2009 Pontiac Solstice GXP Coupe - Click above for high-res image gallery

Climb into the Pontiac Solstice Coupe and there's an unsettling feeling of familiarity. We've been here before. And after driving off, it all begins to gel, although it has nothing to do with our previous stints in the drop-top variant. The Coupe feels like the unruly offspring of a night of passion between a C4 Corvette coupe and a Dodge Viper. And while the Solstice is nowhere near as large or as powerful as those two American icons, the DNA of both is undoubtedly present in this little machine – for good reason.

It's no coincidence that the history of the Solstice spans the Bob Lutz era at General Motors. After Lutz joined GM in 2001 to guide its product development, one of the first tasks he assigned the design staff was to create a new concept for the Detroit Auto Show. The Solstice was born, a stylistic hit was made and the convertible was rushed to production. Now, as Lutz is winding down his time at GM, the Solstice and the entire Pontiac brand are also fading off into the sunset. In many respects, this Solstice is symbolic of what was right and wrong with GM and Pontiac. And our time with the Solstice Coupe is a telling tale about the final new model from a vanishing brand.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid, Max Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

In an odd twist of fate that mirrors the times we live in, the original sketches that gave birth to the Coupe were created by Franz Von Holzhausen; a new face in GM's design studio at the time. Since then, Von Holzhausen has had a tenure at Mazda and now leads the design effort at Tesla Motors where he's working on the Model S electric sedan. Von Holzhausen originally conceived the Solstice as a coupe, although when preparing the concepts for the 2002 Detroit and Chicago auto shows, a roadster was added to the program and was the first model to enter production. It wasn't until the 2008 New York Auto Show that we saw the production version of the Solstice Coupe.

On the morning the Solstice arrived, the skies opened up, lending themselves to a decidedly negative first impression. Upon opening the driver side door, water poured off the roof directly into the middle of the driver's seat. After voicing a few expletives and wiping the off the dampened throne, we slid in and – like a proper sports car – found ourselves a few inches from the ground. Arthritics take note: look elsewhere for your two-door thrills. Fortunately, the door sills aren't particularly wide or tall making entry and exit a bit easier, if slightly convoluted.

Even before turning the key, thoughts of the Viper immediately spring to mind. The interior is – to put it mildly – snug. The center tunnel is tall and wide to accommodate the transmission and drive-shaft, and unlike many modern sports cars, the Solstice's dashboard and center stack is relatively devoid of the dozens of buttons and switches to control the ever-growing number of features. It's minimalistic and refreshing, particularly in a purpose-built sports coupe.

Unfortunately, the execution of the interior leaves a lot to be desired. We could learn to live with the hard plastics, unwieldy color combinations and off-putting textures, but the horrendous fit and finish and ham-fisted ergonomics are a bridge too far. The gaps, particularly between the ends of the dashboard and the doors, are uneven and, in some cases, cavernous. The dark plastic covering the grab handle on the passenger side of the center stack appears as if it's going to pop off at a moment's notice, although the lack of rattling assured us it was firmly attached. Ergonomically, the disjointed theme continues, with the parking brake placed on the passenger side of the console and the window switches placed too far back on the door's armrest to be comfortably operated. And while we appreciate having a switch to toggle the stability control between normal, off and competitive modes, it's placement behind the steering wheel makes it easy to forget (design by lawyers?).

And then there's the issue of visibility... or lack there of. With the roof panel in place, looking out the low windshield requires you to lean ahead to see traffic lights when you're at the head of the pack. And while the shape of the side glass and downward slope of the roof pays dividends in the styling department, it makes the views out the side awkward at best and slightly dangerous at worse. Speaking of dangerous, rearward visibility with the roof fitted is nearly zero. The quarter windows are made utterly useless by the thick C-pillars and the view is further compromised by the small size and steep angle of the glass hatch. But enough moaning about silly things like laughable visibility and atrocious ergonomics. Let's get on to the good stuff.

When the Solstice debuted, the single biggest complaint was loathsome top mechanism. Amusingly, while poring over our research we found the following gem in the original 2002 press release for the concept:

"The drop-top is a simple 'one-hand'-operated manual fold-down that stows neatly underneath the speedster-style hard cover."

Apparently the production engineers never got the memo. Removing the targa top isn't quite one handed, but it's a lot easier than stowing the soft-top. Open up three latches, all reachable from the driver's seat, lift the panel off and stow. Ah, but therein lies the rub. While one person can remove and replace the lightweight top, there's nowhere to carry it on board so it has to be left at home. Pontiac does offer a fold-up soft-top that can be stowed in the trunk for emergencies, but shockingly, it's an $1,100 option. As a result, when the weather gets dubious, drivers are more likely to just leave the top in place, which is a shame because the Solstice is made for open-air driving.

While the Solstice's engineers may not have been able to figure out how to make a folding roof, they got it right with the rest of the mechanical bits. Unlike the Fiero that didn't receive proper suspension components until the third and final year of production, the Solstice has been right from day one. It has a proper double wishbone layout at all four corners, something that changed from the original concept, which utilized a Subaru WRX strut setup in the front. However, even the best suspension system only works if the four corners stay planted in the bends.

That's something that requires a stiff chassis and here the Solstice comes through. The Solstice's hydro-formed steel rails are remarkably flex-free, and even over the nastiest of roads, the Solstice never exhibited cowl shake or groaning. That's an admirable achievement considering the GXP variant has a fairly firm suspension, providing a tight ride that doesn't come at the expense of road manners. The wheel motions are tightly damped and spring rates are just right to keep the body motions in check while still absorbing bumps and potholes. Even with the excellent suspension setup, driving the Solstice reveals another element shared by the C4 and Viper: The front hinged clam-shell hood always seemed to be quivering while traveling at speed.

For a sports car with minimal body roll and pitch, the Coupe was actually quite comfortable to drive, certainly more than the Track edition of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8. The hydraulic rack and pinion steering provided excellent feedback and direct control with no slop. And the turbo'd four matches it perfectly. The Solstice GXP was the first application of GM's 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct injected EcoTec engine and this is a fine example of what the powertrain engineers in Warren, MI are capable of. With a solid (if mildly underrated) 260 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, there's almost no discernible turbo lag, providing the sensation that a much larger engine lies under-hood. The only downside is the exhaust note, which is far too mild for such a flashy offering. A more aggressive song would be appreciated, but that's what the aftermarket is for.

When the clouds finally parted and the roof panel was stored in the shed, ironically, the Solstice Coupe came into its own. Once adjusted, the driving position is quite good, and while the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is a standard GM parts bin unit, it feels good in the hands and better in the corners. Unfortunately, our tester was equipped with the optional five-speed automatic and GM never spent the coin to add paddle shifters to the Solstice. Nonetheless, the torque of the DI Ecotec moves the Solstice with assurance anytime you stab the throttle and once the roads start to change direction, the Solstice proves to be a fun machine to pilot.

With the ESC in normal mode, the Coupe understeers as you approach the limits, and with competitive mode engaged, things loosen up just enough to create a serene sense of balance. The solid chassis, precise steering and responsive engine give the Solstice a feeling of assurance other roadsters aspire to, providing further proof that Pontiac was nearing the top of its dynamic game when it was pulled behind the shed to shuffle off this mortal coil.

The base, normally aspirated Solstice Coupe has a starting price of $26,225, while the turbocharged GXP ups the ante to $30,375. Add the automatic 'box, air conditioning and premium package, which brings with it leather covered seats, and the out-the-door price tag hits a credit-challenging $34,020. While the Coupe certainly isn't cheap, it's not ridiculous considering its capabilities in the bends and its real-world fuel economy. During our week-long stint in the Solstice, we saw 29 mpg on one highway run and a very respectable 25 mpg overall in mixed driving, both figures keeping in line with the EPA's estimates for the turbo model at 19/27, city/highway.

At this point, production of the Solstice (and Saturn Sky) has ceased and is unlikely to ever resume. Only a couple thousand coupes are thought to have been built and at the current sales rate they may be available for a while. It's a shame the Solstice never made it to a second generation. With a better interior and new top, it could have been a contender. But as it stands, it's a credible offering with a few too many flaws. And that, more than anything else, will solidify its place as a competent coupe destined for collector's garages.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid, Max Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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