowed with a whiff of European style while still being recognizably American. 

By the time you read these words, this Solstice GXP will be in the hands of its new Kiwi owner — and they’ve elected to keep the car in original left-hand drive form rather than get UDM to undertake a right-hand drive conversion. Unlike Mustang-toting Ashley, it’s been a while since I drove a left-hand drive car, but I soon got into the swing of things.

As I slotted the GXP’s five-speeder into third and gave it some gas, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a shame Pontiac couldn’t have devised a way to pep up the Ecotec engine. Quite frankly, it never really felt or responded like a classic sports-car motor. There’s nothing left once it spins much over 5000rpm, with progress up to the redline a fairly leisurely affair. All this wasn’t helped by a quiet, flat-sounding exhaust system — if this was my car I’d be ripping out the factory exhaust in order to install something with a much more sporting note. The GXP’s gearbox — shared with the Hummer H3 — while operating smoothly enough has none of the MX-5’s rifle-bolt precision.

Fortunately, the Solstice makes up for these shortcomings with a truly comfortable ride and excellent straight-line stability. On the road, it always felt firmly planted — although the car’s rather non-linear steering took some time to get used to, as it doesn’t really let you know what’s happening underneath. I would have preferred a little less assistance.

So, I’d label the Solstice GXP as more of a sporting cruiser than an out-and-out sports car.
Pontiac may have been setting its sights on the MX-5, Boxster, and Honda S2000, but in real terms — despite being faster than the Mazda and Porsche — the GXP doesn’t display the precision feel and handling of either. On the road, the Solstice would be no match for the Honda S2000 either in the handling or performance stakes.

Alas, the Pontiac’s value as a weekend cruise–mobile is severely hampered by its distinct lack of luggage space.

A few years back I owned a Toyota MR-S — a car with a few cubbies behind the seats, and a ridiculously tiny boot up front — its excuse being that it was mid-engined. The more conventional front-engined Solstice offers even less storage space — with the hood up, there’s very little boot space, and once the hood is stowed away, there’s perhaps just enough room for a toothbrush and a change of underwear!

However, like most two-seater rag-top sports cars, the Solstice is probably best considered as being something of an automotive toy — a car kept for pure driving pleasure and damn practicality, a role the Solstice GXP performs with an endearing measure of style.

Winter Solstice

Alas, the Solstice marked the end of the long summer for Pontiac, and in 2009 GM announced that the worsening financial situation in the US was forcing the company into a round of radical restructuring — the upshot being that the Pontiac name was consigned to the history books with the last car, a G6, rolling off the production line in January 2010.

In an ironic twist, the revived DeLorean Motor Company — a car company without a car — seriously considered taking over the Solstice following Pontiac’s demise, perhaps in tribute to the late John Z DeLorean. Alas, this was one Solstice that wasn’t going to occur twice in one season! 

2007 Pontiac Solstice GXP

  • Engine: Inline four
  • Turbocharger: Intercooled BorgWarner KO4 
  • Capacity: 1998cc 
  • Bore/stroke: 86x86mm     
  • Valves: DOHC, four valves per cylinder 
  • Comp ratio: 9.2:1  
  • Max power: 194kW at 5300rpm 
  • Max torque: 352Nm at 2500rpm
  • Fuel system: Direct fuel injection
  • Transmission: Five-speed manual
  • Final drive: 3.73:1 limited slip differential     
  • Suspension F/R: F: Independent by unequal-length control arms, coil springs and anti-roll bar, R: Independent by unequal-length control arms with toe-control link, coil springs and anti-roll bar
  • Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Brakes: Vented disc/disc
  • Wheels: Cast alloy 8×18-inch
  • Tyres: P245/45SR-18
  • Overall length: 4021mm
  • Width: 1811mm
  • Height: 1273mm
  • Wheelbase: 2416mm
  • Kerb weight: 1375kg
  • Max speed: 228kph 
  • 0-96kph: 5.6 seconds 
  • Standing ¼ mile: 14.2 seconds
  • Price new: US$25,995
  • Production: 2005–2010. Convertible — 64,458, coupé — 1266

This article was originally featured in a previous issue of New Zealand Classic Car. Pick up a copy of the edition here:

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