Lifestyle

Pontiac's Budget Porsche


Gxp_2007
Editor's Rating: star rating

The brawny, up-powered GXP version of Pontiac's sexy Solstice roadster brings on Porsche-like power without breaking the bank

Up Front

Earlier this month, global warming wasn't looking so bad. When weekend temperatures hit 70 degrees in New York City in January, General Motors (GM) called me to ask, what with the warm weather and all, why not test drive the new, powered-up performance edition Pontiac Solstice GXP roadster. Why not indeed?

Unfortunately, the morning the sexy two-seater was to be delivered, I opened my blinds to find a healthy helping of snow blanketing city streets. It looked like my winter Solstice wouldn't happen after all. Luckily, temperatures warmed up and I was able to tool around in the roadster, even if a scarf and cap were required accessories. And I'm glad I did.

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention over the past two years, twin roadsters, the Sky and the Solstice, have helped GM generate immense excitement for its Saturn and Pontiac brands, respectively. But, a lot of ink has gone into questioning how these could be GM products, given a so-so design record. Now, with a set of performance-oriented editions, the company is out to prove the roadsters aren't just for show.

That model's 2-liter, 4-cylinder turbo engine cranks out 260 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. That's a nearly 50% increase over the base model that had observers and consumers fawning when the car debuted. A 5-speed manual and 18-in. wheels complement the powertrain and come standard.

What's more, according to GM, the GXP's powerplant is the first direct-injection engine the company's offered in North America (it's also currently offered on its European Opel Vectra model). Roughly, direct injection allows engineers to make more power from smaller engines without sacrificing fuel economy. In fact, the GXP slightly edges out the less powerful model, earning between 22 and 31 miles per gallon, vs. the base model's 20 to 28 mpg.

More power. Better fuel economy. Those are the kinds of bullet points that aren't likely to hurt sales much. Indeed, last year, Pontiac sold 19,710 units of all Solstice variants, vaulting it ahead of the Mazda Miata and, sales-wise, putting it in a league with well-established models like the BMW Z4 and the Nissan 350Z.

A basic Solstice starts at $22,115. The GXP version starts at just about three grand more, $25,395. That minor difference, in my opinion, makes upgrading to the GXP version a no-brainer. My test vehicle was equipped with a $525 leather premium package; $960 air conditioning; $695 OnStar; $395 Monsoon speaker system; $275 rear spoiler; $199 satellite radio; $195 upgraded audio; and $150 premium headliner. And yet, despite so many options, with $600 destination charge, the price comes to less than 30 grand, $29,389.

Behind the Wheel

Since it's still the new kid on the roadster block, the Solstice is doomed to endless comparison with other models, especially the Mazda Miata. This is unfortunate, since the two models are quite different to drive, despite occupying the same segment. The Miata is much lighter and crisper, with the emphasis on balance. The GXP, meanwhile, puts a higher premium on power and still has some rough edges, especially the initial clutch engagement.

Still, once it gets going, the GXP provides all the fun you'd expect. Its monster engine gets it from zero to 60 in just about 5.6 seconds. Even better, the power boost significantly energizes the already vivacious chassis—corners beware. Comfy seats and laser-like tracking make the Solstice and ideal cruiser as well.

The Solstice earned respectable crash results from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, managing four out of five stars for both front- and side-impact collisions. The GXP also lived up to fuel economy expectations set by the window sticker. On mixed highway and city driving, I averaged 24 mpg.

It manages to gainfully incorporate some audacious curves, notably the front bumper, with sharper edges and creases in the headlamps and backside. The dual humps on the trunk are simply gorgeous. They look like design details from a hundred-thousand-dollar Mercedes and beg to be touched.

As stunning as the exterior is, the interior is a mixed bag. The GXP-embroidered leather seats are handsome and comfortable. The knobs and buttons on the center stack are well built and pleasant to the touch. The gear shift is up nice and high, right where it ought to be. All-in-all, I like the look more than that of some competing low-price roadsters that are forced to make budget cuts inside.

But a few components feel a little cheap. The door sills are one swathe of inexpensive, hard plastic. Even for a roadster, there are some ergonomically unfortunate cabin details, too. The center area between occupants is a large, rounded field of plastic, devoid of storage or detailing. The cup holders, meanwhile, pop out behind the driver's right shoulder, not an ideal location. Lowering the top isn't complicated but is annoyingly analog in a world of inexpensive, power-folding tops.

The Solstice embraces its roadsterness with wide-open arms. It has very little cabin storage and the glove compartment is minuscule, as is the one storage bin behind passengers. Trunk-wise, meanwhile, owners should expect to travel with luggage or with the top down, but certainly not both. More seasoned roadsters on the market, including the Miata and Boxster, have come to make significant accommodations for luggage over the course of their lifetimes. On this front, the Solstice has headway to make.

Buy It or Bag It?

Still, these are the types of inconveniences that are to be expected from a two-seat roadster. The GXP is a toy and an incredibly fun, well-priced one at that. There may be other models out there with more refined ergonomics or more ample storage, but none pair brawn and beauty and price as well as does the Solstice. The GXP's Porsche-like power makes it a real winner, even if it comes with a few roadster trappings.

Click here to see more of the Pontiac Solstice GXP.

Matt Vella is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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